In this post, I explain why I think that IT certifications are indeed overvalued.

More than 600 IT pros took part in this poll, and the majority (58%) thinks that IT certifications are overvalued. 21% believe that they are undervalued, and the same portion thinks that IT certifications have just the right value.

Usually, 600 is a significant number of participants for such a survey. However, it is interesting to note that it is different this time. When the poll started, even more IT pros felt that IT certifications are overrated by organizations. I am not completely sure about the numbers, but I think after the first 100 votes or so this option got about 65% of the votes. The difference in the result at the time of this writing can't be explained by statistical variations.

Are IT certifications overvalued?

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I think, there is only one explanation: Two different groups took part in this poll. In the beginning of the survey, regular readers saw the article about the poll in the RSS feed, in the newsletter, and on the 4sysops homepage. Since the poll is also displayed in the sidebar, it is also visible on all other articles on 4sysops. Thus, the second group of voters was mostly visitors coming from search engines.

Why did these two groups vote so differently? What distinguishes 4sysops subscribers from new visitors? And why do regular 4sysops readers seem to despise IT certifications? I think, in general, it is more likely that experienced admins feel that IT certifications are overvalued. They have to compete with newbies coming from the IT schools with no experience and are therefore more willing to accept jobs at lower pay than seasoned admins just to get a foot in the door. (Nothing wrong with that.)

This implies that the majority of 4sysops subscribers are experienced IT pros. Obviously, IT newbies are less likely to recognize the quality content that 4sysops has to offer, which we can only attribute to their lack of experience. 😉 Of course, there are also many experienced admins who have tons of certifications. As some commenters outlined in the original article, IT certifications are a good way to extend your knowledge and also help your career.

However, I think, some readers misunderstood the point of this poll. The question was not whether IT certifications are valuable or not. Of course, learning new things and passing an exam that proves that you really understand the contents of the course is always a good thing. It wouldn't make much sense to run such a poll.

Essentially, this poll was about the question of whether organizations employing new IT staff overvalue IT certifications and thus undervaluing experience. Hence, this poll boils down to the question of whether experience is more valuable than IT certifications or not.

I believe that IT certifications are indeed overvalued, because I have seen it numerous times in my IT career. And this is not only about IT certifications; it is about any kind of school qualifications and degrees. This is especially true if people who themselves don't work in IT are involved in the hiring process. I think the reason is that it is quite difficult to assess the value of the experience of a particular candidate.

Even if the candidate has detailed recommendation letters, personnel managers don't really understand the important parts, anyway. Moreover, it is uncertain if the recommendation letter doesn't just put the person in a favorable light. Certifications and degrees, on the other hand, are very easy to assess. An official institution confirms that the person has acquired a certain kind of knowledge. So all you have to do is check the reputation of the corresponding schools and count the number of certifications and you are done. That's quick and without uncertainties.

The only problem with this strategy is that it is the best way to hire the wrong person for the job. IT belongs to those fields where theory alone is insufficient to get the job done. What is needed is not just knowledge; IT is all about skills.

Let me explain my point with a comparison. Imagine you have to hire a lifeguard. You have to choose between someone who passed all theory tests with scores of 100% and someone who didn't even attend one lifeguard course. The only problem with the certification guy is that he never swam before, even though he knows everything there is to know about swimming. Your second choice is the local swim champion, a natural talent, who never bothered much about schools. Who would you hire for the job? (Before you ask, Pamela Anderson is not among the candidates.)

I know, this example is somewhat construed because lifeguards also learn how to swim in school and their swimming skills are tested before they get their certifications. However, that is exactly my point. It is perfectly possible to pass IT exams without ever touching a single server. All you need is a couple of good books with all the typical multiple choice questions of IT exams. But, just like you can't learn how to swim without getting wet, you can't learn how to manage complex IT systems in real-life scenarios without touching a computer keyboard.

Let me give you another hiring assignment. Your organization needs a Windows admin who will be responsible for software deployment with Configuration Manager in a network with 5,000 desktops. Again, you have two choices. Candidate 1 has ten IT certs, all more or less relevant for the job (including the corresponding MCTS certification), but null real-life working experience. Candidate 2 has worked ten years with Configuration Manager in an organization of comparable size, but no IT certs. Too easy? Okay, let's give candidate 1 a degree in computer science and candidate 2 a mediocre high school diploma. Still too easy? Let's make the assignment more difficult. Candidate 1 agrees to half of the pay candidate 2 is willing to accept. Who will the personnel manager prefer? And which candidate would you hire? For me, candidate 2 is the clear choice.

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That said, I want to end this post with this sentence: I strongly believe that IT certifications are very valuable.

  1. kantzy 11 years ago

    Good post Michael. I remember when i was searching for jobs some years back, every company wanted certifications.

    Nobody even bothered to talk to me about how much i know.

    Its sad but true that most of the companies are behind just certifications.

  2. kantzy 11 years ago

    I am from India, trust me every company here (all the big guys too)… they just need this piece of paper.

    My answer is, IT certifications are overvalued

  3. Michael Pietroforte 11 years ago

    kantzy, the importance if IT certs certainly depends on the country. In Germany, college diplomas have a much higher value. Even if the degree has absolutely nothing to do with the job, it often has more value than many years of experience or IT certs that are directly to the job. Thus, in Germany it is not only about papers it is about papers from government institutions (most universities are public institutions in Germany).

  4. Mohit Bharatwal 11 years ago

    Well said Michael….

  5. Michael Pietroforte 11 years ago

    Mohit, thanks!

  6. Jason 11 years ago

    Certifications are a weird thing. When I left the military and tried getting a job I had a hard time landing an interview. Once I got my MCSE it became very easy. Those four letters on my resume definitely helped. Now I am not so concerned with certs as I once was. I keep mine up to date and that is about it and let my experience speak for itself. Certain certs like the MCSE and CCNA and the CompTIA ones, I think are overvalued. Certs like CISSP and CCIE are much different and are highly valued. You can’t just walk in and get those certs. Those ones signify you have a lot of experience and knowledge floating around in your cranium.

  7. Andreas Erson 11 years ago

    Regarding the example. It’s faily unlikely to have ten relevant IT-certifications including the MCTS for SCCM without having any real-life working experience. What if candidate 1 had 2 years SCCM experience working in a smaller organization with 300 desktops? I my view that would be a much more likely situation for an individual with that amounts of exam and striving to work with larger SCCM deployments.

    I also think that many IT Pros that doesn’t have any certifications have a strong bias towards voting that certifcations are overvalued. It’s easy to think that most MCTS certifications must be easy, but in most cases they are not. You have to put in some effort to pass and you will most likely get a broad knowledge of the subject that in my experience isn’t the case just because you working with something for 5 years.

    In my company we have a couple of really excellent SQL Server developers and DBAs. Most of them started using SQL Server 2000 so they have a lot of experience so anything T-SQL is pretty easy for them but when questioning them about the 2008 MCTS they all said that they had learned alot about SSMS that they didn’t know about before. They even learned some nifty things about T-SQL that they didn’t know about before just because they hadn’t used that particular feature before.

    What I am trying to say is that even a seasoned IT Pro will most likely find some information in the MCTS/MCITP material that they don’t know about. I also think that IT certifications is a great confidence boost for people when they pass. You don’t know everything but you for sure know that you have a pretty good foundation of knowledge about the subject.

  8. Michael Pietroforte 11 years ago

    Jason, certs are certainly very helpful for finding a job if you don’t have much working experience. This is also true for experienced IT pros, especially when they want to move to a new field.

    Andreas, you are right the example is not very likely. However, it helps to relate the value of experiences and certs.

    I think many experienced admins voted against certs because they know about the difference of what you can learn in school and in the field. Nowadays, many IT pros have certs simply because they know they that they are overvalued by organizations and so it helps them to get better jobs with a higher pay. But they also know that their experience is more important for them to do their daily work.

    You are absolutely right, seasoned admins can learn a lot from books. The question is how valuable this knowledge is compared to skills they acquired in practice. The problem with knowledge from books is that you forget it very quickly.

    Remember how hard you worked in high school and college to pass all these exams? It wasn’t easy, right? But how much do you still know of it? There are, however, many things you still remember from school. For example, you didn’t forget how to read and write. The reason is that with training this kind of knowledge has become a skill. Only because you had to use this kind of knowledge every day for a long period of time, do you still remember it.

    This is how our brain works. Computers can acquire knowledge by just “reading text”. This is why a simple laptop could pass any IT cert exam easily although it is quite difficult for humans. However, you can’t really use a laptop as an IT admin (not yet).

    IT skills are so valuable because they allow us to solve problems in areas where we have not much knowledge. In fact, with the internet knowledge has become less important. A seasoned DBA who doesn’t know everything about the latest SQL Server, can google all the details needed to solve a certain problem within minutes. Only her experience in solving DBA problems allows her to do this. So if a new SQL Server comes out, a seasoned DBA doesn’t really have to study all the new details. All she needs is to get an overview of the new features and concepts, so she knows about the right search terms.

    However, there are no shortcuts for acquiring skills. Skills can only be acquired over long periods of time. You can’t learn how to ride a bike by just listening to the theory your dad tells you. You really have to do it, day after day. But once you know how to ride a bike, you will never forget it. And you can use this skill on every terrain on earth without learning new theory. Once you are old enough, this skill will help you when you to upgrade to the next version, that is to a motorbike. It is the same with riding computers.

    By the way, it is interesting to note that the outcome of the poll is changing again. Now, 60% think that IT certs are overvalued.

  9. Andreas Erson 11 years ago

    Comparing studying for certifications to school isn’t really fair. You study for certifications because you yourself decide that it’s worth the effort. You are proably pretty passionate about the subject and I bet you couldn’t say that about all the classes in school. If you know anything about studying for certifications it is that for good results you need to combine books with actual practice with the product or technology. The books aren’t filled with tasks to perform just for the fun of it. Sure, you could probably pass the exam with just reading the book but I bet most people don’t. I also like the current trend (at least with MS certifications) that you use the actual software to perform actual tasks to answer the questions. Getting rid of the multiple choice exams would surely be a step in the right direction. Most people I know with certifications knew a lot about the subject and just wanted a certification to “prove” their knowledge. If they picked up some new tidbits about the subject in the process all the better.

    I believe the real problem is the hiring of IT Pros. HR should use the IT department to find out wether the applications have the neccessary skills. You can’t substite real questions and perhaps a test with just letting the HR look for certain certifications in the resumés of the applicants.

    It doesn’t matter how you acquire your knowledge, the important thing is that you employer make the effort to find out what you really know.

  10. Michael Pietroforte 11 years ago

    My favorite subject in high school was physics. I really loved it. It was also my minor in college and I was very passionate about it. Believe me, I wouldn’t have the slightest chance to even pass a high school exam in physics today. It is true that it is easier to memorize things you are interested in, but this does not really help for long term memory if matters are complicated.

    Thus, if I have to hire someone and see that he has a Configuration Manager cert that is 2-3 years old but he hasn’t worked with the tool, then I know that he has not really a chance to master Configuration Manager on his own. But if I see that the candidate has worked with Configuration Manager for a year or two in the past, but didn’t work with it in the last 2-3 years, things are very different. Candidate 2 has a chance to get the job, candidate 1 has not.

    The point is that you have to solve real-life problems in IT for a certain time on a daily basis. You can’t develop these skills even if you play a little with the software in school.

    Of course, if candidate 1 has a cert and experience I prefer him over candidate 1.

  11. Sam Kear 11 years ago

    Nice examples! I think that certifications are ok as long as you have the real world experience to back them up. Many people place too much focus on getting certifications and not enough on gaining experience.

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