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Are certifications worth it?

Pretty simple question, really.  I learn quickly, adapt well, and take tests very well.  The monetary side isn't so much an issue, really.  It's the time and effort.

So, would the extra letters after my name improve my chances of getting a job that not only paid well but was interesting?  The letters I already have after my name certainly haven't paid off, and I don't want to waste time getting some more that don't.

Aaron F Stanton
Thursday, March 04, 2004

In my experience the certifications are helpful for IT careers, where they impress random HR screeners and pointy-haired bosses. But if you want to work for a software company they are almost a negative... When I see a long list of certifications on a resume it makes me think I'm dealing with an IT-fixit guy and not a computer-sciency software-development guy.

Notice I said "ALMOST" a negative; I would not penalize someone for having a certification of any sort, but I would certainly look a lot more closely at the rest of their resume to make sure that they are really a software developer and not just a test taker.

Joel Spolsky
Fog Creek Software
Thursday, March 04, 2004

"not just a test taker" is an interesting point.  I guess I might qualify as that, or as a "wannabe" developer.

So, bringing that up, how does one go about becoming a real live developer without any experience to get you in the door?  I suppose that "create your own company and create and sell software" is one obvious answer, but I'm interested in another.  Code in my spare time, have demos on a website, or something similar?  It's my experience that "spare time" activities don't actually count for anything when it comes to finding a job.

Aaron F Stanton
Thursday, March 04, 2004

Perhaps a more direct way to ask the same question is, Joel, have you ever hired anyone who was unable to show you one or more interesting completed software projects (either on their own, or with a team from a previous job)?

Thomas H. Ptacek
Thursday, March 04, 2004

+++Code in my spare time, have demos on a website, or something similar?+++

This is how I got into programming.

Granted, I don't work in a shrinkwrap shop.  My C++ skills aren't quite sharp enough (yet.)

muppet from electric-chipmunk
Thursday, March 04, 2004

My certifications are for me! I just put them on my resume to flush it out to a full six pages.

I got a number of certifications in September and October 2003, as a refresher, and to "prove to myself" that I really knew technologies that I otherwise only assumed I fully understood. When you work essentially unaided for a long period of time, you get strange paranoias...

Patrick McCuller
Thursday, March 04, 2004

The trouble with certification is anyone can pay £1000/2000 and go on a week long course and come back certified - just cause you have got some letters after your name doesn't mean you can do it. At my work we hired someone who had done crash courses so he could on paper do all this stuff - trouble is that after the week has passed and you pass the exam - it goes back out your head. I think they can be useful for getting a foot in the door- but don't take it that the person will be the ideal candidate on the strength of them alone.

Fothy
Thursday, March 04, 2004

+++Code in my spare time, have demos on a website, or something similar?+++

That's how it worked for me too.  I would add that the other steps for me included:

Interpersonal networking--allowed me to convince peers of my abilities, who were later able to refer me / vouch for my skills in the absence of "real" coding jobs on my resume.

Find the unusual company willing to give you a chance.  There are still companies who are interested in hiring people for their potential.  Demonstrate your potetial through your passion and aptitude.  In my case, it was a construction company.  It's not Fog Creek or another hip ISV (I essentially produce dogfood for internal consumption), but we are a great team who loves creating software and we love our work.

In my case, be prepared to take a pay cut.

FWIW, I don't have any certifications or a university degree (although someday I intend to complete the latter, for my personal satisfaction).

MacSqueeb
Thursday, March 04, 2004

Fothy, I agree - that's the kind of person that Joel calls "just a test taker" and really can't think at all.

Personal anecdote:  I knew a grad student who originally went in looking only to get a Master's in chemistry, but her advisor pushed hard for her to get a PhD.  She had her name on a ton of papers, but all she did was enter data into a program and hand other people the results.  She had no comprehension of what the program was doing or how.  She couldn't tell you the difference between RAM and hard drive space (I am not making that up, it is the literal truth).  I know she didn't understand the program because the theory behind it was taught in a class by my advisor and I was the teaching assistant.  I pushed hard for him to give her the grade she deserved, but she got a B.  Last I heard she got her doctorate and was lined up for a tenure track teaching position.

People like that devalue the degree, and the exact same thing applies to the "just a test taker" non-coders.  They devalue the certifications.

Aaron F Stanton
Thursday, March 04, 2004

I’m sure quite a few people have a story about someone who tried to fill out their resume by getting a certification, higher degree, writing for a technical journal, or starting a business out of their garage. I would agree with Joel’s assessment that in interview situations this only impresses HR and some management. In most cases the hiring manager will not care about these and see them as a sign of weakness if you frequently bring them up in an interview. Why would you talk about your certification in technology X rather than technology X itself unless you weren’t comfortable in it?

However, assuming you know your stuff, I see the HR factor as a very good reason why you should collect certifications. In most large businesses, your resume WILL pass through the incapable hands of the HR dept., plus one or more associates in IT before reaching the hiring manager. The HR dept. is basically going to match all those acronyms on your resume to the job posting and then look for the “pluses”. Those pluses can buy you an interview with the hiring manager, so why wouldn’t you collect them? Or, would you prefer knowing that you don’t stoop to certifications and end up in the HR circular file?

Say you don’t know your stuff, but want to. Why not get certified? Don’t take any shortcuts, but rather use this as an excuse to read a book about technology X and get the bonus of impressing the HR minions later.

I understand why developers, especially seniors, are cold toward certifications. That’s understandable if you’re setup in a secure job, looking to add expert staff. I’m sure hearing “certifications are poo” from a candidate in an interview sends shivers up and down their spines. Though, if you’re searching for a job in a competitive market, you’ll probably feel differently towards turning down any advantages.

jfm424
Thursday, March 04, 2004

"searching for a job in a competitive market, you’ll probably feel differently towards turning down any advantages."

I'm just wanting to make sure that they really *are* an advantage.  I've been burned once (twice?) by wasting time already in getting letters after my name, and I don't have a huge desire to do that again.

If it actually is an advantage - if it is becoming a requirement like proper spelling and grammar on a resume' just to get it through a brain dead HR department - then I am completely for adding all the letters.

Of course, I'm not sure that working in a place that has a brain dead HR department is that good of a plan.  Whoever constructed the HR department would also be pretty brain dead, and it could well be pervasive throughout the company.

Aaron F Stanton
Thursday, March 04, 2004

I have a friend finishing a grad program in computer science contemplating certifications.  It's a better use of time to either write some personal software that is handy and very useful or to work on an open source project which can garner the kind of experience.

Or you can study the interview questions Joel's people like to ask and then ask your interviewer to prove how smart you are...

David Seruyange
Thursday, March 04, 2004

if it is becoming a requirement like proper spelling and grammar on a resume' just to get it through a brain dead HR department

HR are the only folks who care about proper spelling and grammar??!

Personally.. if I thought your grammar and spelling were sloppy and ill-formed, I'd worry about similiar problems with your code.

muppet from electric-chipmunk
Thursday, March 04, 2004

"Personally.. if I thought your grammar and spelling were sloppy and ill-formed, I'd worry about similiar problems with your code."

Oh, I wasn't aware it had been established that there was a link between mastery of the finer points of English grammar and the ability to write computer code. Can you point me to a study that shows this?

As for the original question, define "worth it". Certifications can help you get a job (HR people especially seem to love em), but I don't think they're very efficient ways of learning. So whether it's worth it depends on your aims.

Sum Dum Gai
Thursday, March 04, 2004

+++Oh, I wasn't aware it had been established that there was a link between mastery of the finer points of English grammar and the ability to write computer code. Can you point me to a study that shows this?+++

If you can't be bothered to speak (write (spell)) your native language properly, then it calls into question your attention to detail, which is most definitely a coding skill.  Language requires precision just like coding, else nobody would be able to communicate properly (and many can't).  Are you going to tell me that communication (documentation) isn't a critical programming skill?

muppet from electric-chipmunk
Thursday, March 04, 2004

Muppet, I'm not the least bit concerned with spelling and grammar.  I'm wanting to know if the bar has been raised to the point that certifications are now on a par with things like a grade school education.

As far as "worth it" goes, I'll quote myself: "...would the extra letters after my name improve my chances of getting a job that not only paid well but was interesting?"

So far it seems that the certifications would be somewhat helpful in getting into a large company where the HR department merely serves as a filter.  Fine, that's part one of my requirements - getting paid well.  I'm also concerned with a job that's interesting.  There doesn't seem to be much of a consensus regarding that.

I understand completely what Joel said, that certifications could merely mean that I test well.  I do.  I also can solve problems, and I mean problems that nobody knows the answer to yet.  Maybe not all the problems, maybe not the very hardest of problems, but genuinely new things are what I find interesting, not just churning out code that a code generator that will be written in a few years can create.  That's the kind of job - correction, career - that I want.

Aaron F Stanton
Thursday, March 04, 2004

"Of course, I'm not sure that working in a place that has a brain dead HR department is that good of a plan.  Whoever constructed the HR department would also be pretty brain dead, and it could well be pervasive throughout the company. "

That would make sense. Although isn't IT negativity towards HR a fairly common thread through tech discussion boards? I haven't heard a good story of someone successfully reforming their company's HR dept.

jfm424
Thursday, March 04, 2004

"If you can't be bothered to speak (write (spell)) your native language properly, then it calls into question your attention to detail, which is most definitely a coding skill."

I can't paint for beans. I'm really, really bad at it. Does that also call into question my attention to detail? Why is the vagaries of the English language (which isn't every coder's native language anyway!) special?

Heck, my dad is one of the worst spellers I know. He's really really awful. Yet he somehow manages to do well at a job that requires attention to detail.

Sum Dum Gai
Friday, March 05, 2004

"Heck, my dad is one of the worst spellers I know."

My kids have that problem.

Perpetual Newbie II
Friday, March 05, 2004

"Oh, I wasn't aware it had been established that there was a link between mastery of the finer points of English grammar and the ability to write computer code. Can you point me to a study that shows this?"

I'm not aware of any scientific studies but in case if opinion of E.J.Dijkstra is of any importance to you, he said the following:

"Besides a mathematical inclination, an exceptionally good mastery of one's native tongue is the most vital asset of a competent programmer."

I remember that I read a whole essay by Dijkstra about why exactly the mastery of native tongue is so vital (I think it was included as a separate chapter in his book "Discipline of Programming"). You can surely find it on the net if you search a ltitle on Google. I think that most of Dijkstra's works are in public domain now.

Davidson
Friday, March 05, 2004

Maybe he wrote a justification of it, but what I can find on the web when searching for that phrase, it's a single dot point in a list in an essay called "How do we tell truths that might hurt?"

Which really doesn't leave much room for context or further discussion I'm afraid. :/

Sum Dum Gai
Friday, March 05, 2004

Sum Dum Gui, here is a link for you (about mastering of native tongue):

Edsger W. Dijkstra, "Programming as a discipline of mathematical nature"

Look at the bottom of page 5 in pdf at:

URL: "http://www.cs.utexas.edu/users/EWD/ewd03xx/EWD361.PDF"


BibTex index:

@article{EWD:EWD361pub,
  author = "Edsger W. Dijkstra",
  title = "Programming as a discipline of mathematical nature",
  year = "1974",
  journal = " Am. Math. Monthly",
  volume = 81,
  number = 6,
  pages = {608--612}
  }

Davidson
Friday, March 05, 2004

Bug in JoS forum's code. Posting the link again:

http://www.cs.utexas.edu/users/EWD/ewd04xx/EWD473.PDF

Davidson
Friday, March 05, 2004

+++Why is the vagaries of the English language (which isn't every coder's native language anyway!) special?+++

I didn't say "English", I said "...native language...".

If you're going to debate me on points I don't make, well then I concede.  ;)

muppet from electric-chipmunk
Friday, March 05, 2004

http://www.cs.utexas.edu/users/EWD/ewd03xx/EWD361.PDF

Is that article, the repost has the url of very interesting one though. 

Dom
Friday, March 05, 2004

>> I didn't say "English", I said "...native language...".

In reply to a post where I said English, thus my assumption that the implication was English == native language. Hence we're talking at cross purposes. I think English isn't an easy thing for anyone to master, as this kind of thing happens all the time! ;)

Sum Dum Gai
Friday, March 05, 2004

Interesting read, but I think that you need not have good WRITTEN communication skills (certainly the only place spelling matters, and also the place where grammar is most important) to fulfil his criteria.

Even in the written realm, so long as your spelling and grammar isn't so bad as to cause your reader to not be able to understand what you're saying, I think it's the least important part of communication skills. Most non-native English speakers get spelling and grammar somewhat incorrect to native tastes, yet I certainly wouldn't say that most non-native speakers of a language lack communication skills! We communicate to get a point across, and the form is secondary to the function. Sure poetry and such can be exceptions to this rule, but it's not really work related.

Personally, having read stuff on the internet for long enough, my mind type/spell/grammar corrects what I read for me, so it really doesn't bother me until you get into the unreadable territory. Maybe it's more jarring for people who haven't spent as much time reading hastily written text, I don't know.

Sum Dum Gai
Friday, March 05, 2004

"Even in the written realm, so long as your spelling and grammar isn't so bad as to cause your reader to not be able to understand what you're saying,"

The more clearly you write, the fewer misunderstandings there will be. This is most important when expressing complex ideas. Nuances of word choice and grammar can make a big difference to the meaning of a sentence or even document.

If you are mentally papering over the cracks in someone's poor written language then you cannot be sure their intended meaning is being transmitted to you. You are adding to their message.

Dom
Friday, March 05, 2004

More importantly, if you write average quality documentation, then that's a comment on the level of professionalism you bring.  If you don't care much about the docs, will you care about your code?  Your comments?  Keeping the docs in sync?  Writing something sufficient for QA to test?

Will you really review docs when request with a critical eye, or just do an average job because you've show you don't care as much?

Now, if you're not writing in your native language that's another issue.  In which case, I'd expect you'd get a native speaker to review it *before* sending it to whoever your final audience is.

Chris Kessel
Friday, March 05, 2004

So, in an attempt to drag this back to my original question:

Are certifications worth it?

Aaron F Stanton
Friday, March 05, 2004

I think we answered it.

Certifications are worth it if your goal is to work in a corporate environment where you'll have to make it past several screening layers.

My personal advice would be to go ahead and get relevant certifications in your field, but don't go overkill (ie, don't end up with the alphabet after your name) because then you'll likely look like a "test-taker" by the time you get to the final decision-maker.

muppet from electric-chipmunk
Friday, March 05, 2004

Thank you, Muppet.

Also, thank you, Joel.

And thank you to everyone else who helped answer my question.

Aaron F Stanton
Friday, March 05, 2004

Agreed.

I'd also add take it if it's in something you're interested in.  If you're worried about having too many certs, then just don't list some that aren't relevant when applying for certain jobs.

I knew a fellow that had completed probably the bulk of a Masters or PHD, but had no degree yet.  He just liked taking interesting courses.

I started that same route myself with some graduate classes.  After 8-9 years in the industry I found I had some areas that interested me and started taking a class each term. 

Chris Kessel
Friday, March 05, 2004

"If you can't be bothered to speak (write (spell)) your native language properly, then it calls into question your attention to detail, which is most definitely a coding skill."

Now how do you explain doctors? They have some of the worst hadwriting around. How can any of them possibly perform surgery, which requires some manual deterity.

You know something, in high school I was doing fairly well in english.

But after years of coding, My english skills have plumetted. I can remember the precise grammer and syntax of a few programming languages. But proper english grammer and spelling  is now a major chore.

Most of My written communication with my peers is with short terse noation. Even with my friends we use more slang to communicate.

Doe anyone else have this problem? Is this a general problem with modern society?

If this is a general problem, did we always have it? We certainly don't speak British english here in America. Nor do they speak elizabeethen english there either.

I wonder if at the various points in history, there has been a general dismay concerning "proper grammer and spelling."

thanks

-JM

JM
Friday, March 05, 2004

+++Now how do you explain doctors? They have some of the worst hadwriting around. How can any of them possibly perform surgery, which requires some manual deterity.+++

Uh.. handwriting has little to do with proper grammar and communication skills.  If you are a surgeon (which means you've written at least a few theses) then I sure hope that you know how to put a sentence together properly.

muppet from electric-chipmunk
Friday, March 05, 2004

"But after years of coding, My english skills have plumetted. I can remember the precise grammer and syntax of a few programming languages. But proper english grammer and spelling  is now a major chore."

You know how the common wisdom is going: "if you can't explain it to a judge, then you don't understand it yourself!" Another one is: "if you think clearly, you talk clearly". So basically if you can't capture your idea in a clear consice explanation, then your idea is probably not worth much, and probably it's not an idea at all, just a bunch of chaotic thoughts (or, if you like, programming language constructs).

And actually the point is not in proper spelling and grammar -- you can produce a perfectly spelled and grammar'ed nonsense but it will still be a nonsense! The main point is to be able to convert your thoughts into words, CORRECTLY, and do it in the best possible form, and if you want to do it it in the best possible form, then you better watch your spelling, grammar, punctuation etc. :)

Semantics is more important than syntax but it's hard to have good semantics without proper syntax :)

Davidson
Friday, March 05, 2004

If you're in consulting, whether as your own one-person shop or as an employee of the big consulting firms, certifications do help because clients like to see them.  Some clients even make it a requirement that consultants must be certified in the relevant language/platform.

T. Norman
Friday, March 05, 2004

"If you are mentally papering over the cracks in someone's poor written language then you cannot be sure their intended meaning is being transmitted to you. You are adding to their message."

It's impossible to read ANYTHING without adding your own message. Objective meaning is a fantasy. You write one thing, I read another, and vice versa. Anything we read is always going to be interpretted by our brain, you can not help it.

My point is since that it's going to be interpretted by someone's brain no matter what we write, the most important communication skill their is one of minimising misinterpretation, not spelling or grammar. I'd take someone who writes lucidly but spells poorly over someone who gets all the spelling correct but who writes a tangled mess any day. I've had the displeasure of working with the second type: everything he wrote was a jungle of big words that he obviously thought were impressing us, but only served to further obscure his message.

Sum Dum Gai
Friday, March 05, 2004

Minor nitpicking: p.5 and 6 of he Dijkstra article referenced above don't actually mention "native language" but rather "a natural language".  I think that's an important difference, as the natural language needn't be ones native language, not necessarily the same language for all subjects. Looking at myself, I find myself thinking and most fluent in Dutch (my native language) or English depending on which language I was first introduced to the subject in.

On the original question: for the really top jobs it probably won't matter much, as they'll be by word of mouth. For the vast majority of jobs, especially working through contracting or recruiting agencies or doing consulting, it'll help you get a foot in the door. Once you're in (ie. on an interview) it probably won't make a great deal of difference in remuneration. Regrettably these days a lot of jobs, good and bad alike, are screened by mindless HR droids (if you're lucky) or buzzword/letter grepping software if you're not.

beyond the literal question, taking a long term view on building a career: Some companies like hiring people who have active or have held security clearances. A few years experience in that kind of environment and getting some flavor of clearance (even if it's just confidential or secret rather than top secret) never hurts in my experience. It is easy enough to obfuscate if you apply at places who dislike that kind of background.  A clean criminal record also helps keep doors open.

CT
Friday, March 05, 2004

Aaron, I think if you're asking this question you would probably not find it helpful to do certifications.

As Joel points out, and my 15 years' experience verifies, certifications tend to be undertaken by people who can't learn themselves, and thus tend to characterise poor performers.

This does not mean they're not useful for getting a job. They're useful for getting jobs in IT environments but not in in good environments such as software development, R&D and analysis.

More importantly, the types of jobs they will get you will tend to be hierarchical where your job is near the bottom. In other words, they're a marker of poor performers and unimportant jobs.

So they confer no benefits on intelligent developers.

x
Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Chris, discussion of writing capability with respect to software development has nothing to do with preparing documentation.

It is to do with how it affects your creation of the software.

x
Tuesday, March 09, 2004

"As Joel points out, and my 15 years' experience verifies, certifications tend to be undertaken by people who can't learn themselves, and thus tend to characterise poor performers."

You must be talking about those training classes where they give you a certificate at the end of the course.  Nobody respects those.

I was referring to certifications that have little or no classroom involvement, but are given after passing an exam(s) and/or a completing a small project.  Like the Sun Java programmer and Oracle DBA certifications.  You don't pass those if you can't teach yourself.

T. Norman
Tuesday, March 09, 2004

>>That would make sense. Although isn't IT negativity towards HR a fairly common thread through tech discussion boards? I haven't heard a good story of someone successfully reforming their company's HR dept<<

I worked for a consulting company where the interview process involved separate (and sometimes multiple) interviews with HR, the technical people, and at least one manager.  The HR people were exceptionally good at screening for personality traits and the managers were looking at the candidate's long-term potential.  If the candidate flunked any one of those interviews, the process stopped right there.

The process of training to do technical interviews for them was a real eye-opener for me.  What I thought that HR/management was looking for vs. what they were really looking for was like night and day.  The technical interview was the *easy* part.  Hard to believe that they hired me after all that!  ;-)

Seriously, though:  I think that if you hire good people to begin with, they'll hire even more good people, regardless of whether they are HR, management, or technical folks.  But the hiring has to be a joint effort.  If I don't see that "three-pronged" approach to interviewing when I'm the interviewee, my interest in the job and the company offering it plummets.

cubiclegrrl
Tuesday, March 16, 2004

I read somewhere that 90% of face-to-face communication is non-verbal.
When you write with poor grammer and spelling errors, the question is what *else* are you communicating? How relevant is that 'extra' communication to the message you are trying to get across? Does that 'extra' encourage trust in the product, or in you?

I personally avoid buying things off people that (all else being equal) seem rully, like ... umm, y'know? Sort of, uuuhh, dumb?

Bram Borak
Wednesday, March 17, 2004

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