Let’s talk about certifications.
And, with that last short sentence, I’ve triggered a good portion of readers. Programming certifications tend to be a very polarizing topic, and I think it’s worth talking about the good and the bad.
In this article, I’ll briefly summarize the traditional arguments around certification, and then talk about why I think that’s the wrong conversation to be having about these things.
The Traditional Argument
First of all, detractors (and there are many) will point out that certifications have a number of flaws including:
- They do not necessarily represent real-world skills
- Test question dumps tend to be available for those wanting to cheat, undermining the certificate
- Certifications don’t necessarily impact hiring decisions
- Requiring certifications for hiring can filter out highly skilled and diverse candidates
- I don’t want to be forced into taking a certification I don’t feel I need; I’m already doing this
The list goes on, but these are often the detractors I hear people say, and these are extremely valid points.
On the other hand, these are the most commonly listed benefits of certifications:
- Certifications can help you land a job you don’t have yet, by stating you’re qualified for it
- Certifications can result in increased pay
- Increased respect in the workplace
And this tends to be the main extent of the traditional argument on pros and cons for certifications, and the cons will typically win this discussion (and perhaps rightly so).
But what if certs were actually good?
However, I think the biggest benefits of certifications are discussed far less frequently.
In my mind, the primary value of a certification is the process of studying for that certification and its benefits in combating impostor syndrome and how you view your learning journey after achieving that certification.
Maybe the real certification was the lessons learned along the way
I’ve studied for a number of certifications over the years. A few of those I’ve gone on to take the test and get, and a few of them I’ve stopped fairly early in the preparation process. From that, I can tell you that the primary value I’ve gotten from the certification is forcing myself to study a broad set of materials someone else came up with.
Our jobs invariably use only a fraction of the capabilities of the languages and frameworks we work with. This is doubly true for recreational coding on side projects. As a result, we tend to become fairly skilled in the areas we work with frequently, but a bit rusty in other areas. The broadness of certifications requires you to study broad concepts and things you don’t work with frequently. In fact, I’ve never studied for a certification where I didn’t learn about a few small things that I wasn’t even aware of in the language or framework I was studying.
Certifications say “You’ve got this”
This links in to my second point on certifications. Studying for a certification and either confirming that you already know most of it or teaching yourself many new things will go a long way towards fighting impostor syndrome. It’s very natural in development to focus on the things you don’t know or don’t feel comfortable with yet instead of the things you do know. By pursuing an agreed upon set of topics, learning them, and getting a certification, you provide your mind objective proof that you know what you’re talking about in some small domain of knowledge.
Admittedly, pursuing a certification solely to fight impostor syndrome is probably not an amazing idea, but there are worse ones out there.
One of the biggest periods of growth for me came when I moved from development to management and took the opportunity between jobs to read as many books on management as I could, followed by an 1100 page book on the languages and tools my team would be using.
I already knew the vast majority of what I read in all of the books, but the nature of reviewing things I already knew and reassuring myself that I was ready was very valuable in coming into a new job with the highest confidence and level of technical competency I could muster.
My central point here is that regardless of what certifications may or may not mean to an employer, those factors might actually be secondary to the benefits that you personally can get simply by intensely studying any topic in a structured and broad manner – certification or no.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the benefits or drawbacks of certifications as I’ve deliberately scoped this article to two of the less talked about benefits. Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.