If it is your first time reading one of my articles, I am a bit of a Technical Wizard, and I wear a lot of hats. In the theater of the university, I wore the hat of a Geology major with a minor in computer science. After graduation I got a job in the geography field, and later pulled a pretty radical career change.
The Suspicious Lack of Value.
Early in my University life, I was told that after graduation I would have to earn a professional certification to be taken seriously as a Geologist. I wasn’t expecting this added step. My assumption was that when I got a degree, I would have enough to show a basic understanding of the subject. It didn’t take much to talk me into supporting licensing and certifications. No one wanted someone running around taking advantage of people. One more step with one more test didn’t seem like a big deal. Soon after understanding what was needed to become a licensed professional geologist, I learned there was yet another certified professional level. After being hired, I learned there were several certifications for particular individual tasks or tools. The more I looked into professional certification, the more I saw the endless road. So, obedient to the system, I went ahead and started earning the certifications. After I earned my first professional license I felt pride and excitement. However, it quickly became clear that it would not grant me any extra recognition. People that respected my professional opinion continued to do so, and those that didn’t stayed the course. It was the same for the next certifications too. I ended up getting kind of good at acquiring certifications.
There might have been a small raise or a congratulatory email as my reward for gaining a new certification, but nothing that seemed to alter my career path. It felt like all the certifications really showed was that I was good at taking tests. When my career change occurred, and suddenly all the certifications and professional licenses went away, I again didn’t really notice any loss. I was a bit shocked by how little of an effect they seemed to have.
The Sudden and Unexpected Appearance of Value
I switched from Geo-technical Geology to Software Engineering. While I always dabbled in Computer science, it wasn’t my focus. My new career depended on my minor rather than my major, while also flexing my hobbyist interest. My new company seemed to treat certifications and licenses differently. There was, from day one, a strong push to get me certified, and quickly. After almost a year of experience I was able to earn a Java certification. Suddenly my certification seemed to mean something to people. It was a real way of saying that I had a good grasp on the knowledge set. I would go to boot camps or business meet ups and see the impressed look on people’s faces, especially after I mention earning the certification with limited formal education on the subject.
Things in the office slowly started to shift as well. Beyond the initial kudos and excitement, I noticed a marked increase in project leads trusting me with tasks and projects. As luck would have it, I was later asked to earn a second certification. This was different however, I wasn’t asked to defend my already earned certification with an additional step. I was asked to certify in a particular software suite. It was something new and adjacent. There was not an endless wheel of “just one more certification then you can finally say you are what you are.” The second certification allowed for growth in me and in the company. It really felt like it was a very pivotal step in my career path. Due to this shift in value I regularly tell younger software developers to go after their first certification.
So What Gives, Why did I Suddenly Gain the Voice of an Expert?
I suspect it had a lot to do with the story. In the first case I was trained formally at university for years to get that certification. It was the standard and expected outcome. It was normal to be a geologist with a basket full of geology certifications. The old adage of “dog bites man” news comes to mind. If I had the expected certifications after some number of years, that’s not impressive; it’s expected. Also, the abundance of certifications lowered the value of the first ones in line. You couldn’t say “Yeah I know what I am talking about — BAM! I have a certification,” because the other guy might have seven.
In the second story, I didn’t have very much formal training. I was a tinkerer, and had to switch gears; I picked up the skills, and burned a lot of my personal time to do so. It almost feels like the expected outcome is for me to not get that certification, but I ended up victorious. It’s a much more exciting and satisfying story.
In the first story, the certification was viewed as a minor cost to the company, it wasn’t at first viewed as a growing point. The former employer was willing to cover the test costs but not the study time, or support. I still had to work 60 hour plus weeks while studying for the test, which in itself should have garnered more respect than it did.
In the second story, the senior developers sometimes took their own time after hours to go over some of the more complex subjects. There was an air of support around it from the start. Some small chunks of study time were carved out for us to learn and grow. There was never a point where it was viewed as mundane or “just normal.” My current employer was willing to, in many different ways, tie some of its own success to the idea of the development staff getting certified.
Summary and closing thoughts
Like all things in life, the value of certification varies based on other circumstances. One engineer’s rubbish is another engineer’s resource. Make sure to curate and vet your certifications against your own and your company’s goals. Make sure that if you do build a pile of certifications they are artfully selected and balanced. There’s a subtle difference between a cairn and a useless pile of rubble.