IT certifications are a concrete representation of continual learning on the part of the candidate. Continual learning is necessary for the long term success of an IT professional, but are IT certifications the right path for you?
Should I pursue an IT certification?
It’s a question that comes up frequently and unfortunately like most important questions, the answer is, “It depends.” (Actually, the secret order of DBAs teaches that The Answer is always, “It depends.”)
Whether an IT certification should be pursued depends on (a) what your goals are, and (b) whether certification will help achieve those goals better than other alternatives. For purposes of this question, we can eliminate the pinnacle level certifications. Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) or Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) candidates, for example, already know their goals and their path to reaching those goals. (I.e. They aren’t asking this question.)
Frequently, IT certifications are under consideration when addressing career goals. It should be easy to determine if certifications might help in your present position; if there is doubt, ask your supervisor. Because IT certifications are required or desired attributes in job advertisements, they are seen as one tangible attribute to be obtained when seeking a new IT position. Unfortunately, there are no jobs for which the solitary requirement is a certification, because most certifications can only demonstrate book knowledge in a subject area. In a similar vein, a two year or four year college degree demonstrates an ability to acquire knowledge in variety of topics. Education and training are not an adequate substitute for hands-on experience gained from dealing with real situations.
You may have noticed that I lump certifications with education and training. The knowledge needed to acquire certification is frequently acquired by training, studying, and generally getting to know the product(s) and subject(s) covered; they supplement previous education and experience. When considering whether to pursue a certification, a related question is whether you want to learn new things. Even if you’re comfortable with your knowledge of most of the topics covered by a certification, very often you will discover that there are additional subject areas or details covered by the certification which require that you learn new things. The organizations which produce IT certifications spend a great deal of time deciding the important topics which will be tested. IT certifications then provide a handy syllabus to guide your studies. Perhaps you do not use some features which you are required to know, or you need to know several different ways of accomplishing the same outcome. You may discover features of which you were previous unaware, or more efficient ways to accomplish task you perform frequently, or may get to explore the theory of why things are done a certain way. To be successful in IT, the learning never stops.
As a quick aside, I did have an eye opening experience while sitting in a meeting with a CIO recently. He had seen money spent on training resources, but expressed frustration that he could not verify that the staff was making good use of those resources -- that they were taking advantage of the learning opportunities the organization was making available. Staff earning professional certifications was one of the concrete measurable benefits, and was one of the outcomes which would determine what education resources which would be available in the future.
[So far, the answer to the original question sounds like it should be simple to deliver. There has to be a 'but ...' delivered here somewhere, and here it is.] But education, training and certifications are not necessarily the only or even the best way to learn new things. There is a cost associated and the monetary cost can be the smaller of the components. You need to consider the investment of your time and what you could be doing to learn which may pay greater dividends. Are there Open Source projects to which you could be contributing? Could you build systems in a test environment to see how they work, what breaks them, and discover what happens when they do when they break? Are there new things you would love to learn which do not lead to a certification? These options frequently require more time to document in a manner which demonstrate to current or potential employers that you know your stuff, but the knowledge is potentially more useful because you may learn things that fewer others have taken the time to learn. The point is, think about your learning options, and realize that certification is only one option.
So IT certifications represent a visible measure of learning, and continuous learning is vitally important as an IT professional. The question you need to answer is whether it’s the correct avenue to guide your learning. Hopefully now you have something to digest while considering whether to pursue an IT certification. I'll take this opportunity to answer a few related questions.
What does it take to earn a certification?
IT certifications indicate that the holder has satisfied the requirements set forth by the certifying organization. Usually this means they have passed an exam or many exams, and that they have agreed to some set of conditions. Some certifications require a minimum amount of relevant work experience, an endorsement by another certified professional, and/or specific, recognized training. Still others require writing a research paper or fixing actual broken technical implementations. Most certification organizations have a goal of putting their stamp of approval on candidates which are likely to succeed in specific job roles. That said, certifications do not denote mastery of a subject. At best, they represent little more than a solid grounding in the basics, understanding of the broad topics, and knowledge of implementation and/or troubleshooting. As a candidate pursues more advanced certifications, the depth of knowledge required is deeper, but normally the breadth of topics narrows.
People have cheated on the exams. Doesn’t that make certifications invalid?
The stories are out there concerning cheaters. Some get a copy of the questions on the various exams from brain dump sites and pass the exam, but the methods of cheating have become even more sophisticated. I not know of any certification for which this does not violate the terms of agreement, essentially the honor code. It does diminish the certification for everyone. Similarly, a student can plagiarize a paper or cheat on a exam and a job candidate can lie on their resume. It happens and we all hope they get caught. The consequences for getting caught cheating on IT certification exams can vary from not being permitted to take an exam for a period of time (up to a lifetime ban), loss of previously earned certifications, to criminal prosecution. For folks who work in IT, it can hamper or end a career.
Can someone have too many certifications?
I have to admit that I was surprised the first time I encountered this particular mindset. To me, the question translated as “can an IT person know too much?” Apparently there are people, including some hiring managers, who believe that one person cannot earn more than a few certifications without cheating. Because the mindset exists, I have to answer with a firm "Maybe you can." As you go into interviews, if you have more than a few certifications, be prepared to answer questions about your certifications as well as technical questions to confirm that you know the material your certifications indicate you should.