IT Certifications, Are They Worth It?

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You don’t have to be certified to work in an IT field, but it helps. Which is to say, having certifications on your CV is always helpful in getting to the interview stage.

Yet many an expert in any given field is suspicious at best of certifications. Take Gerben Wierda, the renowned author of Mastering ArchiMate, on Archimate Certification: “Demanding it satisfies management, but I’m afraid it will have little effect on the ability of your organization to use ArchiMate effectively.”

I use Gerben because his writing is always clear and concise, but you can encounter the same sentiment on a dozen topics from dozens of experts. So – is there any value at all to certifications? I'm going to argue that there is. The point about a certification is that it tests a specific, defined set of knowledge.

And here I'm going to reference a different area where I have a few certificates – scuba diving. There are a few certification authorities for scuba, but I'll talk about the best known – PADI. The basic qualification for PADI is Open Water diver. This teaches basic safety procedures in ideal conditions in a wetsuit. It does not teach you how to dive in a drysuit (used in very cold water). It does not teach you how to dive in a wreck (where you can get disorientated and even trapped easily). It does not teach you how to dive 30m down (where the pressure means you go through your air 4 times faster than at the surface and you get drunk on the Nitrogen level in your blood).

The point is that each certification tests a specific piece of knowledge. And a dive leader can look at the certifications that someone has and gain an idea of their capabilities. So someone who just earned Open Water certification can expect to be taken on a basic dive, but they can't expect to get taken to dive inside one of the sunken German battleships in Scapa Flow. They need their Wreck Diving, Deep Diver and maybe their Drysuit certifications.

The glaring hole is that our current certification systems are targeted at rote learning, because they are machine based. If it can't be tested through multiple choice, it doesn't form part of a technical certification. Unfortunately, this means certifications are of limited use in evaluating candidates. Not useless, but limited. It seems that we have to treat certifications in the enterprise modeling space as another data point – not irrelevant, but not a replacement for a standard interview and skills evaluation.

So the conclusion, and the message that management need to absorb, is that certifications are useful to ensure a certain level of ability in a particular skillset. Getting your TOGAF level 2 does not make you an expert Enterprise Architect any more than getting your initial Open Water makes you ready to explore a sunken warship in deep, cold waters. But it does means that you have been able to absorb a basic understanding of the spec, and it's also likely that you've studied every area of the spec to a basic level.