Pros and Cons of Product Certifications

There was a time when professional engineering certification meant something.  Every state in the United States has long had education and experience requirements for being licensed as a Professional Engineer, or PE, and the holders of that license were generally accorded a higher salary and more professional respect.  The PE license typically requires an ABET-accredited degree, several years of experience, and a passing score on two day-long exams administered by the state.

Over the last decade, however, certifications have proliferated beyond government-run standards to many different types of vendor-specific technologies.  Software certifications are perhaps best-known, because the skills and accompanying exam tends to be performed by third parties and promoted widely.  In this category, Novell’s Certified NetWare Engineer and Certified NetWare Administrator were among the first, but Microsoft’s MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) and its derivatives are perhaps the best-known and most pervasive.

Software vendors aren’t alone in the rush to certification.  It’s possible to acquire certification in Sun Microsystems servers and Cisco routers and switches, among others.  Microprocessor vendors are beginning to provide courses and certifications in applying and programming their chips.  Certifications ranging from RTOS internals to logic design are coming onto the market.

The common ground among virtually all of these certifications is that they involve the implementation, rather than the development, of technology.

This type of certification serves many useful functions.  For the vendor, it’s a way of ensuring that customer implementations are done correctly and reasonably consistently.  A small investment in time and money for certification can pay large dividends for both the vendor and the customer in a correct and standard implementation.

And, or course, certification of independent engineers provides a highly skilled and aggressive sales force for that vendor’s wares.  For example, at its height, Novell claimed over 60,000 Certified NetWare Engineers (CNEs).  Many of these CNEs were self-employed, or worked for systems integrators, and consistently recommended a Novell solution to their customers.  In that way, Novell improved sales of its products because it provided a valuable service for those who implemented them.

From an industry point of view, vendor certification provides a measurable measure of accomplishment and ability that college degree programs in engineering and computer science no longer convey.  In many cases, companies take new college graduates, and spend months or even years training them in the practical aspects of engineering.  Companies may also have to update the skills of new graduates; many engineering fields move so quickly that university curricula rapidly get out of date.

And for the engineer, it could provide a quick method for a new graduate, or even someone without formal engineering education, to gain a toehold in an industry that badly needs more capable and proven people.  With no degree and no documented skills, it’s difficult for an entry-level person to show what they are capable of.  For this type of person, a vendor-specific certification can open doors that might otherwise stay closed.

For mid-career engineers, vendor-specific certification is a way to obtain current skills that may be of greater value to an employer.  An engineering degree from the 1970s, twenty years of solid engineering jobs, and a new certification in programming Texas Instruments’ DSPs demonstrate a compelling mix of both experience and the willingness to learn new technologies.

All Gain, No Pain?

But as a career alternative, pursuing certifications is a Hobson’s choice.  Vendor-oriented certification tends to focus on how to implement that vendor’s technology, rather than providing any sort of context around the technology.  That may pay off in the short run, where a vendor-certified engineer may ride a hot product to a superb new job.

But over the course of a career, it could be far more damaging than helpful.  Hot products and vendors that produce them tend to decline over time, and the career of an engineer counting on product-specific expertise may decline in unison.  That’s exactly what happened to Novell CNEs in the mid-1990s; when NetWare ceased to be the universal standard in networking, many of those trained exclusively in that technology saw their careers grind to a halt.

It gets worse.  Those trained only in a vendor-specific may be less capable of evaluating alternative approaches to a problem.  An engineer with Cisco-specific implementation training would understandably be reluctant to recommend a competitor’s switching model, even when there are clear technical merits in the alternative.

This does both the engineer and the employer a large disservice.  The engineer fails in the task of engineering, which includes not only making a given solution work, but in also analyzing the value of the solution to begin with.  The employer loses the benefit of that analysis, and in doing so, perhaps implements an improper or at best sub-optimal solution.

This is one place where an old-fashioned college education, despite the time and money required, still has a significant advantage over the fast and focused vendor certification.  Even today, when college computing labs and individual courses are encouraged and even sponsored by commercial vendors, there’s usually little focus on doing things the way the vendor specifies.  Instead, the technology is a learning tool used to explore broader technical concepts.

That’s not to say that a college education is an absolute requirement for career success in engineering.  But college is a venue that attempts to answer the question “why” rather than “how.”  The how of a technology changes rapidly and sometimes drastically.  Why, on the other hand, remains largely bound by the natural laws of physics and engineering, and changes less rapidly.

That’s why (no pun intended) we tend to complete our college experience early in our careers, with brief exceptions for graduate degrees or to learn newly-developed techniques.  Once we have mastered the basic principles of science and engineering, as well as a few generic techniques, we’ve established a right to be in the engineering profession.

But we’re not yet trained, which is why we’re pretty much useless right out of college.  Employers want us to be able to answer the question ‘how.’  The ‘why’ is implicit; something that we’re already expected to know, so we can respond to a subsequent ‘how.”  We can either figure out how to work with a specific product or technology, or we can get a certification in it.

But the ‘why’ is part of our lifelong career baggage.  We can learn how to do something without necessarily understanding it.  But understanding it makes it possible to adapt to new and different situations.  A vendor-specific certification program trains to a single set of technologies.  It’s useful in the immediate sense, but less so in the broader context.  In short, training through certification addresses an immediate symptom, while education gets to the root cause.

Where Certification Fits In

None of this is meant to disparage vendor-specific certifications as one component of a career plan.  Over the short term, certification in a vendor’s hot product line could mean a substantial increase in salary and responsibility.  They may also add new skills to an already-established career.  But this advantage lasts a few years, at best.

What vendor-specific certifications are not are short cuts to a high-paying, long-lasting career.  And even if a certification may open the door to new and challenging work, it doesn’t automatically enable you to perform that work.  You still have to deliver the goods, day in and day out, often doing tasks that bear little relation to the subject of the certification.

Given all of this, where do vendor-specific certifications fit into an engineer’s career?  They are not a foundation upon which to build a career; they are too brittle, and highly dependent upon the whims of the market and of a specific vendor.  Anyone who summarizes their total expertise as being a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer, for example, risks that expertise in performing any task that isn’t related to the MCSE training subject matter.

For most, the formal engineering education, obtained at a college or university, remains the foundation of a career.  With a sufficiently broad and comprehensive education, an engineer should be able to integrate virtually any new product or technique into their skill set.

But a college education rarely teaches an engineer how to perform a specific task, with a specific commercial product.  The tasks we accomplish during college labs are typically trivial and artificial.  They’re nothing like the complex assignments we take on as working engineers.  The tasks that are most difficult usually revolve around a vendor’s hot new product.  An engineer has two choices at this point – he can figure it out himself, or he can take a (usually vendor-sponsored) workshop or short course on the topic.  If offered, a certification in that product may be a logical next step.

So it’s not so difficult to balance the goals of a formal education with a quick certification.  Be well educated.  Understand your professional and the broad technical concepts and limits.  Find the important technologies and products in the area that interests you most.  They’ll change from year to year, both because of market forces and your own personal interests.

Use your interests and new engineering projects as opportunities to pick up new product-oriented skills.  If the vendor offers a certification, and there seems to be a career advantage for you, consider taking the certification.  Insofar as it helps you succeed in a current or future job, so much the better.  But within a few years at most, it will be replaced by a new hot vendor and product.  Be prepared to jettison the old certification, and fall back on your engineering education and experience until you get up to speed on new products.

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