Certification? Not For Me

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happy graduate dog holding a big diploma

Microsoft offer a wide range of certifications for developers working with their stack. These are divided into five categories:

1. Server – Windows Server, Exchange Server, Lync, Sharepoint

2. Desktop – Windows

3. Applications – Office, Office 365, Microsoft Dynamics

4. Database – SQL Server

5. Developer – Visual Studio, Windows Phone, Sharepoint Applications

Within the ‘Developer’ category there is one certification in particular which seems to match my area of work, the MCSD: Web Applications certificate. It covers three aspects of Microsoft web development:

1. Programming in HTML5 with JavaScript and CSS3

2. Developing ASP.NET MVC4 Web Applications

3. Developing Microsoft Azure and Web Services

This sounds appealing. All three are areas I would like to gain expertise in, and skills which I would expect to be useful in my day-to-day work over the next few years.

But all things considered, I very much doubt I will ever bother with certification. Before I go into the reasons why, let’s consider some of the benefits.

Broadly speaking I believe there are 4 potential advantages to going down the certification route.

1. Direction.

The task of learning about a particular area of technology can be daunting.

Let’s say I decide I want to become an expert in web development. Where do I start? HTML, CSS, ASP.NET, MVC, PHP, Java, JavaScript or something else? What’s more, each of these presents additional choices. Do I read a book? If so, which book? What about online tutorials, blogs and articles?

In the age of information we are faced with a multitude of learning options, which means that even when we do take a gamble and make a choice, as soon as the going gets tough it is all too easy to be distracted by an alternative, and in this way never to learn much about anything.

Focusing on a certification provides us with direction. We have a syllabus consisting of a list of topics. All we need to do is work our way through it.

2. Satisfaction.

Having spent many weeks or months studying hard, learning about your chosen area, completing chapters, exercises and tutorials and making notes, do you not deserve the satisfaction of passing an exam and holding a certificate in your hand?

We’re all human and we all feel a sense of satisfaction from achieving things. Certification is indeed something to be proud of. It shows you have put in a degree of work and proves you know something about something. You can frame your certificate and put in on your wall, update your linkedin profile and your CV, and bask for a short while. Maybe treat yourself to a scotch or a cigar.

Satisfaction arising from achievement should not be trivialised. It is important.

3. Learning Stuff

Whatever your thoughts are on certification, if you work towards it and pass your exam, you will undoubtedly learn a thing or two along the way.

In our industry it is vital to keep on learning if you want to stay ahead of the game, and certification can be a way to trick ourselves into acquiring new skills and knowledge.

When I was learning to drive, I didn’t spare much thought for how much it would improve the quality of the rest of my life, I just wanted to pass my test and get my license. Looking back, this was one of the most valuable learning experiences I have had. In a similar way, if we focus on obtaining certification, we will probably learn things along the way which will help us in our day-to-day work.

4. Employability.

Whether or not a certification will impress employers enough to give you the edge over your competition is an interesting and difficult question. But we can be fairly certain that it won’t do your chances any harm, and if you are lucky your interviewers will consider your certification to be an indication of your ability and your suitability for the role in question. They may see it as proof that you are a hard worker, you care about your career, and you understand how to solve programming problems.

So given all these benefits, why have I decided that certification isn’t for me?

In a nutshell, it is simply that preparing for it would take up too much of my time, time which I would rather dedicate to other pursuits.

Let’s consider again the certification which I would most likely choose to work towards – the MCSD: Web Applications certificate. This requires candidates to pass three exams, and for each exam there is a relatively long and detailed syllabus. If I were to go down this route, I would want to do it properly, and I estimate it would take me between 40 and 60 hours of study for each exam. That adds up to around 150 hours of study, to work into my schedule alongside my full-time job and other commitments.

I do dedicate time, money and effort towards my career outside of my paid working hours. I write this blog, I read books, blogs and articles, and I play with and practice using new or interesting technologies.

But not only do I believe that I gain benefits in each of the four areas listed above in this way, but I enjoy myself at the same time.

I am not too restrictive about what I read, or how I learn. I am just vaguely aware of the impact a particular choice will have on my career. I like to be spontaneous in my learning, and this helps to ensure that I keep on learning and don’t get bored. This week I am reading from JavaScript – the Good Parts, but next week I may decide to learn about something completely different.

If I were to pursue a certification I would need to be convinced of two things. Firstly, that it would present me with a clear advantage in my career, and secondly, that I would enjoy the process of studying for it. At this moment in time I am not convinced of either, so I will continue to learn about my trade in a more creative and enjoyable manner. It would be nice to be able to list a certificate on my CV, and to have that achievement under my belt, but like most decisions this really comes down to a cost-benefit analysis, and for me right now the benefits are greatly outweighed by the costs.

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