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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

The Value of Certification


The other day I had hot discussion about the value of certificates. We went through certificates for developers mainly but the issue is general: how much value certificates bear from the company’s perspective?

The point where the whole discussion started was when we started analyzing what the most objective way to appraise engineers is. Typically organizations have some appraisal system in place – I don’t want to go deep into it as that’s the subject for another story. Anyway every such system is subjective as it bases on one person judging another. And the Holy Grail of many managers is to make appraisal system more objective.

That’s where certification kicks in. Certificate is objective. One either passes an exam or not. It’s not her manager who says “she knows Topaz on Tires at 8 out of 10… I guess.” There are some standard criteria which say whether it is 89% or 23% or whatever.

Then certification process is run by some external entity which isn’t biased so certificate is a kind of independent evaluation. Guys from certificating entity don’t really care if a specific individual passed the exam or not, at least as long as they have steady flow of incoming candidates to be charged for certification process.

Where’s the problem then?

It seems certification evaluates people independently and is objective. Unfortunately it’s also pretty much useless.

The problem I have with vast majority of certification programs is that the only thing people are taught while preparing to earn the certificate is how to pass the exam. They don’t learn how to be a better programmer or a better project manager or how to deal with a specific technology. They basically learn what question schemas and standard answers are.

You get what you measure. If you measure how many certificates people have you will get “many” as the result. Would that mean that you’d improve skills of your teams? No, not really. So my question is: which problem are you solving this way? Except of course having a huge pile of certificates.

And by the way the real issue of subjective appraisal system is not system’s subjectivity but lack of trust between senior management and appraisers. “I don’t trust your evaluations so I’ll cross-check them with some certificate.” Well, I’d prefer to work on building trust relationship instead. But maybe it’s just me…

in: personal development

6 comments… add one

  • Jon Kern November 5, 2010, 1:44 pm

    Nice. More response here: http://technicaldebt.com/?p=645

  • Glen B Alleman November 5, 2010, 2:40 pm


    How about a certified CyberSecurity Forensic Analyst (CSFA)™ with an FBI background check? How about a Certified Nuclear Materials Handling engineer? Or a Certified Public Accountant with further certification in Defense Contract Management Agency audit processes? Or a Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP)?

    So pretty much useless might strongly depend on you domain and context in that domain.

  • Jon Kern November 5, 2010, 5:36 pm


    Well, yea. Or commercial airline pilot or brain surgeon. I don’t think these are the sorts Pawel is talking about.

    I have a UML something or other certificate (only by virtue of being pinged to help beta test the test). w00t!

  • Pawel Brodzinski November 6, 2010, 4:07 am


    And what about driving license, etc?

    First I’m talking here about certificates in software development world. I should probably add a disclaimer but then I’d have to add one to every post here.

    Then I do know there are exceptions. I was tempted put every certification in the same bucket but I resisted.

    Among certifications you mention I know only CCNP and when I say I know it means I met/was recruiting people having CCNP. And to be honest I think it suits the theme from the post. It may be a poor job Cisco with one of universities did locally organizing courses but then if they give certificate to incompetent people somewhere in the world they depreciate the value of whole program.

    That’s what happened with MBA by the way. Several years ago it meant something. Now you can’t say anything about the guy who has MBA except that, well, he has MBA.

    As I think about examples you point I have one more thought – probably the smaller the target group for certificate is the more value it brings. How many engineers who deal with nuclear materials do we need worldwide after all?

    But then, when I think about all those certificates I see in resumes or those we keep discussing on different occasions I see only those with very little or no value at all.

  • John Petersen November 8, 2010, 7:07 am
  • jfbauer November 8, 2010, 7:11 am

    Certificates in IT have always been a thorn in my side. Not trying to give away my age explicitly, but I first loss faith in the value of certificates back when having an MCSE or CNE was “the” certificate to have if you were into infrastructure. Someone that I knew at the time who was an extremely smart guy, but besides tinkering with his personal PC, wasn’t a server/network expert. He picked up all the certificate books, read them all, memorized the sample tests, etc. and passed the certification exams … all without ever installing an OS or connecting anything to a network.

    Giving out IT vendor product certifications more liberally help push more product.

    A “certified Java 2 programmer” does not mean someone can join an existing development organization and know how to effectively work in teams, interact successfully with project managers, BAs and product/project sponsors.

    And yes, I did give up 4 years of my life still working full time to get my MBA.

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