Are Developer Certifications Worthless?

Monday Mar 15th 2010 by Eric Spiegel
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Some developers disdain IT certifications, yet in a tight job market they can make all the difference. A veteran project manager talks about his experience with a team of developers.

ALSO SEE: The Top 10 IT Certifications

"That is a load of crap!"

"Tell me how you really feel," was my half-joking response to Jack, a developer on my team who was raising his point during a team meeting.

What brought on this passionate (if not eloquent) response was the new requirement that HR had established for certifications -- all software developers on our team now would be required to have a Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD) certification.

Well, Jack wasn’t the only one up in arms. Almost the entire team was not happy. He was just leading the charge.

“Only one of us has an MCSD, so that means that we now must waste the company’s valuable time and money to get certified? Especially when we are all under pressure for this upcoming deliverable? Come on man!” That one certified person was Sandy. She piped up from the corner of the room in her quiet voice, sounding like she felt compelled to explain her certification.

“I didn’t have a choice. My last job required it.”

Jack jumped back in, “Yeah, I mean no self respecting developer would purposefully get a cert that says they know how to code. Any monkey can pass a certification exam with enough repetition. Doesn’t mean they can really think like a developer. Frankly, it’s demeaning. “

I like lively discussions like this, as long as people can back up their points. Not sure the monkey comment qualified, but I got the point. I also expect the opportunity to explain the company point of view.

“I see your point Jack. Let me explain the reasoning behind this decision,” I said.

Everyone sat there with folded arms – a clear sign of a defensive posture. So I took a deep breath and started to explain.

“First and foremost, it’s important to remember we work for a consulting firm. This means we have to win business in open competition. And the market is dictating that certifications help win contracts. We have seen more requirements for the MCSD certification in RFPs [requests for proposals], especially from government clients.

“If we expect to keep all of you off the bench and billable, then requiring relevant certifications makes good business sense.”

Jack interrupted, “But you’ll admit the cert requirement isn’t on every RFP. And they are always changing. We are just giving in. We need to push back on these prospective clients. And do we really want to work for customers like these?”

To me, this seemed like a pretty naïve response. But I wanted to finish my points.

“Please let me finish Jack,” I asked (very politely).

Jack harrumphed and I continued.

“Times are tight and there are a lot of resumes on the market. In a technical market saturated with resumes like this, it helps us to quickly identify talent to staff projects in a timely fashion.”

That led to interruption number two from Jack.

“Come on! That is just a cheap excuse to make it easier for the idiots in HR who think C# on a developers resume means they play the piano. Sure it helps screen through a hundred resumes, but that means they aren’t reading the more critical qualifications in their experience descriptions. It’s a lazy shortcut filter.”

I must admit that comment steamed me a bit because my wife has worked in HR for many years. I know that when you are trying to filter through a thousand people responding to a job posting (typically more than one hundred resumes), basic selection requirements help with the first pass.

Next Page: "We’ll be replaced if we don’t get certified, right?"

But that is just one filter of many set up in a resume screen. Anyway, back to the team meeting.

“Jack,” I said smiling, albeit with a disapproving tone, “can I continue?”

After his rolling of eyes, I picked back up on the next point.

“One thing it shows on a candidate’s resume is that they have shown initiative to study for and pass the exam. And it’s not all memorization, there is logic involved. And if they truly took an interest in the material, they may have actually learned something new.”

I continued, “As you stated, this will require the team to get certified. You need to look at this as an opportunity to enhance you employability. Not just with us, but with other firms who are starting to add this requirement. So whether you think it is worthwhile or not, this is in your best interest as well as our company’s.”

Jack jumped back in “What I see is that the company will overlook more qualified candidates and guess what? The company saves money doing it because they won’t have to train them. We’ll end up working with a bunch of robot developers.

“Or worse -- we’ll end up being replaced by them if we don’t get certified, right?

Now all of the team members in the room exchanged anxious looks because that thought did not register with them at first. Jack, as usual, was seeing the glass half empty.

So I dove back in with some reassurance, trying not to sound exasperated.

“You all need to look at this differently. I know all of you are really good developers and will have no problem passing this exam. The company is committed to certifying all of you at no insignificant cost. We will pay for training classes and give up billable hours so you can be trained and study for each exam.

“And once certified, you will get an automatic salary bump on top of your performance based raise at your next annual review.”

That sound you heard that put a smile on everyone’s face was Cha-Ching! I figured that would qualm any doubts.

But there was one developer still not smiling. Jack was shaking his head as everyone left the room. And not unexpectedly, he left the company soon after. I realize that there are strong opinions about certification, but I suggest keeping an open mind and not taking a hard stance one way or the other. There are pros and cons, some of which are real benefits to the developer – not just the company.

Besides, if you are THAT good of a developer, then you should be able to rack up certifications in your sleep.

ALSO SEE: Developer Salary Levels, 2004-2009

AND: Is Calling a Software Engineer a 'Programmer' an Insult?

AND: Studying for Tech Certifications on a Budget

Eric Spiegel is CEO and co-founder of XTS, which provides software for planning, managing and auditing Citrix and other virtualization platforms.

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