Rehashing Certifications

While at Cisco Live in Barcelona this week, I had a chat with someone—I don’t remember who—about certifications. The main point that came out of the conversation was this:

One of the big dangers with chasing a certification is you will end up chasing knowledge about using a particular vendor feature set, rather than chasing knowledge about a technology.

At some point I’m going to edit a post a video short on engineering versus meta-engineering (no, it won’t be next week), but the danger is real. For instance, in an article I’ve had in my bookmarks pile for a long while, the author says—

My boss advised me that getting my WPCE (WordPerfect Certified Resource) cert would accomplish two things: 1. It would establish my credibility as a trainer; and 2. If I didn’t know a feature before the test, I sure as heck would afterward.

I’m not going to name the author, because this is his description of thinking through a certification many years ago, rather than his current thinking on certifications—but the example is telling. I know a lot of folks studying for certifications. They mostly spend their time labbing up various protocols and… features. The temptation to focus on features is real because—

  • The test is going to test you on features
  • Learning the features is the fastest way to pass the test

This might sound like a replication, but many certification tests place the candidate on a very tight time leash, which means fast is important. When fast is important, you don’t have time to look up features, or study your options.

So what should we do about all of this?

First, not much can be done. I don’t really know how you write a certification that does not allow someone who has memorized the feature guide to do well. How do you test for protocol theory, and still have a broad enough set of test questions that they cannot be photographed and distributed? The problems here are not as simple as they first seem. The CCDE, I think, comes as close as any test I’ve been involved in to testing theory and concepts, rather than features.

Second, this is why I argue you should get a few certifications, and then go get a college degree. The degree might teach you things you don’t ever think you will need—but this fails to understand the point of a degree. Degree programs should not be designed like a vocational school. They should not be about learning the latest language, but rather about writing skills, thinking skills, and programming skills (in general). A good argument can still be made for a Masters Degree in Computer Science.

Finally, you will get out of certifications what you put into them. If you focus on the features, then you are going to learn the features just fine. If you do this, though, each time a new box comes out your certification will lose a little more value.

Certifications are good, when used right. They can also be “bad,” when used poorly. It’s worth thinking about.


  1. Daren Fulwell on 2 February 2018 at 8:16 am

    All good points and *exactly* the reason I did the CCDE. It’s all about an approach. Yes, you need to understand which technologies you’d choose for which requirement and more importantly which ones you wouldn’t. So you still have the issue of keeping up with new technologies (note, not features of a specific vendor’s product). But the DE teaches you to approach those decisions with a pragmatic mindset – understanding what you don’t need as much as what you do, and most importantly what works to meet the customer requirement.

    Thinking about that Masters degree now 😉

  2. pat on 2 February 2018 at 8:25 am

    “not much can be done. I don’t really know how you write a certification that does not allow someone who has memorized the feature guide to do well”

    I would prefer if test creators would more focus on people that are trying to pass the exam honest way because it seems to me that with every update there are two group of changes:
    1) add/remove new/old technology
    2) make it hard to pass for people who cheat but don’t care if it brings any value for people who are actually trying to pass exam by stydying

    I know it’s easier said than done but it’s worth an effort…