Ask the IT Career Doctor: Certifications vs. Experience

By Katherine Spencer Lee | August 2007


Question:
I’ve been hearing some technology certifications might not be the hot commodity they were a few years ago due to overproliferation of the market. I have several years of experience in project management - how much value would a certification like PMP [Project Management Professional] add to my resume? In general, are certifications really worth the time and expense? How important are they compared to experience and college degrees?

Katherine Lee Spencer responds:
All certifications – even widely recognized, vendor-neutral ones like PMP - are subject to fluctuations in demand. You shouldn’t let public perception of a particular certification’s cachet be the sole factor affecting your decision to pursue it.

Certifications as a whole have gone through boom and bust periods. As the number of certifications grew, many IT professionals began complaining about a "certification treadmill" – an apt metaphor for a process that required constant effort just to keep up with the stream of new designations but didn’t necessarily lead to better jobs or higher pay.

Almost all meaningful certifications require substantial time and effort to acquire, and they’re rarely inexpensive. So instead of deciding whether to pursue a certification based on what seems to be hot at the moment, take a step back and consider certifications in the context of your career and experience.

No substitute for experience
Certifications aren’t nearly as important to most employers as your experience or education (a bachelor’s or master’s degree is a prerequisite for many IT positions). In a recent survey, only 15 percent of CIOs polled by Robert Half Technology cited certification in a relevant technology as the most valuable qualification for a job applicant to possess.

While a certification can indicate knowledge in a given area, it doesn’t demonstrate ability to apply that knowledge in the workplace. Employers are more interested in job seekers who have a track record of bottom-line contributions. For example, a professional who holds a Microsoft Certified Database Administrator designation may be highly marketable, but one who combines the same certification with, say, five years of working with Microsoft SQL Server and a track record of managing and maintaining databases under real-world conditions will be in much higher demand.

Labels that last
With that said, well-chosen certifications that reflect your skills and interests are definitely worth considering. A few relevant, broad-based certifications –like PMP, if it fits your skills and the positions you’re seeking - can reinforce your experience, reassure employers about your skills and, in some cases, distinguish your resume from the pack.

Beyond the specific set of aptitudes it represents, a certification shows that you’re ambitious and motivated enough to achieve a professional goal. It also demonstrates an ongoing commitment to learning. With the pace of technological change continually increasing, that’s an essential quality for all IT professionals.

To determine the certifications that make the most sense for you, talk to your peers about which certifications and courses they’ve found most valuable. Ask around on message boards and at industry events about highly regarded certifications. And check with your current employer; the company may be willing to cover your professional development costs.

Eye of the beholder
Like all symbols, certifications are subject to interpretation. Even relatively well-known certifications like PMP may mean more to one employer than to another.

That uncertainty is another reason that your pursuit of certifications should ultimately come down to your goals, interests and assets, not on your perceptions of the current market. While it’s important to know what employers value, it’s more important for you to present a clear picture of how you think you can contribute to a company’s success.

One overlooked aspect of earning a designation is that the process can be an opportunity to learn new skills or strengthen existing abilities, which often leads to satisfaction and growth. Ultimately, that’s what certifications should be about – not keeping pace on a treadmill but taking positive steps along a personally rewarding career path.

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. Robert Half Technology has more than 100 locations in North America, Europe and Asia.

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