IT Pro Panel: Do we still need certifications?
IT professionals have access to more qualifications than ever before - but are they really necessary?
In the world of enterprise IT, certifications are a lucrative business. Every year, millions of technical professionals around the world study to earn qualifications attesting to their proficiency in cyber security, cloud architectures, storage administration, and much more. With the training costs and associated fees (ranging from $100 to more than $1,500), these certifications can represent a significant investment for those seeking to attain them.
For all the positive noise around the subject, certifications have also become the target of some debate in recent years. While they’re still a popular way for IT practitioners to demonstrate their skills, some argue that the industry has become over-reliant on qualifications to the detriment of real-world experience and practical knowledge.
With the IT landscape expanding at an ever-increasing rate, there are more technology certifications than ever for professionals to obtain. In this month’s IT Pro Panel feature, we find out what IT leaders really think about certifications: what the role of certifications are in a modern business environment, which ones (if any) are most valuable, and how both IT workers and the organisations that employ them should approach the issue.
The principal benefit of gaining a certification is obvious as it demonstrates a measurable level of competency in a given area. There are a huge variety of certifications on offer, covering everything from specific vendor’s product stacks to wider disciplines like infrastructure management. Many certifications are also split into different tiers, which indicate progressive levels of expertise in the subject.
This can be particularly helpful when recruiting, says Kreston Reeves’ IT and operations director Chris Madden. While he notes that certifications are rarely necessary outside a handful of specialised roles, they can also act as a good indicator to quickly determine a candidate’s technical proficiency.
“Yes, I agree,” says Craig York, CTO of Milton Keynes University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, pointing out this can apply to seasoned IT decision makers as well as more junior staff. “For senior digital leadership, certification offers organisations the opportunity to validate they're betting on someone with the right skills and in the case of leadership certs, can effectively lead those areas of the business.”
“I value specific certification in specific technology rather than general technology-based qualifications,” adds Gerard McGovern, CIO of Guide Dogs. “That’s not to say people don’t have the technical skills without the certifications, but it’s a very useful shortcut when recruiting.”
McGovern also highlights that the importance of certifications when it comes to the recruitment process often depends on the role in question. They tend to be more of a factor in operations positions, he says, as “you quickly know if a developer is any good or not”.
“For more infrastructure-based roles, it’s quite important. For developer roles, it’s less so. I’m probably biased but as an ex-Java programmer, no one asked for my Java 101 certificate!”
Recruiters aren’t the only people who are given additional confidence by certifications, though, and Madden points out that being able to point to highly accredited team members can give clients greater peace of mind when discussing technical projects. If a potential client has certain technical requirements, he says, being able to use certifications to prove that you can meet them can be the deciding factor in winning the deal.
In keeping with the overall popularity of Microsoft’s cloud portfolio, our panellists highlighted Microsoft 365 and Azure as examples of certifications that they commonly look for, and cloud-focused qualifications are in high demand. However, this can present some potential challenges, and York notes that some skills risk falling through the gaps.
“For staff on the ground in IT, there’s much more of a move away from certifications and skills around physical equipment, and towards Azure, Microsoft 365, et cetera. We won't have a computer room in a few years. and skills are aligning to this already, with some struggling to deal with failures of on-site equipment.”
“I agree with Craig,” says Madden. “There has been a major shift from on-premise system skills like hardware management and VMware administration being required to cloud and app dev skills, and this has translated to a shift in the certs people are looking for and looking to acquire. However, the 'old' skills are still required, as somewhere all these cloud services are hosted on hardware.”
It’s also important to consider where certifications have come from, he adds. Smaller training providers may not validate their courses as thoroughly as more established organisations, which is why he leans towards accreditations from larger vendors or independent trade bodies.
Non-technical certifications shouldn’t be overlooked either, and our panellists noted that qualifications in areas like project management, risk management, and strategic planning can be extremely useful. In particular, York calls out the ITIL and PRINCE2 certifications as being “always useful for training staff, or seeing on applications”.
McGovern holds both these certifications, and in fact, the range of qualifications amongst our panellists demonstrates that there is no set path that must be followed in this regard. Madden, for example, possesses no technical certifications (beyond a degree in biology) and has instead relied on earned experience, while York is a qualified FED-IP Advanced Practitioner and a CHIME Certified Healthcare CIO.
“I really enjoyed picking up Microsoft certifications back when I was more technical, but it's important to consider where you are now and where you're planning to get to,” he says. “But I wish I'd have spent more time and effort on my programming skills, back in the day!”
In addition to demonstrating mastery of existing skills, the process of studying for certifications can also be a good method for upskilling employees in new technologies that the business wishes to leverage.
“As the world changes, we need the skill set to keep on top of the business’ IT requirements,” Madden explains. “We are looking at BCS membership and formal Microsoft certification in relevant areas, as well as online self-learning products, such as CBT Nuggets for bite-sized learning.”
Similarly, York has arranged for his IT staff to obtain membership in BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, which provides professional development assistance as well as certification opportunities. This is a common tactic, as the costs for certification can be steep. As such, many IT professionals rely on their employer to shoulder the costs, and Madden notes that Kreston Reeves is starting to proactively encourage employees to earn relevant certifications.
“If there’s alignment with their role and what the business needs from them, I would say there should be sponsorship by the organisation for the individual to gain the qualification,” he explains. “That may be as simple as paying the course fees through to study leave and resits.”
“For us, personal and professional development is very important, supporting staff on their journey,” York adds. “A diverse, inclusive team needs to account for individual requirements and preferences as well, so an agreed personal development plan that works for both parties is the goal. If staff are keen on training and certification, then I'll support them through this to ensure they have a result, and our organisation has a better trained and recognised team.”
Alongside other business benefits, our panellists also agreed that supporting staff in gaining new certifications can be an excellent tool for staff retention. They note that as part of a robust personal development plan, it’s a good way of showing confidence in employees.
“From an individual’s perspective, it provides external validation of their skills set and may well help when looking for a new role,” Madden says, “and for some, being recognised as having reached a certain level is important.”
“I’d agree with Chris,” adds York; “working in IT means staff can easily move across industries and retention is not easy. Opportunities such as training, membership, and certification are an important tool.”
Onwards and upwards
While there are some that will argue certifications exist primarily to line the pockets of those offering the accreditations, it appears that - for our panellists, at least - they serve a number of practical purposes, both for recruiting and developing employees. For this reason, supporting staff in working towards certification can reap significant benefits for those organisations who are willing to invest.
However, while qualifications can offer a range of benefits, our panellists were also united in the view that certifications are by no means a necessity. They’re a good way to reinforce real-world experience and skills, rather than a replacement for them, and should be approached at one’s own pace.
“Personal development is a journey, so no need to rush through everything early,” says York. “Experience is so important as well, and may bias the next steps. I'd plan for training and certification around where you are now and the next step you want to take. Also, take time to visit colleagues, and network to see what you don't know. Sometimes you're not aware of the certifications that are available.”
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