Why IT Pros Lie: A Certification Doesn’t Always Make You Qualified for a Job (And That’s Okay!)

It’s the most open dirty little secret in Information Technology hiring today: the lies we tell to get our foot in the door.

To be sure, they are white lies, subtly bolstering our appeal to hiring managers by insinuating greater experience or a more narrow focus than we might actually have had with a specific project or technology. A couple weeks watching SQL logs while the DBA was on vacation might turn you into a database administrator; fiddling with widget on the company home page means you have experience with JavaScript.

Have you every started an IT job where you knew everything you needed to know the minute you walked in the door? Few people have. Information Technology is a vast and ever-changing field, with many silos of knowledge and few systems which can be relied upon to operate identically from organization to organization. Learning the quirks and foibles of a particular combination of software versions and hardware systems is a skill in and of itself. It is not one that can be easily tested in a lab environment.

Of course, these lies are provoked in some sense by the lies we’re told in the job postings themselves: requests for expertise in wildly disparate technologies which no sane person could specialize in simultaneously, or demands for years of experience with technologies which have only emerged months earlier. The bill of goods that job candidates are selling is matched, in some sense, by the goods that employers claim they are looking for.

In some senses, certifications are an extension of these lies. There are almost no certifications available today which, by themselves, genuinely turn their possessors into experts in the underlying technology. Solely possessing an MCSE (Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert) makes you an expert in passing the MCSE exam, not experienced in actually applying Microsoft products to real-world problem domains. Answering questions on a test, particularly in the complex world of information technology, simply can’t adequately demonstrate the adaptability and ingenuity required of IT professionals today.

Some certifications do attempt to address this disparity. The Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) certificate, for example, theoretically requires five years of real-world, full-time security work experience in multiple of the domains covered by the exam. An attestation from another CISSP is also required.

But there are ways around these requirements that allow candidates to sneak into the certification even without actual experience, and detractors complain that the process of obtaining one has been watered down to the point where the value of the CISSP has been dramatically reduced.

In fact, it is sometimes the case that legitimate experts in certain technologies with years of real-world experience using them fail to pass certification tests purporting to validate exactly that depth of knowledge. It’s widely recognized that in order to pass the tests, you must study the tests, not simply the underlying body of knowledge.

If knowing the material doesn’t qualify you for the certificate, does possessing the certificate really mean you know the material?

There are no shortage of blog entries, irate forum posts, or magazine articles excoriating the value of various certifications. Frequently, the basis for the objection is that certifications are a sort of racket, benefiting the companies offering them, but delivering little value to employers and job-seekers. The dirty secret, they say, is that candidates are paying for a piece of paper that simply extends those little white lies of the hiring process, without gaining any knowledge of genuine value to the employer.

Surprisingly, however, none of this actually diminishes the role of certifications in the hiring process, for either job candidates or employers. It turns out that there are deeper truths behind those little lies. And the truth is that certifications are still of significant value for at least two different reasons.

First, a certification is a good-faith indication to a hiring organization that you have gone out and done your homework in learning the technologies they are using.

Gaining experience may present a Catch 22 situation, but acquiring knowledge is a matter of time and commitment. You may not have been able to get hired to gain experience in your chosen field previously, but if you have made the effort to study it enough to pass a certification, that demonstrates your commitment and ability to learn.

This is a valuable screen for employers looking for good employees. All lies on resumes being equal, the candidate who has demonstrably put the time into studying for and passing a certification exam has real value over one who has not. Employers are more likely to interview and hire candidates with certifications.

Moreover, when an employer asks for a particular certification as a qualification rather than an arbitrary level of experience, the potential for a mismatch is eliminated. Certifications are a level playing field in a way that professions of experience are not.

Second, certification exams give you, the job candidate, a solid foundation for building your real-world experience upon.

You will find the experience you gain more valuable, and more easily understood and applied, if your underlying level of knowledge in the field is relatively high. A certification process can provide you with much of that knowledge even in the absence of experience.

Given the experience, then, your brain will have an easier time of tying together the knowledge it already has and usefully applying it to real-world scenarios. You will learn faster. The real problems you face will make sense sooner. You will have an easier time applying the tools and knowledge you have studied to solve them.

These two factors translate into real, measurable value for job-seekers who pursue certification. Surveys of both IT staff and hiring managers show that certification and technology-specific training are more valuable than any other sort of education for career development. Salary surveys show that professional certifications can increase monthly earnings by as much as 40 percent.

Little white lies probably always have been and probably always will be an integral part of the hiring process in every industry. In technology, however, the lies are just a step along the path to acquiring the skills in question. That dirty little secret is made a little less dirty for everyone by the certification process.

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