Featured image of post My thinking on certifications

My thinking on certifications

I’ve been asked about whether studying for and taking the Elastic Certified Engineer exam is a good idea. The question only prompts me to ask more questions about the student’s background, current knowledge, and future plans. Answers to those questions are important in deciding whether or not spending a few hundred pounds on an exam is worth it for them.

I wanted to write about my thoughts on the topic and it ended up as a video about certifications in general. You can watch the video here or read the text version below.

Introduction

Technical certifications have been around for a while and everyone has a different opinion of them. They seemed to go out of ‘fashion’ but are returning to the software scene with exams being offered by vendors of enterprise-level software and most cloud service providers.

I’m going to mention a few things about technical certifications, covering:

  • What is a certification?
  • What value do they offer?
  • Are they really necessary?
  • How can they help different types of people?

What are certifications?

Certifications are nothing new and they’re not unique to the computer software or technology industries. Professional certifications have been available for decades in a mix of sectors from accounting, to logistics, to health, to coffee.

In some sectors, certifications are an absolute requirement for certain roles. In other sectors, they’re almost completely ignored. There’s also a middle-ground where they’re not a requirement but, depending on a candidate’s experience, can open doors that may have remain shut without having passed the exam. Believe it or not, there’s even a subculture of students who almost turn passing certification exams into a sport, thriving on learning everything there is to learn about a technology and having all the badges to prove it.

But what is a certification, really?

A certification is acknowledgment from a vendor or organisation that you have scored at least the pass mark in an exam. The exam is comprised of questions on topics the vendor considers important, and those topics are defined in the curriculum for the exam.

I’m only going to be talking about technical certifications like those offered by Microsoft, AWS, Google, Cisco, and so on. You’ll hear me mostly refer to the certifications from AWS and Elastic, since those are the ones I have personal experience with. Although I may have more to say about certifications from the Speciality Coffee Association at some point in the future.

What value do they offer?

So what value do certifications offer?

Let’s go back to how I defined a certification:

A certification is acknowledgment from a vendor or organisation that you have scored at least the pass mark in an exam. The exam is comprised of questions on topics the vendor considers important, and those topics are defined in the curriculum for the exam.

There are two sentences there. They’re the two sides to the certification coin, but only one requires the other. I’m going to deal with these two sides independently; the curriculum, and the exam.

The curriculum

People often refer to technology knowledge in terms of width and depth.

Width considers the amount of functionality. You can think of this as ‘surface area’. For AWS, this would be the number of services you know about. For Elasticsearch, it would be the number of APIs, or specific areas like ingest and performance.

Depth is a measure of the amount of knowledge on specific parts of that surface area. Someone might know all the gory details of how lambda functions are executed, yet have no idea about how to model DynamoDB data efficiently.

Volume is the product of width and depth; how deeply you know the areas you know about.

A vendor will create a curriculum with a certain required knowledge volume in mind. The topics making up the width are those that the vendor itself considers requirements for using the technology. All topics can go very deep, but the vendor will draw the line somewhere. You’ll sometimes see different levels of a certification, each level requiring a different width and depth - and therefore volume - of knowledge. AWS Certified Cloud Architect is an example. The Associate level is considered to be a mile wide but an inch deep but the Professional level is a mile wide and a mile deep. AWS' speciality certifications are narrower and much deeper.

A template for training material

This curriculum - with its required knowledge volume - can exist in complete isolation of the exam. The curriculum can serve as a template for structured training courses with a balance of guided and unguided learning, that students can complete regardless of whether they’re going to sit the exam.

That, to me, is the value a curriculum brings.

A student learning a new-to-them technology on the job will learn through Googling, quicky tutorials, and trial and error. This approach gets quick results but the student can end up in a position where they don’t know what they don’t know. Structured learning based around a good curriculum gives a much more complete picture.

When I need to learn a new-to-me technology quickly, a certification for that technology is the first thing I look for. The second thing I look for is a good quality training course based on that certification’s curriculum. I then work through that course at whatever pace is appropriate.

Not every technology has a certification program, in which case I look around for a training course that gives as wide of a view as possible and contains lab exercises. The issue with this is that, in the absence of a vendor-provided list, instructors will have different opinions about what they consider to be essential for someone new.

I’ve been working in the wild long enough to know that this approach isn’t always possible. Not all employers are ok with employees taking a few hours of company time a week for dedicated, uninterrupted learning. Even less are ok for the company to pay for the learning material. I hope employers improve this and begin or continue investing in their employees; it really benefits both parties.

Those of you out there who are consciously putting in your own time learning new technologies, paying for it out of your own pocket, to improve your own value and keep your skills relevant… I see you, and I applaud you.

The exam

The other side of the coin is the exam. If you’re confident you know everything on the curriculum, you can choose to sit an exam where you’ll answer a set of questions to validate that you possess the required knowledge volume.

There are different formats for exams; multiple choice, and exercise-based labs, as well as a hybrid approach. Each has its own pros and cons but, regardless of the format, something you’ll have to learn in addition to the required knowledge volume, is exam technique.

Technique can make a massive difference when taking an exam but it’s not really a transferrable skill. Good exam technique, including time management, interpreting the question correctly, and being able to dismiss red herring answers will get you points you might not have otherwise got, but it won’t help you write good security group policy or write an Elasticsearch aggregation.

Another issue is that some people simply don’t perform to the best of their ability in an exam environment, and failing because of that could bring about issues that wouldn’t have arisen otherwise.

Is the exam worth it?

So what could passing the exam give you? Ha. It depends. It depends on the particular student’s circumstances.

If you’re already in the same sector as the certification, passing won’t automatically increase you salary. It won’t automatically get you a promotion either. But it may help in negotiations for both.

Some will sit the exam despite having no need or desire to improve their salary or management level. They’ll sit it for any number of reasons. For the sake of completion. For validation. For ‘sport’. Or so they can flex on LinkedIn. It’s a personal choice.

Where a certification almost certainly will help, is if you’re changing career or sector. If you’ve never worked in the cloud industry before but want to, studying for and gaining a certification will provide some substitute for your lack of experience. It’ll show you’ve made a conscious choice to change your career and apply yourself fully to getting up to speed. You can improve your appeal even further by building something using that knowledge, to prove that you can also apply that knowledge to a project.

All in all, whether you sit the exam or not is a very personal choice based on your own personal circumstances. Certifications are sometimes required by employers or customers, in which case the choice is made for you. The rest of the time, it’s down to your particular career situation.

Like anything on your CV, the certification shouldn’t be considered in isolation. It can complement existing experience or help compensate for the lack of it.

Summary

I see certifications as a learning path. Coming into a new technology completely fresh, you can get a very good picture of the overall functionality offered by the product - and how to use it - by completing a course covering the material required for a certification. Instead of learning individual bits and pieces on the job, you get a good, high-level view of the whole product or service and can then focus in on the parts that are relevant to your requirements.

Good quality, structured training can provide this for you. Set aside some dedicated time to sit down and learn something new. Watch lectures and - more importantly - do practice lab exercises whenever you can.

If you want to, or need to, you can then work on your exam technique, take practice tests if possible, then sit the exam for real.

Continual learning will help keep your skills relevant and can make you feel more confident in your abilities. The exam is an optional extra.

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