At what point in your career do you stop working towards new certifications?

Daniel Dibb’s recent post on his blog is, I think, an excellent starting point, but I wanted to add a few additional thoughts to the answer he gives there.

Daniel’s first question is how do you learn? Certifications often represent a body of knowledge people who have a lot of experience believe is important, so they often represent a good guided path to holistically approaching a new body of knowledge. In the professional learning world this would be called a ready-made mental map. There is a counterargument here—certifications are often created by vendors as a marketing tool, rather than as something purely designed for the betterment of the community, or the dissemination of knowledge. This doesn’t mean, however, that certifications are “evil.” It just means you need to evaluate each certification on its own merits.

As an aside, I’ve been trying to start a non-vendor-specific certification for the last two years but have been struggling to find a group of people with the energy and excitement required to make it happen. To some degree, the reason certifications are vendor-based is because we, as a community, don’t do a good job at building them.

The second series of questions relate to your position—would a certification give you a bonus, help you get a new position, or give credibility to the company you work for? These are all valid questions requiring self-reflection around what you hope to achieve materially by working through the certification.

The final set of questions Daniel poses relate to whether a certification would give you what might be called authority in the network engineering world. Certifications, seen in this way, are a form of transitive trust. There are two components here—the certification blueprint tells you about the body of knowledge, and the certifying authority tells you about the credibility of the process. Given these two things, someone with a certification is saying “someone you trust has said I have this knowledge, so you should trust I have this knowledge as well.” The certification acts as a transit between you and the certified person, transferring some amount of your trust in the certifying organization to the person you are talking to.

There are other ways to build this kind of trust, of course. For instance, if you blog, or run a podcast, or are a frequent guest contributor, or have a lot of code on git, or have written some books, etc. In these cases, the trust is no longer transitive but direct—you can see a person has a body of knowledge because they have (at least to some degree) exposed that knowledge publicly.

All of these reasons are fine and good—but I think there is another point to think about in this discussion: what are you saying to the community? Once you stop “doing” certifications, you can be saying one of two things. The first is certifications are useless. If all the reasons for getting a certification above are true, then telling someone “certifications are useless” is not a good thing. Those who don’t care about certifications should rather take the position first, do no harm.

A stronger position would be to carefully evaluate existing certifications and help guide folks desiring a certification down a good path rather than a bad one. Which certifications are primarily vendor marketing programs? Which are technically sound? If you are at the point where you are no longer going to pursue certifications, these are questions you should be able to answer.

An even stronger position would be—if you’re at the point where you do not think you need to be certified, where you have a “body of knowledge” that allows people to directly trust your work, then perhaps you should also be at a point where you are helping guide the development of certifications in some way.

Certifications—whether to get them or not, and when to stop caring about them—are rather more nuanced than many in the networking world make out. There are valid reasons for, and valid reasons against—and in general, I think we need to do better a developing and policing certifications in order to build a stronger community.

2 Comments

  1. Mike B on 4 May 2020 at 2:40 pm

    Great write-up! I’m in the “structured learning” camp for the most part. I do think you both forgot about (or intentionally left out) one important piece. HR filters. A lot of us continue to pursue certs because a lot of jobs “soft require” them. If you don’t have it, you’re not considered. I think at some point that requirement goes away, maybe say with 10 or 15 years experience. There’s the three legs of the Networking Stool. Experience (generally in years), Certifications, Degree. You need two of the three, especially earlier on in your career.

    Something else worth looking at: “There are other ways to build this kind of trust, of course. For instance, if you blog, or run a podcast, or are a frequent guest contributor, or have a lot of code on git, or have written some books, etc.” Aside from posting code on git, that’s a relatively small subset of folks in the industry. I could spin up a blog but nobody would read it. You (and other prominent “personalities”) are some of the few out there that might get recognized by name because of your blog/podcast presence. But again, if I asked my last three managers who Russ White was I don’t think they would know. And I don’t mean that as a slight at all, I respect you and what you do quite a bit. It’s just that the majority of network professionals don’t keep up on things like podcasts and blogs. It’s actually pretty unfortunate because they’re missing out on a ton of great content that you and others put out.

    Anyway, good topic! Hopefully it generates a bit more conversation.



  2. Rob M on 7 May 2020 at 2:14 pm

    Good points. At the end it sounds a bit like you are trying to guilt someone into helping with the open certification program 🙂