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Success is relative. It is what we can make of the mess we have made of things. - T. S. Eliot
Certifications Alone Do Not Make the Pro

Written by
Mitchell D. Garvis
September 5, 2007

An interesting post appeared in a newsgroup that I monitor today. A desktop support technician in the United Kingdom lamented a colleague who had attended a two week MCSE boot camp and indeed earned that certification. Unfortunately he later encountered a number of simple issues that he could not resolve, including one with regard to network connectivity; it seemed he tried everything he could think of but never checked that the network cable was tightly connected. She of course had a good laugh at his expense (well deserved) and commented that at last we see the true value of certifications. She very quickly (and to my knowledge unbidden) clarified that she meant that her boss would see that certifications alone would never make an IT professional valuable.

She is right of course. Every Microsoft Official Curriculum course lists prerequisites for taking the course. For 2151 (Microsoft Windows 2000 Network and Operating System Essentials) it lists:

  • Proficiency using the Microsoft Windows interface to configure the desktop environment and to locate, create, and manipulate folders and files;

  • General knowledge of computer hardware components, including memory, hard disks, and CPUs; and

  • General knowledge of networking concepts, including network operating system, client/server relationship, and local area network (LAN).

In turn, course 2151 was a prerequisite for all subsequent courses. In other words, Microsoft Learning expects you to know these concepts, and will not teach them to you.

Let me repeat that last phrase for those who want to blame Microsoft Learning for the shortcomings of some MCSEs: There are basic computing and networking concepts that they expect you to know as prerequisites, and will not teach you.

This is one of the reasons that boot camps tend to make me nervous. If you have someone with strong computer skills, a background in troubleshooting, or even someone who has passed CompTias A+ and Network+ certifications, and you send them to an MCSE boot camp, chances are they will come out a more knowledgeable IT Professional. On the other hand, if you were to send a relatively intelligent person who picks up information and concepts quickly and can cram a lot of information into their consciousness over a relatively short period of time they will probably be able to pass the exams required to obtain the MCSE certification... but that will not necessarily make them an IT Pro.

There is a conundrum in the IT industry; you need to have experience, knowledge, and certifications to get many of the good jobs. The knowledge you can get from books, the certifications you can get once you have that knowledge by passing a number of exams, but the experience you will only get from working in the field. That is why companies cannot rely solely on a professional's MCP Transcript, they also require a CV and a series of interviews. This often frustrates people who ask me why it is that even with their shiny new certifications they cannot find work. When I explain the situation to them they get even more frustrated and ask how they can get experience if nobody will hire them?

My advice to these people is usually very simple:

  1. Volunteer. There are community organizations all over the world with computers that are not being managed, and would be grateful to have an MCSE (MCSA, MCDST) working for them on a part-time basis if it would not cost them anything. Many people list day to day tasks on their CVs, but projects are what HR people in the know are looking for. 'I implemented a domain-based network for Charity A in my neighbourhood; I migrated fifteen disjoint PCs into an Active Directory network with centralized management and monitoring; I instructed volunteers on the day-to-day tasks required of them. Going forward I am responsible for the monitoring, management, and maintenance of the computer centre while working with the on-site volunteers to give them a better understanding of the implemented infrastructure.'

    The project I just described might be a one week or one month project, depending on the systems and what goes wrong during the process. Dont worry about that, you will learn from it. In an interview someone looking at this curriculum vitae and ask if that was a paid position or a volunteer job; answer them honestly, say you spent the time learning, you passed the required tests, and acquiring the necessary certifications. You understand that this is not enough for the interviewer to hire you so you went out and found a charity that needed you so that you could gain the experience to be truly valuable to his organization. Rather than seeing this as a ploy, most interviewers will commend you for your honesty as well as for your industriousness.

    I am willing to wager that sometime soon the sample projects I listed above will find their way verbatim onto someone's CV. If that CV ends up on my desk you can be sure I will be checking the reference!

  2. Accept an internship. Depending on the company it could either be low or no pay, but if you are willing to work for a company to prove yourself then one of two things will happen:

    1. You will prove your worth to them and they will hire you into a proper position; or

    2. You will have earned experience and a reference that can be added to your CV so that the next company will see that you have done something.

  3. Be prepared to accept a position that is a rung or two lower than you had hoped for. The truth is that if you went out and paid for either a boot camp or a series of certification courses you probably read somewhere or heard from someone (often the sales person who sold you the courses) that upon earning your certifications you will instantly be ready to take on the position of senior network administrator for Large Corporation B which commands a salary of Two Hundred and Seventy-Five Thousand Dollars. I am reminded of an anecdote where a graduate fresh out of MIT Engineering is interviewing for a job and he says 'I am looking for a starting salary of $300,000, a company car, and four weeks vacation per year.' The interviewer answers 'Well we do have an opening for Senior Project Manager; the starting salary is $360,000, it comes with a corporate condo downtown, a company limo, and six weeks paid vacation when you can use our corporate facilities in Bermuda, Vail, or the French Riviera.' The graduate is stunned and says 'You're kidding me!' to which the interviewer replies: 'Yes I am, but only because you started it.'

    We would all like to start at the top, but it is not realistic. Most companies interviewing for senior IT staff will require degrees, certifications, and five (or more) years experience. How do you get to the level where you can demand your own terms? Spend a few years gaining the experience; while you are doing that revisit point 1. Never stop studying. Take on projects that your bosses will look back on and realize your worth when it comes time to review you, or alternately will look appealing to the interviewer who reads it on your CV a couple of years down the road.

Over the past few years I have been a very vocal proponent of the value of certifications. I have worked and continue to work closely with Microsoft Learning to increase the value and to protect the integrity of the certification program. I honestly feel that certifications are an important aspect of an IT Professionals growth. I do not, on the other hand, feel that certifications alone are proof of knowledge or ability. I would never hire anyone based solely on certifications, and would not hire someone without proof of a firm knowledge of how things work in the real world. On the flipside of the same coin I would probably not hire an IT professional with the real world knowledge but who lacked the certifications.

I have said before and will say it again: Certifications are not proof of knowledge. They are a demonstration that someone has the respect for his or her profession to pursue not only the knowledge but the credentials which attest that they are not simply computer guys, but IT Professionals.
Mitchell D. Garvis, MCT
Microsoft MVP: Windows Server - Customer Experience
Click HERE to visit my blog.
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