The Post-Certification Era?

February 13, 2012

Oh look, starting off with a disclaimer. This should be good!

These are patterns I’ve noticed in our organization over the past ten years–ranging from hardware to software to development technical staff. These are my observations, experiences with recruiting, and a good dash of my opinions. I’m certain there are exceptions. If you’re an exception, you get a cookie.🙂

This isn’t specifically focused on Microsoft’s certifications. We’re a .NET shop, but we’re also an Oracle shop, a Solaris shop, and a RHEL shop. So many certification opportunities, so little training dollars.

Finally, I’ll also throw out that I have a few certifications. When I made my living as a full-time consultant and contractor and was just getting started, they were the right thing to do (read on for why). Years later … things have changed.

Evaluating The Post-Certification Era

In today’s development ecosystem, certifications seem play a nearly unmentionable role outside of college recruitment offices and general practice consulting agencies. While certifications provide a baseline for those just entering the field, I rarely see established developers (read: >~2 years experience) heading out to the courseware to seek a new certification.

Primary reasons for certifications: entry into the field and “saleability”.
Entry into the field – provides a similar baseline to compare candidates for entry-level positions.

Example: An entry-level developer vs. hiring an experienced enterprise architect. For an entry-level developer, a certification usually provides a baseline of skills.

For an experienced architect, however, past project experience, core understanding of architecture practices, examples of work in open source communities, and scenario-based knowledge provides the best gauge of skills.

“Saleability” of certifications for consulting agencies allows “one upping” other organizations, but usually lack the actual real-world skills necessary for implementation.

Example: We had a couple of fiascos years back with a very reputable consulting company filled with certified developers, but simply couldn’t wrap those skills into a finished product. We managed to bring the project back in-house and get our customers squared away, but it broke the working relationship we had with that consulting company.

Certifications provide a baseline for experience and expertise similar to college degrees.
Like in college, being able to cram and pass a certification test is a poor indicator (or replacement) for handling real-life situations.

Example: Many certification “crammers” and boot camps are available for a fee–rapid memorization and passing of tests.  I do not believe that these prepare you for actual situations AND do not prepare you to continue to expand your knowledge base.

Certifications are outdated before they’re even released.
Test-makers and publishers cannot keep up with technology at it’s current pace. The current core Microsoft certifications focus on v2.0 technologies (though are slowly being updated to 4.0).

I’m sure it’s a game of tag between the DivDev and Training teams up in Redmond. We, as developers, push for new features faster, but the courseware can only be written/edited/reviewed/approved so quickly.

In addition, almost all of our current, production applications are .NET applications; however, a great deal of functionality is derived from open-source and community-driven projects that go beyond the scope of a Microsoft certification.

Certifications do not account for today’s open-source/community environment.
A single “Microsoft” certification does not cover a large majority of the programming practices and tools used in modern development.

Looking beyond Microsoft allows us the flexibility to find the right tool/technology for the task. In nearly every case, these alternatives provide a cost savings to the district.

Example: Many sites that we develop now feature non-Microsoft ‘tools’ from the ground up.

  • web engine: FubuMVC, OpenRasta, ASP.NET MVC
  • view engine: Spark, HAML
  • dependency injection/management: StructureMap, Ninject, Cassette
  • source control: git, hg
  • data storage: NHibernate, RavenDB, MySQL
  • testing: TeamCity, MSpec, Moq, Jasmine
  • tooling: PowerShell, rake

This doesn’t even take into consideration the extensive use of client-side programming technologies, such as JavaScript.

A more personal example: I’ve used NHibernate/FluentNHibernate for years now. Fluent mappings, auto mappings, insane conventions and more fill my day-to-day data modeling. NH meets our needs in spades and, since many of our objects talk to vendor views and Oracle objects, Entity Framework doesn’t meet our needs. If I wanted our team to dig into the Microsoft certification path, we’d have to dig into Entity Framework. Why would I want to waste everyone’s time?

This same question applies to many of the plug-and-go features of .NET, especially since most certification examples focus on arcane things that most folks would look up in a time of crisis anyway and not on the meat and potatoes of daily tasks.

Certifications do not account for the current scope of modern development languages.
Being able to determine an integer from a string and when to call a certain method crosses language and vendor boundaries.  A typical Student Achievement project contains anywhere from three to six different languages–only one of those being a Microsoft-based language.

Whether it’s Microsoft’s C#, Sun’s Java, JavaScript, Ruby, or any number of scripting languages implemented in our department–there are ubiquitous core skills to cultivate.

Cultivating the Post-Certification Developer

In a “Google age”, knowing how and why components optimally fit together provides far more value than syntax and memorization. If someone needs a code syntax explanation, a quick search reveals the answer. For something more destructive, such as modifications to our Solaris servers, I’d PREFER our techs look up the syntax–especially if it’s something they do once a decade. There are no heroes when a backwards bash flag formats an array.😉

Within small development shops, such as ours, a large percentage of development value-added skills lie in enterprise architecture, domain expertise, and understanding design patterns–typical skills not covered on technology certification exams.

Rather than focusing on outdated technologies and unused skills, a modern developer and development organization can best be ‘grown’ by an active community involvement.  Active community involvement provides a post-certification developer with several learning tools:

Participating in open-source projects allows the developer to observe, comment, and learn from other professional developers using modern tools and technologies.

Example: Submitting a code example to an open source project where a dozen developers pick it apart and, if necessary, provide feedback on better coding techniques.

Developing a social network of professional developers provides an instant feedback loop for ideas, new technologies, and best practices. Blogging, and reading blogs, allows a developer to cultivate their programming skill set with a world-wide echo chamber.

Example: A simple message on Twitter about an error in a technology released that day can garner instant feedback from a project manager at that company, prompting email exchanges, telephone calls, and the necessary steps to resolve the problem directly from the developer who implemented the feature in the new technology.

Participating in community-driven events such as webinars/webcasts, user groups, and open space discussions. These groups bolster existing social networks and provide knowledge transfer of best practices and patterns on current subjects as well as provide networking opportunities with peers in the field.

Example: Community-driven events provide both a medium to learn and a medium to give back to the community through talks and online sessions.  This helps build both a mentoring mentality in developers as well as a drive to fully understand the inner-workings of each technology.

Summary

While certifications can provide a bit of value–especially getting your foot in the door, I don’t see many on the resumes coming across my desk these days. Most, especially the younger crowd, flaunt their open source projects, hacks, and adventures with ‘technology X’ as a badge of achievement rather than certifications. In our shop and hiring process, that works out well. I doubt it’s the same everywhere.

Looking past certifications in ‘technology X’ to long-term development value-added skills adds more bang to the resume, and the individual, than any finite-lived piece of paper.

  1. June 5, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    Reblogged this on Nathan.

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