IT Certification: The Perks And Pitfalls

Andy Grant

Are you thinking of pursuing an IT certification in the hope that it will help you find work? Perhaps someone you know gained a certification or two and managed to land a dream job. Or, perhaps a friend of yours completed a certification and is yet to even get a job interview. In this article, we’ll explore the kinds of issues you should consider if you want to be on the right side of this fence.

Gaining an IT certification sounds so sensible. You get the hottest certification on the market, fish that lucky tie out of the wardrobe, wow the job interview panel, and you’re set, right? With luck on your side — lots of it — this may work. In reality, however, there’s more to it than this.

Addressing, or even simply acknowledging, a few basic issues will improve your chances of success, and clear up any misconceptions you may have about IT certification. Let’s dive in and consider a common question that, if not thought through properly, could set you up for a fall from the start.

Which Certification is Right for You?

Are you a Programmer, a Network guy, or a Web Designer? Even if you know, for example, that you’re the computer programming type, is it a Sun Microsystems Java Certification you need, or a Microsoft .NET Certification?

If you have made this decision, do you know of any companies hiring people with these skills in your area? Are you prepared to relocate? Taking the time to think about the answers to these questions may require you to delay the pursuit of certification for a while. But thinking it through is much better than falling prey to the dreaded "it seemed kind of cool at the time" syndrome.

It’s amazing how many people jump right in and begin to pursue the certification they perceive to be the most popular. Popularity is not necessarily a good indication of how useful a certification will be to you. In fact, some certifications get to be so popular that they begin to lose that ‘setting you apart from the next guy’ quality they may once have had. But even if you decide to undertake one of these ‘all the rage’ certifications, it is still possible to set yourself apart by doing the right combination of certifications — more on this shortly.

Does the Certification Have any Clout?

For a certification to even begin to be worth your sweat, it must be recognized by, and useful to, the people you hope to impress. There is little point in working for a Microsoft certification if, ultimately, you’ll find yourself in an interview room with a bunch of UNIX folk. Of course, the more you know about the people you want to work for, the easier it will be to figure out how much clout a certification has.

Make a few phone calls to potential employers and recruiting agencies to get a feel for how your chosen certification is perceived in the industry. My ‘Sun Java Certification,’ for example, is widely recognized and respected –- it’s even a requirement for some jobs. But my ‘Macromedia Coldfusion Developer’ certification has practically no weight at all. At least two employers I know of, who hire coldfusion types regularly, were not even aware of its existence! I needed this certification as part of my role as a ‘Macromedia Certified Trainer,’ in case you wondered why I bothered.

Certified Vs. Competent

If you gain a certification, will it mean that you will actually be capable of performing the job you manage to land? If you haven’t had this thought yet, have it soon — it’s an important consideration and the basis of yet another potential stumbling block.

Don’t believe for a second that the words ‘certified’ and ‘competent’ mean the same thing. The reality is that most certifications merely set a base standard of competency and certify that you managed to reach that standard. If you pass an exam and automatically have the competency to perform the associated job, treat it as a bonus — this is not always the way certifications work.

How competent you become through the process of certification can depend largely on how high the training vendor or organization has set the competency standard. For example, I passed the ‘Sun Microsystems Certified Java Programmer’ exam and it was a real challenge — I absolutely had to know my stuff. Conversely, I also sat the ‘Macromedia Certified Coldfusion Developer’ exam, which I, and the two chimpanzees sitting next to me, passed with flying colors.

Low competency standards not only allow people to scrape through without becoming truly competent; they also devalue the qualification’s prestige, and ultimately detract from its usefulness and credibility. Unfortunately, there are more than a few certifications out there that I believe fall into this category. A bit of research should weed out the duds.

Stay Focused!

Often, people struggle to earn a certification, only to realize once they have it in their hands that the world is basically the same. Where are all the job offers?

More mistakes can be made at this point. It’s all too easy to lose heart, and give up on the whole idea of certification. Many have the opposite reaction — they go on all-out binge to get as many more certifications as possible. Both approaches are usually less than ideal.

You may not want to hear it, but it is very likely that you will need to pursue additional certifications — one is rarely enough. If you decide to look into extra qualifications, try to consider only those certifications that are:

  • Very closely related to your original certification
  • A specialized version of the original certification
  • The same certification, backed by a different vendor or organization.

Many of the resumes I’ve seen have led me to believe that their authors saw certification as some kind of numbers game. Do not fall into this trap! Focus on quality, not quantity. Yes, you can ignore this advice and add as many certifications to your resume as is possible, but surely it would be easier to save your time, money, and effort by instead adding the following line to your resume: "I don’t know what I want out of life," or perhaps, "I know a little about everything but not a lot of anything."

On the flip side, a properly considered combination of certifications can effectively set you apart from the next guy. Isn’t that the whole point?

Beware "Irrational Vendor Devotion" Syndrome

Here’s another one to watch out for: "irrational vendor devotion" syndrome. This nasty affliction occurs when a person starts to believe that their certification path must revolve around one vendor or organization.

For example, I know of a person who set out to sit every Macromedia certification on offer so that she had "the complete set." It didn’t matter that countless other certifications were available, each of them far more relevant to the type of job she wanted. Another person I know went on a complete Microsoft binge, even though he wasn’t quite sure if he was a Network Administrator, an Office Specialist, a Systems Engineer, a Desktop Technician, or a Database Administrator. A very smart guy, he just needed a place to call home.

Be careful that your choice of certification doesn’t simply advertise your devotion to a particular company; it should advertise a truly cohesive skill set.

What About the Competition?

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, you followed the right certification path and passed with good marks. So far, so good. But will it actually help you find work? This is where we need to consider the competition.

How does your industry certification compare with a university degree? Which do employers prefer? These questions come up a lot, and the answers will depend largely on the employer and the type of type of job you’re after. Some employers won’t hire you unless you have a degree, regardless of any industry certifications or how many years of experience you have.

On the other hand, some employers prefer a good set of tightly related industry certifications to a university degree. In my experience, however, many are prepared to listen while you state your case for pursuing industry-based certification over a degree. Your worst enemy is, of course, the guy with both.

Depending on your chosen field, there may not even be a university degree that covers the topic or technology you want to learn about. After all, one of the reasons we have industry certifications in the first place is to plug the gap between the ‘real world’ and what’s on offer at universities. So it’s possible that your research will reveal it to be a redundant question anyway.

Self-Paced Study or Formal Training?

Another point to be aware of is that some employers only accept industry certifications that have been earned through a registered training provider.

I was once in a position where my Java Programmer certification was rendered useless. A particular employer didn’t like the fact that I’d prepared for and passed the exam under my own steam, without regular classes at a training facility. Of course, I didn’t like this one bit — I consider my steam to be of very high quality!

However, this reality does back up a point I made earlier — a certification does not certify that you can do a job. Sometimes, employers want to know you received some kind of formal training as well. As far as I am aware — and I’ve asked around on this one — it’s not something that comes up regularly. Even so, be ready with a good comeback should your steam ever be challenged!


There is also the small matter of experience to consider. Often, a certification is barely worth the paper it’s written on if you don’t have the experience to back it up. You may need to pursue a few creative ways to get experience — even if it means working dirt-cheap or for free. And, if you’re not prepared to do whatever it takes to gain experience, I’d suggest you might have wasted your time and effort with certifications in the first place.


IT certification has become a large and complicated business, as there are simply so many certifications from which you can choose. Research is the key to success.

I can’t hope to provide all the answers, but I do strongly recommend you use this article as a guide to the kind of questions you should be asking. You might also want to visit the following links for a bit of a head start on where to begin, and what’s on offer certification-wise: