Why certifications make me grouchy

While I support certifications, they also make me grouchy. Sometimes they make me really, really, grouchy, in fact — probably more grouchy than I have a right to be. You’ve probably heard the complaints a number of times.

For instance, there’s the problem of paper tigers, people who gain the certification but don’t have any real experience with the technology, or don’t really understand the technology. Paper tigers are bad, of course, but they’re generally easy to detect through a rigorous interview. In fact, paper tigers exist without the certification; it’s entirely possible for a solid resume to lead to a candidate that doesn’t have the skills advertised. Degree’s don’t really prove much, either, and it takes four years to get one of those (in theory), so I don’t know how much whining about this problem — as real as it is — is going to help.

Tony Li had a counter to this — he used to sit with a candidate’s resume in hand asking questions, and lining through skills he didn’t think the candidate actually had. At the end of the interview, he would hand the resume back to the candidate and say, essentially, “there, I fixed it for you.”

Then there’s the mismatch between skill set and the real world we often hear about — CCIE’s who can’t explain how traceroute works, and JCIE’s who don’t know UDP from TCP. This problem is very real, as well — but I often suspect the problem is overblown in multiple directions. First, we engineers tend to find knowledge about something we happen to be working on right now more credible than knowledge about other things. If we’re in a position to use traceroute a lot, we think it’s pretty impressive the candidate knows traceroute. We might not be so impressed with a wide knowledge of storage systems, for instance, because that’s not particularly interesting to us right this second. Second, I tend to think too many engineers see the interview process as a competition, rather than as an interview.

Or maybe we should discuss cheating, or the fact that certifications qualify to a minimum level, rather than a maximum level (What do they call the person who graduates at the bottom of the medical school class? Doctor!).

There are very real problems here — but can we solve them? We can’t stop people from cheating; the test that can’t either be cheated or socially engineered hasn’t been invented yet (if you invent it, patent it — because you’ve just invented perfect security). We can’t stop people who don’t have a clue about the actual technology, but do have a really good natural memory, from taking the test ’til they pass. Should we ignore certifications, then? Should we abandon college, as well? What about all the rest of the training in the world — is it all useless because every training system in the world can be cheated in one way or another? To ask the question is to answer it, isn’t it?

While these problems often make me grouchy, I’ve been around enough to know there’s no way I can “solve” any of these problems perfectly. Mary Poppins I’m not.

But there’s another reason certifications often make me grouchy — and this is something I think we could do better at solving (even if we can’t make it perfect). To understand this reason, read back through my post on the pie problem from last week. Go ahead, I’ll wait ’til you’re done. Promise. I won’t even peek at your screen while you’re gone.

What mostly makes me grouchy about certifications is the pie problem. There was a time when certifications were loosely held by the companies that created and maintained them — when they were treated as an way to grow the industry rather than as a marketing program. My experience in recent years has, far too often, been the opposite. Vendors have gone down the path of pushing certifications that are designed to drive product sales, rather than to drive the industry at large. It seems, to me, that this is because over the years the ratios have changed; it’s easier to steal customers from your competitor than it is to build new customers.

This seems to me to be a bad thing. It’s a bad thing because we’ve gotten so big, as an industry, that we somehow think the world can’t live without us. We’ve become convinced that things will always be the way they are today, so we can stop focusing on building new engineers, and instead focus on convincing existing engineers that my product is better than yours. We’ve become convinced that we can’t work together to build the industry while also competing in front of the customer.

This isn’t just a problem with certifications, of course — it’s also a problem in the IETF, at conferences, and just about everywhere else you look. Our industry is breaking into small vendor centric camps, pulling apart in dozens of different directions, often ignoring the larger problems in order to make some magical growth number. But it sometimes feels like we’re asking for growth without the seeds, or we’re trying to build a huge building on the slimmest foundation possible.

Individual engineers who really understand the technology are the foundation we need to be building, the seeds we need to be planting. By driving product through certifications, we’re actually making the industry smaller — maybe in bits so small it’s not apparent right here and right now. But dig enough and the foundation can crumble.

There’s no reason IP can’t become the next old line legacy TELCO switch, or COBOL, or BASIC. There is always RIP in the future as well as the past. This is a lesson we would do well to remember — certifications, like all the other larger efforts in the networking world, need to curated by vendors rather than owned by them. Certifications need to be a path to understanding technology rather than a path to push product.

It may be that I’m preaching to the choir, or that I’m talking to the dummy here, but this is what really makes me grouchy about certifications.


  1. mfaisalk on 10 July 2015 at 8:21 am

    I agree with you ! But dont you feel that over time, CCIE lab is repeated over and over so candidates know what to expect and how to pass the exam. Wouldnt it make sense for Cisco to make the exam more unpredictable by changing the lab patterns often in order that paper tigers cannot predict and do not pass the exams….


    • Russ on 10 July 2015 at 11:25 am

      Cisco has been working on this for years — in fact, it was a major reason for the effort to virtualize the lab. The one downside to having a lot of different labs is the certification must be defensible. If a failing candidate takes the company to court, the certification producer must be able to show why the candidate failed. This is a lot harder with a lot of different lab scenarios if for no other reason than it’s hard to show statistically the questions are fair, reasonable, and correctly predict a certain level of knowledge.

      Hence, on the writing side, building a certification is a set of balancing acts. There’s no perfect answer.

      • mfaisalk on 10 July 2015 at 12:41 pm

        Thanks Russ, for clarifying, I was not aware of the lawsuit side of the thing.

  2. Vignesh on 11 July 2015 at 6:29 am

    Thank you for the post, sir. Its great. I always believed fundamentals as i came from a university system. I had to read that Kurose-Rose book about networking and the RFC papers instead of reading what authors wrote and taking it blindly. Sadly in the real world, HR from some companies reflect expertise from certification, and everyone comes into the field assuming that a certification carries through. Overall, i love this article!