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Developer certifications: If you can code, do you really need them?

Dave Fecak Principal, Fecak Inc.

As the millions of certified developers and thousands of available certifications have continued to grow over the years, the debate over whether or not those certifications have any real value for job seekers has intensified. Of course the certifying bodies and vendors market their products with claims that a "certified" technologist has some implied advantage over other candidates during a job search, but those involved in the business of hiring developers often have a different opinion.

One rather widespread belief is that developers who advertise their multiple certifications are actually less desirable for hire. Yes, you read that correctly.

This position is both counterintuitive and perhaps troubling for many, since showing a passing grade on a certification test provides evidence for at least some level of skill in that area. The explanation behind the stigma commonly associated with certifications today is rather complex and likely related to the culture and psyche of the tech community (favoring meritocracy over credentialism), the tests themselves, and the assumed professional traits of experienced developers who would choose testing as a means of gaining industry respect.

The rise of the certifiers

When the dot-com boom of the 1990s exponentially increased demand for technologists virtually overnight, accelerated training programs were established and marketed as an efficient alternative to a college degree for busy professionals. Many of these programs offered a certificate upon completion, and these certificates were typically affiliated with a vendor technology.

The training programs proved to be a massive financial success, and companies such as Brainbench recognized the opportunity to offer both new industry entrants and experienced professionals a certificate via testing without the training.

The number of certifying bodies and individual tests continued to grow, and it was not uncommon to see developer résumés showcasing laundry lists of acronyms and identification numbers that indicated their testing accomplishments. Technology vendors such as Microsoft, Sun, Oracle, and IBM got into the mix with their own cash-cow certificate programs, and a hierarchy of certifiers began to take shape among various language and product camps. 

Initial reactions

In the early days, certifications garnered significant credibility and acceptance among developers and hiring authorities alike. Many companies listed specific certifications as a nice-to-have on job specs, while others actually required testing as a condition of employment.

Developers naturally began to feel some pressure, as their marketability was increasingly being tied to their test-taking ability instead of coding. Admissions of failed certification attempts became harmful, while certifying bodies raised the bar by adding required wait times to retake a test after any failure.

With more and more certified developers entering the market, it was soon revealed that a certification was no guarantee of ability. This realization often (thankfully) came during technical interviews, where applicants holding multiple certifications were unable to complete even the most basic programming tasks. In more unfortunate circumstances, some companies that hired contractors sans interview using certifications as their only filter and vetting method now had unskilled developers on their payrolls. 

Certification backlash

Anecdotes and horror stories about highly certified developers performing poorly in real-world situations spread, and a vast number of employers removed certifications from candidate assessments and hiring criteria. Over time, the thought that a certification wasn't a reliable indicator for talent morphed into the idea that a listed certification might actually indicate a lack of ability.

This sentiment is evidenced by comments from multiple industry thought leaders on threads at Hacker News and Quora. One commenter on a Stack Exchange thread summed up many developers' opinions succinctly:

"There's definitely the attitude that if you need a certificate, then you can't really program, and if you actually can program then you don't waste your time on certificates."

As quickly as certifications had come into favor, the acronyms became scarlet letters on résumés that identified the holder as someone who'd been suckered into wasting time and money on a mostly worthless item. The true value of a certification lies solely in the process of studying for the exam itself. 

In my experience, it's now become a common suggestion for job seekers to omit any mention of earned certifications from résumés. It may be difficult to fathom, but given two virtually identical résumés—with only one having certifications—many hiring managers would rate the candidate without the certs as more desirable.

Junior-level developers are often given a pass when it comes to listing certifications, since they often have to rely on any possible accreditation to get noticed by employers. I often see certifications disappear from résumés as experience increases.

Maker culture: Why study when you can code?

The rising popularity of certifications was closely followed by ubiquitous access to inexpensive, user-friendly development tools. In the late '90s, certification as a means to demonstrate ability made more sense than it does today due to the limitations of the times. Frankly, certification was more convenient.

Modern developers have more options when it comes to building their brands and investing time and money in career development. If today's Java developer wants to show her expertise, she can get a working application up and running at no cost, and perhaps in a fraction of the time she might have spent studying for the certification test. 

Brainbench advertises 10 million members, and vendors such as Oracle, Microsoft, and IBM have awarded millions of certifications since their programs came about, making it clear that certification has historically been a popular option. However, the industry reputation of certifications and those who flaunt them has changed significantly over time, and the trend won't reverse without a sea change in the certification requirements themselves.

The most capable developers are much more likely to forgo certification as a credibility tool than they were years ago. Instead, they'll be using that potential study time to write code.

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