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I was recently speaking to a gentleman at a conference about various forms of educations. Specifically, we were speaking about the value of education versus certification. I told the gentleman I would reflect on the subject and post my thoughts here.

Before I begin, I want to make one point extremely clear. I am giving this meditation as a developer to a developer. Although I have seen MANY parallels to IT professionals, my experience with IT pros would lead me to have slightly different thoughts on that career path, especially in the beginning phases of the path1.

With a topic this large, it is hard to decide how to handle the various pieces. At root level, this is a discussion about comparing what managers and interviewers are looking for against what each of the various things represent. In the sake of brevity, I will address the four biggest areas that I find benefit. Within each, I will say what it is, how to get it, what it will get you.

Education

What is it

Education is formal education. It comes in 6 flavors:
  • General Education Development(GED)
  • High School Diploma
  • Associates Degree
  • Bachelor’s Degree
  • Master’s Degree
  • Doctor of Philosophy
As you go further down the list, the degree is worth more significance.

How you get it

At the lower levels, all you need is time and money. As you go up the levels, some effort is required. However, as these are testing academic endeavors, the ability to pass them is purely academic.

What it will get you

This part is tricky. In the field of programming, none of it is really required. However, if you have none of it, you better have some other things to back it. You can be the genius that drops out of high school and becomes a software billionaire2. However, it is next to impossible to get your foot in the door without any education unless you have significant offerings in the other areas.

There are a couple of caveats in this area. Old school people will put MUCH more emphasis on a Diploma over and GED. This is because it should you can deal with the system, not just acquire the knowledge. Furthermore, the reason a Bachelor’s Degree is attractive has nothing to do with knowledge. I have met more great programmers that have Bachelor’s NOT in Computer Science than I have met that do3. However, it does show you can start a long term project and stick with it to completion. This is why you sometimes see job requirements (especially in game development) that ask for either a Bachelor’s Degree or evidence of one shipped product4.

Certification

What is it

Passing some sort of test to prove some breadth of knowledge in a specific area.

How do you get it

You pass one or more tests in accordance with a testing body.

What does it get you

This can be tricky and problematic. At root level, passing a certification test proves one thing; it proves you can pass that test. Due to this, it proves to be the least accurate judge of a person's ability on a resume.

When I look at a resume, I definitely pay attention to certifications. If I am presented with two resumes that are virtually identical except for one with certifications, the one with certifications will have a slight advantage. However, I can train someone to pass the test. I can't train someone to think like a developer.

On the other hand, there is a place where certifications can be golden. This is displaying continuing education, staying current with technologies, etc. When it comes time evaluate someone for bonuses, raises, or promotion, the employee that has displayed an interest in professional development always looks better. This is particularly true when turning people into managers, where being fluent in new technologies almost more valuable than having experience with using it.5

Experience

What is it

I will jokingly refer to this as "the number of lines of production code that you have produced." Of course, quantity doesn't trump quality6.

How do you get it

You spend time in industry7. Fortunately, experience can be acquired in more ways than employment. This is where your GitHub, Google Code, CodePlex, and every other one I'm forgetting comes back to help you. Show me a line of code that has been merged into the production branch of a FireFox, Apache, Linux Kernel, etc., and I'll show you a programmer that has something to offer.

What does it get you

This is the best way to get around formal education. Let's face it, there are plenty of really smart people that are really bad at tests. However, a really diverse work history will work wonders. I've seen requirement sheets that say things like:
  • Ph.D. and 2 years’ experience, or
  • M.S. and 7 years’ experience, or
  • B.S. and 15 years’ experience, or
  • 23 years’ experience.
I couldn't make it any more explicit than that.

Community Involvement

What is it

At the lowest level, this is being a member of your local user's group. However, this also expands to your Twitter account, blog, how often you go to conferences, how often you speak at conferences, if you've published, etc.

How do you get it

The more people you know, the more attractive you look to others.

What does it get you

Do the math. If several thousand people know you, then several thousand people will hit the company website when you say you took a job there8.

Conclusion

I think that covers the majority. There are other factors. If you have never Goggled your name, you might want to do it. I can't count that number of people that will try to get a job at a government contractor with pictures of them doing illegal things posted openly on social media. If you're not a rock star, wear the khakis and polo shirt.

Some people say act like you don't need the money. I don't subscribe to that one. At tnwops, we know what we’re going to offer you before you walk in the door. Your $5000 Rolex just tells us you have something to sell if you need to bail someone out of jail.

1I may post remarks on the IT path at a later time, but it will be me recalling my outside impressions
2If you are, I like venture capitol
3My Bachelor’s Degrees are in Math and Philosophy
4We'll see more onthis later
5This is probably the most controversial line in this article
6The presence of battle scars proves that you've been at least near a battle
7I cannot count the number of managers or academics that I have met that have never produced a single line of production code
8I've been speaking at conferences and seen people looking at the tnwops web page before the talk based on the company name being on my title slide

Posted on Tuesday, August 21, 2012 11:30 PM Soft Skills | Back to top

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Comments on this post: Education vs. Certification

# Education vs. Certification
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Very nicely explained about Education and Certification
Left by Wordpress developers on Sep 06, 2012 7:45 AM

# re: Education vs. Certification
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Exactly what my question was. This is what I wanted to know. Thanks Chris.
Left by Somnath Mukherjee on Jul 31, 2013 3:10 AM

# re: Education vs. Certification
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As an HR Professional, I appreciate your insight on this topic. It is always a hard decision on education -vs- experience for me.
Left by Michele TWOPS on Jan 31, 2014 3:41 PM

# re: Education vs. Certification
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I just want yo to know that this education resource is one of the best for college students. I pass through all my exams all thanks to it.
Left by James on Apr 26, 2018 3:00 AM

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