How’s this for the value of certification: “I won’t greenlight your resume unless you’re certified.”

Bart Perkins wrote this opinion piece in Computerworld and it lit a fire amongst some very opinionated people in the IT industry:

image To quote the Microsoft Learning blog’s comments:

Bart’s column makes the case that the pendulum has swung back to where it was a decade or so back, when certification was pretty much a requirement for any technical job.  Only now, there’s a new wrinkle in the era of outsourcing: Perkins argues that if your job gets outsourced, your certifications might determine whether you get a chance to go with it.  Perkins also predicts that as today’s certified IT Pros become IT Managers, certification will become a more common requirement, even (and especially) for senior positions.

ANNNND HERE COME THE “CERTS-DON’T-MATTER” PARADE
One of the things I saw of course was the predictable “Certifications don’t matter” haters that come out of the woodwork every time the topic of certification value comes about.  To those individuals, I’ll simply say this.  I’ve been with Microsoft for 15 years & in IT 9 years prior to that.  More specifically, I’ve been involved with dozens of interview “loops” (as they call them) and to be blunt, if you don’t have the appropriate certification in the technology that you’re applying for here at Microsoft, my first instinct is that I’m not likely going to greenlight your resume to move on.

WHY CERTIFICATIONS MATTER:  “ATTITUDE
Does a certification matter that much?  Frankly, from a technical standpoint NO.  What it tells me however is that above all else, the applicant has the right attitude.  Someone that’s gone through the process of taking a test – especially if they don’t need to – and passing it is someone that is interested in details, in this case, personal details about their professional appearance.  Someone that’s willing to do anything & everything to do a job right.  Someone that doesn’t have a chip on their shoulder about their skills.  Someone that doesn’t think they’re so much better than anyone else that they can cut corners.  Skills can be taught but attitude can rarely be adjusted permanently.

EXAMPLE:  I remember interviewing one guy.  He was from another business unit within Microsoft and he came in on his high horse with a loaded resume looking for job in our geography.  He was one of the first “you-should-be-thanking-me-for-interviewing-for-your-piddly-job” interviewees that I’d ever met – one of many during the past decade unfortunately due to the emergence of what has since been described to me as the “self-esteem” generation.  Anyway, when I saw the complete lack of certifications from any platform, Microsoft or otherwise, I had a feeling that my next question wasn’t going to be received well.  I asked him:

  • “I noticed that you don’t have the certification in [TECHNOLOGY-BEING-INTERVIEWED-FOR].  Would you consider taking that exam and passing it as a prerequisite of your employment?”

His response was something along the lines of, “Well, I don’t really see the value in me doing that considering my experience but if Microsoft’s going to pay for the exam, yeah, I’ll take it.”  For those reading, that’s not the right answer.  The rest of his responses had a similar tone.

When I met with the other interviewers to provide our feedback about the candidates, let’s just say that his resume was filed appropriately.

image WHY CERTIFICATIONS MATTER:  “BASELINE”
Say what you want about their necessity:  If you only have experience with a certifiable product in 2-3 organizations, I’m going to feel a lot more comfortable with you as a candidate if you have a certification in that technology.

Why?  Very simply put, I’ve worked in IT for 9 years previously and I know that every environment, once set, rarely changes much meaning that one’s skill set is usually confined to only one scenario/scope in which a given technology is used.  This is EXTREMELY limiting.

EXAMPLE:  I met one candidate and he’d been using one of our technologies for 5 years.  We joked that he had seen been through the good times and the bad with the product and based on the amount of time he’d spent on the technology as well as his clear memory of previous revisions, I went to far in my mind as to think for a moment that we might be looking at a possible fit.  And then I noticed his resume lacked the right certification.

So I started asking about his prior employer’s environment and he naturally could answer technical questions about that particular configuration.  But the moment we started talking about architectures different from that which he’d used at his previous employer, he just lost it.  Sputtering and complaining about how those were “non-enterprise” configurations without a lot of substantiating evidence, I soured on him quickly.  I made a point of telling him that our customers work in configurations that were downright unnatural at times and that the position required a lot of understanding and flexibility.  He practically shut down after that.

WHY CERTIFICATIONS MATTER:  “EFFORT”
”Effort” is not to be confused with “Attitude”.  This has to do with fundamental work ethic.  Someone that’s willing to go the extra mile.  Someone that is willing to do the basic fundamentals necessary for success.  Someone that’s not looking for a quick out, someone that’s willing to put their ego aside, and someone that’s willing to do the entry-level drudgery to be a team member & a part of the group.

EXAMPLE:  There was one guy that we hired, despite the fact that I (and another person) didn’t give him the “thumbs up” and he didn’t have any of the traditional certifications we’d expect of a candidate.  He was hired based on his knowledge of our competitor’s technology and he ended up, after a month of evaluation, being nowhere near technically qualified to work in the role he was hired into.  It was clearly a very big mistake on the part of the hiring manager.

A very unusual plan was put into place:  The hiring manager had several employees work with the new hire weekly to help him focus on what he needed to study & learn – very rapidly – in order to be successful.  The idea was that the gaps in his knowledge could be identified and he could, on his own, study and learn via hands-on work or books, or whatever… enough to provide value to the team in some capacity.  Now putting aside whether this was the right thing to do or not, several of our top engineers took time out of their schedules and worked with him to orient him in the right direction. 

To everyone’s surprise however, instead of working to prove his mettle, the hire didn’t do any studying, training, or research near as we could tell.  To make matters infinitely worse, he went to various internal conferences & meetings and effectively bashed his hiring manager and the people that were trying to get him up to speed.  He was asked to move along after only 4-6 months.

IT’S NOT BLACK & WHITE
I should say that certification’s importance isn’t black & white.  I’ve greenlighted people that lack them.  It however definitely becomes more or less important depending upon a variety of key factors:

  • Relative to position commoditization
    Is the technology skill rare?  In these cases, a certification often isn’t required but it’s often damn well SUPER IMPRESSIVE.  Take Microsoft’s Unified Communications technologies… or Host Integration Server/BizTalk Server.  Or Performance Point Server 2007.   Or even Windows Server 2008 R2/Windows 7.  I don’t even know if half these products have certifications for them but if they do, and a candidate has the cert – that’s a sign of someone who really wants to work here.
  • How long have they been out of work?
    Has the candidate been unemployed for a while?  If so, it would seem to me that this would be one of those things that they would have worked on between jobs.  If not, it’s certainly understandable that a candidate might have been so busy with a previous job that certification wasn’t high on their priority list.  It still doesn’t make them more viable a candidate when compared to someone that does have their cert, however one can overcome this with a thorough detail-filled discussion of how their experience supersedes their lack of certification.

IF YOU’RE NOT CERTIFIED, YOU’RE PROBABLY ALREADY BEHIND
Certifications do matter.  Ask anyone that’s had to sift through the resumes listed on MONSTER.COM.  And as the industry evolves, and as more and more individuals enter the workforce, they will continue to be important differentiators.  In some cases, mandatory.

And let those that lack the effort, the attitude, and the baseline skills to attain them, be forewarned:  Next to someone with a certification, you’re already behind your competition.

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