The first time I came across certfications for software was in university, studying for my masters in computer science.
There was a flyer advertising free food and a talk from Oracle on Java certifications. The talk was fairly boring and the presenter I'm sure hadn't even seen code in real life. I thought nothing more of it.
Then came my first job at British Telecom (BT). All of the software graduates were whisked into two bootcamps over the course of a few weeks. The first one was to show us how to install Java, Eclipse IDE and make sure we could compile a HelloWorld application. The second was showing us how to do test driven development (TDD).
Both courses were taught by people who looked like they had seen it all in computer science; a coding 1000 yard stare if you will.
I'm not saying they were grumpy old developers, they just didn't come across as believing what they were showing us.
The only things that stuck with me from those two weeks was the nostalgia they shared; the enthusiasm when they wrote their first C program or how they were on Larry Ellison's yacht. Those software war stories were the only things that I got out from those two weeks and that reaffirmed my decision that software was the right choice for me.
I thought that was the end of that, until a week or so passed by and I got two shiny certificates through the mail saying that I was now a certified Java 7 Associate and TDD practicioner.
Did these certificates mean anything to me, no!
Did they mean anything to other people? That was something I would have to find out over the course of my career, the answer being yes and no as I break it down below...
The minute you are issued a certificate, it only guarantees your competence to a specific version of that technology. Once that version is superseded then that qualification lowers in value, unless a specific business demands it.
In a way its a perishible product like dairy or bread which ties you into a consumer cycle.
A quick browse on Microsoft or Oracle's certification portal will quickly show you that these courses aren't cheap. This is deliberate as its firstly a means of generating additional revenue off their technologies and secondly it creates an air of prestigiousness rather than making it seem cheap mass produced product, "if it's expensive, it has to be good right?".
If you are, or your company is willing to fork out a couple of grand to pay for it, why not spend it on a conference(s) in a nice city instead? The memories from that trip will last longer than the certification.
You can pass tests
Like other forms of assessment (IQ tests, psychometrics etc.) they are only as good as the assessors who create the tests.
If you can pass them, that's great but does it prove you can work and handle complex business problems, probably not.
Some tests focus on nuances which might be important to businesses (Linux, SQL optimisations) however many of them are shallow in that they test for basic things like syntax.
To some recruiters who do not want to know too much about the technologies they are hiring for, its a nice easy flag to spot candidates by. However there are no guarantees that the candidate will be competent in that role.
Most people don't care
warning anecdotal evidence ahead!
The majority of people I've spoken to are not going to factor in certifications. They are more interested in how you think, implement solutions and get on with others in a work environment.
For organisations and people who do care, it's normally out of some reason which I would consider a warning flag. Be that cookie cutter HR requirements or people who want people who can tick the boxes and not go off the reservation too much.
This is not to say that all certificate holders are functionaries with grey suits on, although some are!
Who are the certifiers?
I once had a summer job working in an accounting certification company (oh the irony). One of my favourite tasks was to read through applicants who posted their educational evidence, to see if they were eligible for exemptions from coursework and exams.
The most distinctive memory I had there was reading someone's book keeping qualification from Hamburger University. Nothing against McDonalds but sometimes it makes you wonder the prestige of the companies or organisations that print these certifications.
In some situations you can actually just buy your certification online without any coursework or assessment, which I believe is one of the reasons there is so much skepticism in certs today.
Unless its a major institution, most people probably will have to google your certificate, if they are even bothered to investigate in the first place.
At the end of the day, experience will always be your biggest advocate on a CV. I have come to the decision over the years that certs are not for me however if you can argue against those five points then by all means go for it!
I'll leave this Dilbert sketch as a footnote.
(header image from Catzrodt)