Opinion: Certification matters – Experience less so – Part 1

I have received a couple of comments lately about Certification and taking me to task about my support for certified people. Here’s is Part One of Three (or more) about Certification and why it matters.

My Perspective

I am often involved in helping to interview and select people for network positions. Even after Human Remorse has ‘filtered’ the resumes and ascertained that people match the position criteria, there are still thirty to fifty resumes for a single position. How do I make that judgement ? What criteria can I use to select someone who has technical competence ?

While I can agree that:

  1. passing an exam doesn’t necessarily make good engineers (( Yassin Perriman here))
  2. good engineers might have achieved qualification
  3. there is no replacement for experience on the job (( (2) Anonymous on a recent post ))
  4. there are other skills that a make a good employee

its not that simple.

Let me discuss a few points about certification that you may not have thought about if this is your viewpoint.

“I have equivalent Experience”

I recently interviewed someone who claimed to have CCIP and CCSP level of expertise. His resume didn’t really support that, but he did have enough experience to suggest that he might be telling the truth.

So my first technical questions was about MPLS, but he had no experience of that. And he had done no study of the topic. My second question was about QoS, but he had no experience of that either. So I moved onto Security questions, he had some firewall experience but no experience or knowledge of IPS systems, Content Filtering or Application Proxies.

So now, I have a candidate who claims to be a Network and Security Specialist, but has no fundamental knowledge of MPLS, IPS, SSL VPN or QoS. And absolutely no experience of these topics. The process of finishing a CCSP (( Cisco Certified Security Professional)) tells me that you should have learned all of these Security topics, and CCIP means you should know a fair bit about QoS and MPLS.

Experience teaches you about things you know or need to know. Certification forces you to learn things that you don’t know, or haven’t needed in your current job. This is important because the next job will be different, and have different methods or technology. I don’t want to teach you what you don’t know becuase there isn’t enough time in the real world.

A friend of mine summed it up this way “If you have five years of experience in one job, then you have five times one year experience”. Repeating the same tasks is not experience, you need to learn new things to be valuable outside of your current company.

Study methods matters

One of the areas that is not well understood, is that if you rely on experience as your best skill you are showing that you cannot, or will not, study. That is, you are not good with textbooks and learning.

There are many jobs where someone who does repetitive work is needed, but there are many more jobs where the person needs to be moving fast to keep up, to gain new knowledge. It is your choice as to which you choose. But I don’t want to be hand feeding you, I want someone who can learn on their own, using the Cisco web site and some textbooks. As a workmate, I am perfectly willing to spend time working on something that you are struggling with, but I absolutely do not want to be teaching you OSPF link state announcements.

Its your choice

Now, if you cannot, or will not, pick up a text book or web site and learn new stuff then that is a career choice. You have chosen a path that, most likely, has no progression and limited opportunities for promotion. And it is human nature that you will think that experience matters more than certification, but you are mostly wrong.

On the other hand, if you want to move onwards and upwards to face new systems and configurations, the fastest way is to start learning. Make sure that you are learning the things you don’t know because that’s the next job.

Other Articles in this series

Certification Matters – Knowledge or Experience Which is more valuable ? Part 2

Certification Matters – Only you can do the Study Part 3

Certification Matters – Exams are not relevant to Real Life – Part 4

About Greg Ferro

Greg Ferro is a Network Engineer/Architect, mostly focussed on Data Centre, Security Infrastructure, and recently Virtualization. He has over 20 years in IT, in wide range of employers working as a freelance consultant including Finance, Service Providers and Online Companies. He is CCIE#6920 and has a few ideas about the world, but not enough to really count.

He is a host on the Packet Pushers Podcast, blogger at EtherealMind.com and on Twitter @etherealmind and Google Plus

You can contact Greg via the site contact page.

  • http://pl.atyp.us Jeff Darcy

    “One of the areas that is not well understood, is that if you rely on experience as your best skill you are showing that you cannot, or will not, study. That is, you are not good with textbooks and learning.”

    Assumption 1: knowledge based on experience cannot exceed that gained from textbooks (if it could than somebody who was perfectly able to study and had even done so might still have experience as their best skill)

    “There are many jobs where someone who does repetitive work is needed”

    Assumption 2: experience = repetition

    “Now, if you cannot, or will not, pick up a text book or web site and learn new stuff then that is a career choice.”

    Assumption 3: learning comes only from books and web sites

    What bollocks. Yes, we all know you’re certified (some might say certifiable) and proud of it. One could hardly read this blog and not know that. Unfortunately, your pride in your own accomplishments in class does not in any way justify your obvious disdain for others’ accomplishments in the field. Sometimes “textbooks and websites” are the best or most efficient way to learn something, sometimes actually working with (or implementing) it is. In the particular case of working with, or especially inventing, new technologies there are no classes or certifications and experience is the *only* way to understand it. I know some of the people who invented MPLS and SSL, experience is clearly their best skill, but apparently you – a mere user of their technology – would assume that its inventors cannot or will not study. Some people do have the proverbial “one year of experience repeated ten times” and others have ten – or twenty or even thirty – years of genuine ever-varying experience and ever-increasing knowledge that no textbook can match. Who do you think writes those textbooks and certification curricula anyway?

    Certication can ensure a particular level of knowledge across a particular range of subjects. There’s value in that, and we could reasonably argue over whether that level represents the 10th or 75th percentile in their field, but nobody – *nobody* – reaches the 90th percentile with only book learning and quite a few manage it without any kind of certification. Certification is the path upward for those who can’t find or make their own path, and it never leads to the summit.

  • http://etherealmind.com Greg Ferro

    Derogation 1 – I said “rely on experience as your best skill” does not interpret as “knowledge based on experience cannot exceed that gained from textbooks”. My point is that experience alone is not enough. The extrapolation is your own and not mine.

    Derogation 2 – If you are content with repeating the same experiences, and progressing slowly in your career (and which is a choice that many people make), then experience only will work in your life.

    Derogation 3 – “learning comes only from books and web sites” that statement is factual. It does not exclude the belief that learning comes from experience, and such fundamental fact must be inherently assumed.

    Jeff – the title of the article is “Certification Matters – Experience Less So”, thus leading you on to the hypothesis that Certfication AND Experience are required. My point is that certification clearly demonstrates that you CAN study and WILL study.

    As an employer, I will not take the time to discover what you are capable of, I will automatically preselect candidates. Those without certifications will automatically be bypassed for many roles, and even if they may have been the best person for the job, becuase there are equally too many time wasters who “think” they are talented.

    Certification will open the doors for you but only you can walk through it. You are correct that “Certification is the path upward for those who canít find or make their own path, and it never leads to the summit.” but equally, many people without certfication plans don’t know, or unable to structure themselves to walk the path. Your statement cuts both ways.

    I am not derogatory about experience based learning, its just very hard to detect who has it. I certainly don’t have time to go looking for it, and thus don’t bother.

  • http://pl.atyp.us Jeff Darcy

    “I am not derogatory about experience based learning”

    Yes, you were. Trying to imply that those who have more experience than certification-based knowledge “cannot, or will not, study” is derogatory. Characterizing their experience as “repetitive work” and “a path that, most likely, has no progression and limited opportunities for promotion” is derogatory. Denying your obvious contempt for those not exactly like yourself only further insults readers’ intelligence.

    “its just very hard to detect who has it. ”

    It’s harder than finding an acronym on their resume, but not really hard in the grand scale of Things That Are Hard. As an experienced engineer, I’m fairly confident in my ability to determine which skills are relevant to the job I’m interviewing them for, and to what degree the candidate has them. As an experienced engineer who tends to work on the bleeding edge, I’m also pretty interested in whether they have a more general ability to develop skills in technical areas where no certification courses, textbooks or websites exist. Certification can in fact seem like a negative in many cases, as there are only so many hours in a day and time spent studying mature technologies is necessarily time not spent learning or extending new ones. As an employer, I generally have little use for those who can only walk a path that thousands of others have prepared for them.

  • http://etherealmind.com Greg Ferro

    After recently working my way through more a hundred resumes, I am confident that it isn’t possible to pick out those who have skills. Many of those resumes were awful. To improve my life, I filtered according to Certifications. If you don’t have it, you don’t make the list for interview.

    Now, the interview is where I would pick the person who has experience and the skill to apply it. Easy to work it out there.

    On that basis, given, say, a hundren resumes, how do you identify “experience” that is worthwhile ?

  • http://pl.atyp.us Jeff Darcy

    “given, say, a hundren resumes, how do you identify ìexperienceî that is worthwhile ?”

    There’s no simple answer, but there are certainly things you can see pretty quickly from a resume. For starters, if you have a list of technologies that you think are relevant to the position you’re filling, it takes less than a minute per resume to see how many are even mentioned. Take the top half based on that, leaving assessment of depth in each area until a later stage. To gauge general ability to pick up and learn new things, you can look at how long they’ve stayed at each job, how many projects they’ve worked on at each, how rapidly they’ve been promoted or given new responsibilities. Probably a bit more than a minute each this time, but if you take the top half again you’ve probably narrowed the field to 25 in under three hours so far, or you can make each cut a bit deeper if you want to be hasty about things.

    At this point you can spend a little more than a minute per resume, and skim each to gauge quality (or credibility) of experience in each area of interest. They say they worked with technology XYZ, do they? For how long? From what you know of the company in question, plus what they say of the project and their own role in it, does it sound like the technology was central to their work or was it more peripheral? Clearly somebody who worked for a year on a project that directly involved XYZ, at a company where XYZ was a part of their core value prop, is likely to know more about it than if XYZ was merely peripheral to their project and company for three months. You can also use this information to gauge whether they’re a “jump on raw new tech” kind of person or a “perfect the old tech” kind of person, whether they’re better at the beginning or end of a project, better at working independently vs. part of a team, and so on, matching those qualities vs. your specific needs. Still, we’re talking maybe three minutes per resume, so maybe another hour total to find the ten or so who are at least worth a quick phone screen or call to your friend who worked with them.

    Does half a day to review a hundred resumes sound like too much? Well, how important is it to hire the right people? Besides, you probably shouldn’t be dealing with a hundred resumes yourself anyway. If it’s not an entry-level position and you specified it properly, your pile will be way smaller to start with. If you have other senior colleagues, you should be splitting the pile with them. Lastly, if it’s still too much, you should find a good headhunter and train them to do that first pass properly. Good headhunters are rare, and you can’t really trust any of them to do the second pass right, but there are a few who can add some real value to the process. What about fees, you say? Well, if you’re hiring for such a generic position *and* there’s no trust between you and your colleagues *and* your own time is too precious to spend doing this very important part of your job *and* you still want to be very picky about who you hire (despite it being a generic position) then you’ve kind of left yourself no other options and the headhunter’s fee has to be weighed against the cost of failing to hire anyone at all.

  • Dedan

    I hate to get between you too but here is my take. i too have interviewd and worked with people with way more experience than myself. I ended up being very shocked at lheir lack of lnowledge and their lack of study on the stuff they ahd to know I was going to ask. so, filtering by cert is a quick way to at least give you a baseline of what they should know.

    i am one of those certified folk. I was an officer in the US Navy and a pilot until last year. I taught myself netwoking though I have a BS in computer engineering. I have a CCNP and have passed the CCIE written. I have blown people away at technical interviews with what I know as compared to what my experience says I should know. If experience is the only metric how is anyone ever supposed to get hired for anything?

    I have managed over 100 people. I have been an aircraft commander in 4 different aircraft including carrier based platforms. I have been responsible for lives. I have gotten to my current level of knowledge while doing all that and never having a job that would have helped me learn or going to any course. I didn’t get an IT job until the first quarter of 08 because of my experience. If experience is all you look at you will miss those of us whose resumes look like mine and are committed to constant learning and understand the need to adapt and overcome. Experience will come, but if someone has the knowledge but won’t take a test, what does that say?

    • http://etherealmind.com Greg Ferro

      Don’t worry about Jeff, he is always like that. :-) Thanks for your comment, I think it might make a good post.

  • Dedan

    forgive any misspellings, I used my phone.

  • http://pl.atyp.us Jeff Darcy

    “Won’t take a test”? It’s not just a matter of walking in and sitting down, as you well know. Some people really do have better things to do than study the vendor-specific questions that will appear on any vendor-administered test, not to mention the $315 written and $1400 lab fees, even if they know ten times more than the test requires in some areas. I’m not saying that experience is the only metric or that certification is completely worthless, but the whole thesis of this thread seems to be the equally silly and offensive converse of that. Ignoring experience to filter resumes by letter groupings is insane. It’s a good way to fill your team with people whose knowledge and strengths are redundant instead of complementing one another, and that’s not likely to be a very effective team.

    Of course people who have paper but not experience will preach about the paper’s value. Not only do they not want to feel like suckers for having made that expenditure, but they have a vested interest in promoting the brand that it represents. When I see someone with some actual credibility touting the value of vendor certification (MS pulls the same stunt and I’ll bet you guys don’t feel *their* certifications trump experience) I’ll let you know. Don’t wait up.

    • Dedan

      I am not preaching about the value of the paper no do I feel like a sucker for anything. I accept the importance of experience and I don’t feel like I was cheated because another person was hired. But basing everything on experience basically says that if a person hasn’t done something for a couple of years they can’t do it. I don’t think the author was saying experience was worthless, only that there’s no way to really tell what someone’s experience level is without interviewing them which for him was too time consuming considering his experiences with it.

      As far as better things to do than study and not wanting to spend the money, why go to college? Way more time and more money and no experience. So college graduates are suckers too?

      No one that I know who has a CCIE feels like they were suckered nor do the salaries they get paid support the idea that they are. I do feel that if you have equivalent experience you have the upper hand. Your job reinforces what you have to know and if you supplement it with some time and commitment you have the best of both worlds.

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  • http://www.mewcomm.typepad.com mewcomm

    Simply the best most reasoned knowledge worker validation post I’ve ever read.

    Anti-intellectualism is wide spread and growing in the U.S. — Certifications of any kind are usually opposed, often ridiculed and seldom embraced. And I am such a Pollyanna….I’m always surprised at the bitter rhetoric of the opponents!

    Is not learning fun? Satisfying? Empowering? To many it is a burden and to be avoided. And in a globlaized information economy those who don’t learn are irrelevant.

    Thanks

    • http://etherealmind.com Greg Ferro

      Thankyou very much. Given that I am part of a group of hihgly intellectual people, I forget that not everyone regards knowledge as exciting.

      Good point about learning being fin and exciting too.

  • http://www.cciedownunder.wordpress.com CCIEDownunder

    Great idea to write about this. I wish recruiters would think the way you do :).

    • http://etherealmind.com Greg Ferro

      Recruiters understand the job market, they don’t understand the actual jobs themselves. Remember recruiters are just outsourced functions of the HR department. On this basis, you should take the time to teach them, and then you will get a better response.

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