Thoughts on certification

My professional career was enabled by professional certifications. I would not be where I am today – however you want to parse that statement – without my Microsoft certifications[1].

graduation-1449488_640
Certification rocks!

Before you read too much into that bold opening statement, please allow me to elaborate by telling my personal certification story[2]. This post was prompted by an online conversation, and responses on Twitter that made me remember that this is a nuanced topic, and that my experience is part of a bigger discussion.  Understanding my story will help put my opinions in context.

tl;dr: certifications are a great way to build and validate knowledge and skills, and can help meet career development goals while complementing real world experience.

I started my IT career in 1996 when I got a job as a software applications trainer. I spent around six months teaching end users how to use Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, Windows 3.11, and Windows 95. Despite being terrified of public speaking[3], it turned out I was pretty good at it. After those six months I was offered the opportunity to become a Microsoft Certified Trainer and to teach MCSE[4] courses at the training center where I worked. The risks were high[5], but the potential gain was enough to offset the risk. I said yes.

At this point you might be saying something along the lines of “hey wait, you didn’t have any real world experience!” You’re exactly right. And I wasn’t about to get any. I was passing exams so I could teach people with real world experience how to do their jobs that I had never done. I’m as aghast as you are. Please bear with me.

After I passed my first few exams[6] I developed a study routine that looked something like this:

  1. Read the courseware cover to cover
  2. Make a list of topics that I didn’t understand well enough to explain
  3. Investigate these topics in secondary sources like Microsoft TechNet CDs and technical books[7]
  4. Read the courseware again, crossing items off the list as appropriate
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 as necessary
  6. Take and pass the exam
  7. Teach the class
  8. Get awesome ratings from my students[8]

Fast forward a few years and I was in a consulting role[9] where training was a much smaller part of my responsibilities. Instead, I was working with clients to design and implement their network infrastructures, and later to design and implement custom software solutions using SQL Server, Visual Basic, and ASP.

This transition had a few bumps, but it was all about the tasks, not the knowledge. The skills and knowledge I had gained by preparing for certification exams and had reinforced through training enabled me to hit the ground running.

I no longer needed to pass exams to teach classes, but I did have another motivation: my company was a Microsoft Partner, and the benefits we received depended in part on the certifications held by our employees. I kept taking exams, but because I had different goals and a different starting point of skills and experience, I took a different approach.

My new exam prep routine looked something like this:

  1. Read the “skills measured” list published by Microsoft on the exam web page
  2. For any skill on the list where I don’t have meaningful knowledge and experience, study and practice the skill
  3. Take and pass the exam

This new routine is shorter and simpler because I now had more experience and a richer personal knowledge base to rely on, and because I wasn’t preparing to teach a class – I just needed to pass the exam and use the product.

I adopted this second exam prep routine over 20 years ago, but I’ve never seen the need to change it, even as my role and motivations have evolved.

Since 2001, I have used certification exams mainly as a skill-building tool. When there is a new tool or technology I want to learn, I will use the exam skill list as my prep guide, and the exam as validation that I have learned it well enough. (More later on what “well enough” means here.) The list of skills measured by an exam is informed by a lot of industry research, and it covers a broader range of topics and features than you’re likely to encounter solely through hands-on project work.

One standout example of this process is BizTalk Server. Using this exam prep approach I was able to quickly build my BizTalk knowledge well enough to use it on a few projects. I wasn’t proficient on day one, but I went into my first BizTalk project with a clear understanding of what features it had, where to use each one, and how they worked together. This meant that as I was figuring out how to use a specific feature to solve a specific project requirement, I knew from the beginning what feature to use, and where to begin. Because I was certified.

But that’s just me. What about the other guy?

In the late 90s and early 00s the phrase “paper MCSE” got kicked around a lot. The idea was that some people would pass the exams and gain the certification without actually earning it, maybe by going to an illegal brain dump site or otherwise cheating. They’d have the letters but not the skills to back them up. What about those guys?

In my experience the paper MCSE was more often heard than encountered, but it was a real problem, as evidenced by articles like this one. I hired a few paper MCSEs, and I fired a few as well.

Based on my personal positive experience with certification, I updated my interviewing and hiring practices to go deeper in other areas – and to pay attention to how the candidate represented the importance of their certifications. If someone acted like their certifications made them God’s Gift To IT, that was a red flag – their certification had become a reason to not hire them. If someone acted like their certifications provided a foundation on which they could build with experience, they were more likely to get hired.

I’m hesitant to compare certifications to college degrees, because I have never completed a degree program – but I’m going to make the comparison anyway. I don’t know of any technical jobs where simply having letters after your name – be it MCP, MCSE, OCP[10], BA, or BS – makes you qualified. If you’ve earned those letters, they contribute to your qualification to one degree[11] or another. The rest of who you are, what you know, and what you do, is what completes the qualification.

I haven’t passed a certification exam since 2012. On my birthday in 2012 – four years into my career at Microsoft, and having just helped ship SQL Server 2012 – I decided I would take the SQL Server 2012 exams on my birthday as a present to myself[12]. All seven of them. And I passed them all. I knew my stuff, and it showed.

But I have failed an exam since then. A year or two later I was at a conference where a testing center was set up. A friend was taking an exam, and the folks at the testing center had an opening (also, as a Microsoft employee, I didn’t need to pay anything) so I said “why not?” I picked an exam on some technology I’d dabbled with, and went for it. I figured my general platform knowledge and experience and my having passed over 75 different Microsoft exams should compensate for my lack of knowledge on the specific topics being tested.

I failed, and not by a small margin. And this was what should have happened. I was not a qualified candidate for the skills being tested on this exam. I should have known better, but tried it anyway. The exam knew better.

Anyway, that’s enough about me. Let’s talk about you.

This whole post started this morning when someone[13] on a Guy in a Cube live stream asked if he should take the DA-100 Analyzing Data with Microsoft Power BI exam.

Rather than simply saying yes, please take a look at the skills measured by this exam and let me ask you if you would like to have those skills validated. Or, ask yourself if these are the skills that hiring managers would want a Power BI data analyst to have.

Then I’ll say yes. You should take the exam.

If it aligns with your goals well enough for you to be asking in the first place, yes you should take and pass the exam. Use the skills measured by the exam to guide your study and preparation, and then use the exam to validate that you know the topics well enough.

If you’re using Power BI every day, odds are you can spend a few weekends studying the things you don’t do very often, and you’ll be ready to pass the exam. If you’ve never used Power BI you’ll probably need to spend a few months studying and practicing before you can pass. But either way, the skills measured by the exam align well with what you need to succeed in the real world – and how could that be a bad thing?

Remember how I said earlier that we’d get back to what “well enough” means in the context of certification validating skills? Think about when you got your drivers license and the test you had to take. Think about the times you failed the test, or the friends who failed it.

Did passing the test and getting your license make you a Formula One driver? No, it validated that you were a minimally qualified driver, and that you were now allowed to legally operate a specific class of motor vehicle because you’d met a predefined bar. This is what certification tests to – they show that you are minimally qualified for the skills or role tested by the exam.

As I’m publishing this post, my question on Twitter has gotten 31 replies, and spawned some interesting discussion. I’m not going to try to reply to all of those topics here, but I’d love to have you join the discussion, and to hear what you think.

Also, when you take and pass the DA-100 Power BI exam, let me know what you think, and if you agree with me.


[1] If you’re interested, you can see my certifications by clicking on this link, and entering the transcript ID 678145 and transcript sharing code MatthewMCPCode1 when prompted.

[2] Part of it, anyway. The whole thing would likely take far too long to tell, and I would be as bored as you.

[3] My previous presentation experience was a college public speaking class where I needed to deliver 5 or 6 short speeches to the rest of the class. I spent 20-30 minutes before each speech being physically ill in the restroom down the hall from the classroom. But the trainer job’s starting pay was double what I had ben making at my retail job, and it was working with computers – combined, that was some serious motivation.

[4] If you think back to 1996, you’ll remember what a big deal the MCSE was. I remember seeing people charging over $1000 per day to deliver the official training courses. If that doesn’t sound like a lot of money to you, please consider that very recently I’d been making under $7.50 per hour. This was the opportunity of a lifetime.

[5] The deal was basically this: My employer would pay for the certification exams for each new course I was asked to teach, and I would pass them. They would also pay for me to attend each course – this was a Microsoft-mandated prerequisite to teaching at that time. For each course day, I would get a paid study/prep day. By the end of the prep days I needed to pass the exam(s) required to teach the course. If I did, I got a raise for each new course I taught. If I didn’t, I would need to pay my employer back my salary for the prep time, and the full retail cost for the course I attended. It’s also worth noting that at this point I had 3 peers who had collectively taken and failed 4 or 5 exams, and I knew zero people who had passed one. So yeah, high stakes, high pressure.

[6] The first exam I took was Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Windows 95. I was so nervous that when I sat down at the testing center computer to take the exam, I looked around trying to figure out where the loud pounding noise was coming from, because I was hoping for a quiet environment for this stressful activity. After a minute I realized that the loud pounding noise was my own racing heart. I am not exaggerating at all – I was terrified, but I prevailed.

[7] This was before “searching online” was a thing. Kids these days and their Googles don’t know how good they have it. <<shakes fist at cloud>>

[8] I don’t mean to brag, but despite my lack of real world experience, I was really good at what I did. Really, really good. I earned “instructor of the month” every month, and because this was disheartening to the applications instructors the training center split this recognition into “applications instructor of the month” and “networking instructor of the month” so someone else would have a chance. Every time I’m in Albuquerque, my ego tells me I should visit to see if the wall of fame is still there. I tell my ego to shut up, because it’s gotten me into enough trouble already.

[9] I need to shout out here to my amazing mentor Jeff Lunsford, without whom I may never have taken this leap. Of all the people in my life to whom I owe an eternal debt of gratitude, you are the one named Jeff. Thank you for believing in me, for opening doors for me, for pushing me when I needed pushing, and for supporting me when I needed support.

[10] Did you know I was Oracle certified too? Around 20 years ago I got my Oracle Certified Professional Developer certification as a way to learn the basics of Oracle database. I fell in love with P/L SQL, but I hated Oracle’s tools so much I never did anything with the certification or the knowledge.

[11] Pun not intended, I swear.

[12] If you look at my transcript, only five of these seven show up on my birthday, but there are other weird date discrepancies throughout the transcript too. I’ve learned to let it go. Also, if you try to schedule 7 exams on the same day please be prepared for the exam people to tell you “no” more than once.

[13] YouTube isn’t letting me see the chat for some reason, so I can’t say who it was.

[14] I’m still laughing at the “certification rocks” caption on that photo. I get all of my random pictures from https://pixabay.com/, just so there’s something to show in the preview when the link is shared. This one works on so many levels… if like me you have the sense of humor of a 12 year old…

7 thoughts on “Thoughts on certification

  1. Thanks for this amazing post, Matthew. I’ve recently passed DA-100 and it was my first certificate. As you rightly pointed, since I’m working with Power BI on a daily basis (but exclusively Power BI Report Server, that’s my company’s decision), I wanted to validate my knowledge. And it really turned out that I shined in the topics I’m experienced in, while I had the worst result in Power BI Service related topics (Managing deliverables). For me, it was a realistic measurement of my current knowledge and proper guidance to which topics I need to focus on more.

    Now, another point you mentioned which I consider quite important: “When there is a new tool or technology I want to learn, I will use the exam skill list as my prep guide, and the exam as validation that I have learned it well enough. ” I’m planning to take DP-900 Azure Data Fundamentals soon, solely because of the reason you specified: I want to learn new technology! And since I don’t have an opportunity to “learn by doing” (as I said, my company doesn’t plan to switch to the cloud anytime soon), I thought that learning for the exam can be a good way to get at least fundamental know-how, and later, based on the test results, examine topics which I need to put more emphasis on.

    Like

  2. How much people care about certifications and thus their relative value has waxed and waned over the years and will continue to do so. Certifications can sometimes help new people get over the first hurdle. Too many certifications can be a red flag. Paper CNE’s and the like back in the day or just the fact that you are spending all of your time getting certs versus actually doing real world work.

    I’ve never seen an ROI on certs but my bet is that it would most certainly have a law of diminishing marginal returns built in. If you factor in all of the lost opportunity cost from studying, the cost of study materials, cost of the exam, lost opportunity cost from taking the exam, does that translate into real world dollars in terms of salary, etc.? For 1 cert? For 2 certs, for 10 certs?

    My personal belief is that certs are pretty much trash. They are in no way professional training in the same way that distinguishes doctors, lawyers, engineers and other true professions or even the continuing education that is required by true professions. They are simply IT’s lame attempt to build a “professional” image from what is, in fact, simply a trade.

    Like

    1. I think it really all depends when it comes to the ROI. There likely aren’t any studies because, as you point out, this is a relatively small community. But similar to a degree, it really all depends on what you put into it. After all, you still call the person at the bottom of their med school class “doctor”.

      Studying isn’t done in a vacuum. It’s not as if studying for an exam means the knowledge stays there. Sure, there’s plenty of material you need to know strictly to pass the exam because your current role doesn’t work with that part of the product; but at the same time there’s going to be material you’ll learn which will improve your skills. There have been countless times where during my studies I learned new techniques I was able to put into practice.

      “Simply a trade” is a degradation to both those in tech and those with what one would traditionally consider a trade. There is no such thing as simply a trade. That said, certain trades do have licenses or other certifications.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Representation and visibility – BI Polar

  4. Pingback: Data Culture: Training for the Community of Practice – BI Polar

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s