In episode 64 we interviewed Patrick Thomas, the program manager for the MCP program which includes certifications.  There continues to be quite a bit of discussion around certifications, so it only makes sense that we give our take on the matter.  Both Steve and I are certified, so this may give away some of our thoughts.

Certification is a tricky thing.  Much of the value you get out of a certification is dependent on where you on in your career and what your next step is going to be.  This is going to be different for every person, so this decision is one that only you can make.  This can make a decision on which certification to get and even when to get it a challenge.

Our conversation really revolves around what a certification will get you and what it won’t help you with.  Do you agree with our list? Leave your comments below.

Here is our list of Pros and Challenges with certifications

Pros
  1. Measure your skills
  2. Foot in the door
  3. Exposure
  4. Confidence

Challenges

  1. May not really measure your skills
  2. Not the only way to show skills
  3. Lots of prep work, with little way to gauge your progress
  4. Lateral Help
  5. Text Anxiety

Episode Quotes

“Having those certifications listed on your résumé may make you stand out as a little bit better.”

“It gives you exposure to more stuff that you may not have thought about trying in the past.”

“There are just a lot of features to know, and then try to create a test that can cover all of that is just daunting task.”

“The blogging… or the speaking at SQL Saturdays allowing you to create that portfolio, certifications are no longer the only way to do that.”

Listen to Learn

00:28   Introduction of the topic: to certify or not to certify
01:41   Companero shout outs
03:28   Updates about the upcoming Companero Conference
04:20   A little teaser of who will be next episode’s speaker
05:39   Show notes links
05:56   The pros of certification
06:10   Pro #1: Giving you an opportunity to measure your skills
08:30   Pro #2: Getting your foot on the door
10:51   Pro #3: Giving confidence to the technology workers and the employers
11:45   Pro #4: Exposure
12:28   The challenges of certification
12:37   Challenge #1: It may not help you measure your skills
13:48   Challenge #2: Your exam exposure and the employers expected exposure may differ
15:53   Challenge #3: Creating a test for too many features will be a very daunting task
18:53   Challenge #4: It’s not the only way to show your skills
22:18   challenge #5: There is a lot of prep work required that is very time consuming
26:16   Challenge #6: Lateral help
27:08   Challenge #7: Test anxiety

Transcription: IT Certifications

Carlos: Hello companeros! Welcome back to Episode 109. It’s good to be with you again.

Steve: Yup, it’s good to be here. This week’s topic is to certify or not to certify.

Carlos: Yes, as we get back in here to the studio, Steve and I are chatting today. We kind of came with this topic. We’ve talked a bit about certification in the past but we thought we would explore this idea a little bit and kind of talk about some pros and cons of why you may or may not want to certify.

Steve: Yeah, I think what’s interesting with this is there are a lot of pros and a lot of cons and a lot of varying opinions out there depending on who you talked to.

Carlos: Sure, sure and maybe we’re going to squash some of this conversation but the reality is that you got to have them. I mean I have passed certification exams, you’ve passed certification exams. You know, we might gripe about them a bit.  Our conversation is not going to, I maybe used the wrong phrase there earlier, maybe not why you wouldn’t certify but maybe some of the challenges you will face around certification, that’s probably a better model there. I don’t think there is too many people out there saying, “Oh, don’t do that.”

Steve: Right, but before we get into the details there. Do we have any companero shout outs to mention this week?

Carlos: Yes, we do have a couple of companero shout outs, one coming from New York, so Alexander [name unclear – 1:53]. Sorry Alexander. I apologize. I should have practice that before we went on. But you know who you are, so Alexander is a long time listener. Got us after a little bit or he reached out to us when we had that little pause and encouraged us to get back on the air and to keep going, and so we appreciate that.

Steve:        That pause by the way was our summer vacation. It wasn’t like us giving up on it or anything.

Carlos: Yes, that’s true.

Steve: We also had a shout out from Aaron Hayes, and he just wanted to reach out and say that he appreciates our time for the podcast and he always listens to it on his commute and it keeps him up to date with some of the latest stuff in SQL Server. Thanks Aaron we appreciate that and Alexander.

Carlos: Yeah, we actually appreciate all those comments. Steve and I were talking before we started here. You know, we push this out into the internet, we laugh and we joke and we have a good time with it and then all we kind of see is download numbers. And so it’s nice to get just a little comment even if it’s that. We hopefully could sometimes engage in longer conversations but just to have people let us know that they are listening we appreciate it.

Steve: It’s definitely good. We don’t always know from those download numbers whether people are enjoying it or whether they are just thinking we’re crazy or what.

Carlos: Yeah, that’s right. Hey, check out what Carlos and Steve said in this, you’re never going to believe it. Oh boy! And we should note, so Aaron is actually going to join us at the Companero Conference.

Steve: Oh, speaking of which, what’s happening with that now?

Carlos:    It is coming up, and companeros you have two weeks left to register. So next episode comes out, that would be the 13th, September 27th is out cut off day for registration to just allow us to get ready. Yeah, so we hope to see you there. If you haven’t checked out the website – companeroconference.com, we will be down in Norfolk. If you are a regular listener to the podcast I think we’ve gone through the idea, we have a great lineup of speakers, we’re going to be doing peer conference. We have structured and unstructured time. We’re going to be going out on a cruise and so we think we have put together something that’s compelling and hope you’ll join us.

Steve: Alright, and this week it’s just you and I on the episode, Carlos. But next week who do we have that will be joining us?

Carlos: So next week I’m looking forward to Richard Cambell, so the Richard Cambell from the .NET Rocks podcast. Probably you’re familiar with them. He’s been in lots of different areas. You see him a lot on the Channel 9 as well. They are involved with the SQL Intersection or Dev Intersection Conference, and so he’s kind of all over the place. We had a user or a listener requested idea for building trust on teams and so I thought, hey let’s reach out to a non DBA, a developer type, and kind of get their take. I had a conversation, it was fascinating.

Steve: Yup, and I think that’s an episode that we’ve already recorded but it will be coming a week from now. I had a good time with that. It was interesting because he is probably the person that was on the episode who has had more podcast and experience than anyone we’ve had on any episode.

Carlos: Oh, no question.

Steve:  Because he’s done I think something like over 2000 podcast episodes.

Carlos: That’s right. In fact, we claimed that that episode was his 2000th episode. We claim that number. Yeah, that’s a lot of podcast. So for this episode on certification, if you want to get to the show notes, the show notes for today’s episode is sqldatapartners.com/certification.

Steve: Or sqldatapartners.com/109 for the episode number.

Carlos: Yeah, so I guess let’s go ahead and jump into that conversation, right. So we have this idea of to certify or some challenges that you face in certification. So let’s go ahead and start with the pros. Number one, certification is giving you an opportunity to measure your skills.

Steve: Yeah, it’s interesting because looking at that it’s one of those that even just preparing for it you can go through and see these are the things, the topics that maybe included on the exam. And you can go through and figure out, “Ok, where I am strong and where I am weak. What areas do I need to improve on?” It’s sort of a good way to build out your experience or build out your knowledge so that you’re a little bit more rounded on that specific certification.

Carlos: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, certainly you’re getting a broad exposure to all of the features and technologies that are in the database. Most of the time they could get sold in a book, you could take a peek there. I think some of the prep tools are getting a bit better to give you a better chance to get your hands on some of those things before kind of putting them in your environment.

Steve: I think an example of that for me was several years ago when I took the 70-461 exam. And I went through the prep material ahead of time, the whole XML in the database was a piece that I hadn’t done anything with at that point in time. But after doing the prep work I realized, wow there is a lot you can do there. Now, I’ve done a little bit with it since then but it’s not one of those things that I would have necessarily just stumbled across in my day to day work.

Carlos: Exactly. I think that kind of goes back to this idea, again we’ve talked a lot about on this program is sort of marriage of the technology and the business requirements, and that is as you begin to become more familiar what your business is looking for, the problems that they have, right. How can the technology help solve some of those problems? I think is you are able to combine those two then you have a very successful, you have a very interesting package there. You can be very successful as you begin to connect those dots.

Steve: Yup, yes indeed.

Carlos: So Pro #2 is getting your foot in the door.

Steve: Right, so what exactly do you mean by that?

Carlos: Yes, so I think a lot of times, and I knew this is the case for me particularly when you’re new, having the certification allows you to be able to say, “Well, hey, I’ve passed an exam. I kind of know what I’m talking about.” And so as you look for employment it just seems like particularly in the DBA space, the data platform space certifications are important to employers.

Steve: Yup, and I think that seems that’s an area that’s important at that time that you’re writing your résumé or preparing to jump to that next position. Just having those certifications listed on your résumé may make you stand out as a little bit better than someone else who doesn’t have those on their résumé.

Carlos: That’s right. I think it’s particularly prevalent or most needful. Let me try it again, sorry, Julien. It is especially important when you’re talking about career changes, right? If this is in technology so for example you’ve been a developer and you want to come over to data platform or networking, same thing and system administration. Or if you haven’t been in technology and you want to come in. You know, certifications are that way. Again, if nothing else just demonstrate that you have the vocabulary to be able to speak the language.

Steve: Yup, and I think an example of that, I worked with a guy who have been doing mostly like tech support type work but he wanted to do some more database thing so anytime there was a database project he could take he did it but then he wanted to prove that he knew enough about database so sort of jump out of that support role so he went and did the 70-461 exam. Took him maybe a year of prep work to get ready for that from where he was at and he eventually passed it and sort of prove that he could play in that area.

Carlos: Right. I think that’s maybe another point that we should make is confidence there. We didn’t have that on our list, maybe we should make that as another point. Even I remember going back and talking it in Episode 64 when we were talking with Patrick Thomas who was over the Microsoft Certified Professional Program at Microsoft, and that idea of they are trying to give confidence to the technology workers, not only the workers but also the employers. And so I think again, we’re going to circle back to this and sometimes those goals or what they think of the exams don’t always line up but it is important that both of them are looking to them and again want to gain that confidence. And then our last one which we kind of touched on a bit already I think is just exposure. You know, we mentioned getting into the new features. What’s there I think particularly now as new things begin to come out. What’s in the database that you’re not using and could you take advantage of it. I think exams help to do that really well.

Steve: Right, and I think I kind of jump to go on that under the measure your skill section with my story there on XML. But yeah, I mean it give you exposure to more stuff that you may not have thought about trying in the past.

Carlos: So those are our pros and interestingly enough we have a few more cons, or may not cons again, but challenges. We should change it to challenges. So as much as we talked about measuring your skills, our first challenge is that it doesn’t really help you measure your skills.

Steve: Right, and I think that might be better phrased as it may not help you measure your skills. I mean, the fact is there is some confusion out there and there’s things people can do to get the certification without really knowing what they are doing. For instance, people can cheat by going out and finding some of the actual exam questions online. I know after I took one of the exams there was a question that I wanted to look into a little bit more and I did some googling on it. And I find out after I had passed the exam that wow there is this exact questions that are published out there. And really if you have a good memorization skill you could go through all of those and memorize them and not know anything about the topic and passed the test. I hope that doesn’t happen very often but I’m sure it happens occasionally.

Carlos: Right, kind of along those same lines is the idea that we talked about employers wanting the certification, so what the exam is going to give you exposure to and what your employer thinks a certification is going to give you exposure to maybe slightly different. They are not always in harmony.

Steve: Yup. Now, I can think of an example there where I knew someone who was newer to SQL Server they had been working with it for a couple of years and they went and passed the 70-461 exam, and after passing that the employer’s take on it was that they could now do everything, anything with SQL Server, and that person could do all the skills of someone with like 20 years of experience. In a conversation with that person we discover that there is a lot of things that you do every day that aren’t part of that 70-461 exam test. Like everything that’s covered in 462 for instance.

Carlos: Yeah, and this is kind where the blessings and curses. Even when we think about SQL Server, right? It’s great for us because there are so many features that come with that but then when we talk about SQL Server we’re lumping in SSIS, SSAS, administration, performance. I mean there are just too many tools in there, and then from an employer’s perspective they are like, “Oh, SQL Server certified. You should now understand all of these things.” You’re like, “Well…” Yeah, it could be a bit challenging.

Steve: Yeah, and I think part of the key to that is really understanding what that certification has covered and being able to convey that in a way that whoever is looking at it, like your employer, understand what that means.

Carlos: Right. Another one that I added here and that is with the new versions, there are just too many features. The database now, I mean it can slice, it can dice, it can chop your onions, serve your veggies and all the other stuff as well. And so it’s interesting I think, and again we’ll see how those certifications come out but the 461, 462, 463 are still going back to 2012, 2014. Even there were two versions removed from that they haven’t quite abandoned that and I think it’s going to be challenging just with the sheer number of features that we have. I don’t know if certifications are going to change. Maybe we have new exams, smaller exams, pocket exams. I’m not sure how that will come out but I think there are just a lot of features to know, and then try to create a test that can cover all of that is just daunting task.

Steve: You know, I think some of those features that they included in the test are almost like features that the marketing team for SQL Server wants to have covered so the people know how to use the latest and greatest rather than knowing how to use what they need to use to get their job done. And those can be very demanding on occasion.

Carlos: Or the ones like you mentioned even the XML that kind of continue to get in there every version, then you’re like, “Really guys?” Having said that I guess, I should say full disclosure. I have actually participated in with an organization that reviews the tests and we go through, so on the actual exams and then on the practice test, practice exams. And writing test questions is really hard. And so you have four people, that at least four people, on this call with the moderator going over a question and all the answers and we’re debating back and forth, and we’re looking at documentation and trying to make sure the wording is just right and then you change something and you’re like, “Oh well then that’s going to affect this other thing. And what if they think of this and how they are going to interpret that.” It’s very difficult and I think sometimes we might complain a little bit about how the exam questionnaires are worded. But believe they are spending a lot of time and energy to try to get those questions just right.
Steve: Yeah, they certainly are. I think that we oftentimes forget that when we’re taking a test or when we’re practicing for a test.

Carlos: Sure, right, because I think as we get to later, when we’re in there sometime all that time and energy doesn’t help us and that can be frustrating.

Steve:  Yup. So another one of the cons that we have on our list is it’s not the only way to show your skill and that there are a lot of other things that you may be able to do and maybe even be able to do with less of the time investment to be able to show your skills. There’s whether it’s blogging, or speaking, or taking on a side project, or looking on open source project or any of those kind of things might be just as valuable in showing that you know what you’re doing versus taking a test.

Carlos: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, our pros was that idea of getting the foot into the door. Right, having that on your résumé, that’s not the only thing that you could put on your résumé to differentiate you. I think we’re going to continue to see it more obviously in the developer space. We’re seeing it a bit more but even like Github, right, so what your Github handle and allowing employers to go out there and looked at the code you’ve checked in, you’ve participated in, whatnot. That is another way to increase your profile and I think that to our advantage and it hasn’t been too far in the past that I’ve actually need to work through recruiters and like try to find a job. Oh man, what a hassle that it. Like I can almost, the back of my throat is like having this vile taste in it remembering what that process was like. Luckily, that’s changing a little bit and so it’s more of extending your network and trying to connect with other people. That will be the best and easiest way, maybe it’s not the easiest way to get a job, but obviously the most successful path. And so all of these other things like Steve mentioned, the blogging and whatnot or the speaking at SQL Saturdays allowing you to create that portfolio, certifications are no longer the only way to do that.

Steve: Right, and I think that may vary greatly with every employer too. I mean I had a job interview I remember several years ago where it’s like, “We don’t want to see your résumé. What we want to see is your Github profile.” And that was it, that’s all they wanted to look as a starting point. And at that point in time I hadn’t really done anything publicly on Github but I’ve done lots of other public stuff but I just completely struck out on that one. They didn’t care about certifications but then you go into another place and they do care about certifications. Certifications are the only thing, you got to be a little bit more well rounded there I think.

Carlos: Yeah, exactly. It’s not a one size fits all. And the other component there is what type of organization do I want to work for, right? I think that plays a role into how you build your portfolio. What’s going to be attractive to them is also attractive to you. That increase is a likelihood that you’re going to go there and be happy, and be able to contribute to the team.

Steve: And you know, it’s interesting that interview that they only wanted to see your Github profile. I was a bit disappointed when that happened but then I later learned more about it and realized I’m kind of glad that I didn’t get that job after I learned more. Another of the cons on the list is really around there is a lot of prep work required that is very time consuming. Now, it may be people are at a different skill levels or different points in their career that that time consuming part may vary. But I think that no matter who you are there is some prep work required to go in and make sure you know everything to be ready for that test. And for some people that might be a year of prep work if they are new, for others it might be a few days or week of review to be able to just get up to speed on that.

Carlos: Whoah, a few days! That’s pretty aggressive, Steve.

Steve: Well, I guess it depends like if someone has taken the exams over different versions for the last 15 years they may have just to catch up in latest things before going and taking that next exam.

Carlos:  Well, it’s funny that you say that because that actually happened to me on the 461 exam. I thought it’s writing SQL, like how hard could that be? So my challenge there was I actually really didn’t study. That was the problem I used to, “Ha, I’ll go in there and I’ll just do it.” And you have to have a 700 to pass and let’s just say my score was in the 600 somewhere, right. I was like, “Argghh”.

Steve: Let me guess, did the merge statements throw you off in the exam?

Carlos: There was a group of questions that I guess shall remain nameless that I think threw me off, that ended up spelling disaster there for me. But then I’m like, “Oh, ok I got a bone up on that.” So I guess I made the backwards mistake of instead of using the test material to find that out I used the actual exam to find that out.

Steve: Yeah. Which you know, I mean that’s one way to do it because oftentimes you can get a retake that’s free or not very expensive.

Carlos: Or reduced.

Steve: And with that, I mean not all the prep material is all that is prep up to be. I think that I did some work for a book publisher a few years ago. That was on the prep work for the DBA series, the 70-462. One of the criteria that they had for everyone who was contributing on that book and video series was that you could never have taken the 70-642 exam because for people who would actually taken the exam they sort of lead in to like giving away exact clues of here’s how you pass the test. So in order to get around the legal hurdle of getting sued in some way they said, “Well you just have to study what Microsoft says is going to be on the exam and then we write a book around that.” I did eventually after doing the work on that book. I did eventually go take the test and it was much easier to take after preparing that book or work on that video work for them but I can see that there were things that are very different in the exam versus what you sort of expect from reading some of the prep material ahead of time.

Carlos: Right. Yeah, that’s one of the challenges with the prep material. I’ve used the books before and it’s like they just go over everything and you’re like, “Huh…”

Steve: And they have to go over everything because you don’t exactly what’s going to be on the exam.

Carlos: Exactly, exactly, that’s right. And then the way they get worded and all the other stuff I guess that’s another hurdle, but just a sheer amount of material that you have to go over is a challenge. Let’s see, so the next one we have is lateral help.

Steve: So really that’ sort of saying that in most situations it’s probably not going to help you in your current position but it may help you if you are jumping somewhere.

Carlos: Right. Or you’re looking for something, either promotion. It seems like it’s a plus. I mean, it’s not to say that education is not good. We’re specifically kind of honing in on the certifications. Obviously listening to this podcast is a way to increase your knowledge and what’s in your skill set. But yeah, it seems and this is just a generalization but it seems in our experience it’s been, I want my certifications for my next job not so much for the one I’m currently in.

Steve: Right, so I think leads to another one on the con list is test anxiety. And I think that there is a lot of great DBAs and database programmers out there who are just awesome at what they do but they don’t always do well on test.

Carlos: And the format of the tests are changing. I mean, they are difficult, right, I mean to put things in order. It’s like A through J. It is knowing some of the syntax. It’s very very tricky. Now, this actually takes me back to Episode 10, the very very beginning, Thomas Frank, who runs a blog for college students. We actually chatted with him about some ideas of preparing for exams and kind of dealing with some that test anxiety, and so that was kind of interesting. You’ll have to forgive that episode that was one of the very very early ones so the audio quality is not the greatest there. But if that’s something that you’re thinking about it may be worth taking a listen to that Episode 10.
Steve: So another one of the cons as well is you can just keep taking the test until you pass, meaning as long as you’re willing to pay for it. I remember another exam that I’ve taken different from technology here was I’m a volunteer firefighter and EMT, and when I took the EMT Exam, that was way more stressful and way more detailed than anything I have done with the SQL Exam. But the criteria with that was if you don’t pass it you’ve got to wait a time period before you can retake it, so I was extremely motivated to make sure I pass it the first time. Whereas with the SQL Test, if you don’t pass it go back the next day or the day after that and take it again. It depends on your budget how often you can take it I guess.

Carlos: That’s right and luckily so there was I think was the 463 Exam, the Data Warehouse Exam. Oh man, I took that one at least three times, maybe four times, so good and bad. I mean, some of that again is just you try and balance what you need to know with what you have to get to pass the exam.

Steve: Yeah, and I think that and maybe that’s an approach you could take. You could just go take it and find out what you don’t know and then fill in the cracks. But also if you do it that way maybe you don’t enough and you just keep retaking it and filling in the cracks you’re really teaching yourself what you need to pass the test, not teaching yourself what you need to be a rockstar in that area for instance.

Carlos: Exactly, also true.

Steve: Which might be the way to do it for 463.

Carlos: Unless Data Warehouse is your thing, right?

Steve: Exactly, yes yes.

Carlos: Ok, so I guess the recap. Our pros, we have measure your skills, foot in the door, exposure and confidence.

Steve: And our cons were around it does not necessarily measure your skills, not the only way to show your skills, there is a lot of prep work that could be time consuming, it may help you if you’re jumping laterally but not in your current position, those with testing anxiety may have the challenge with it, and you can just keep retaking it until you pass.

Carlos: So there you go companeros, what do you think our list? Of course we are interested in your feedback. You can drop as a line on the show notes page which is going to be sqldatapartners.com/certification.

Steve: And you know just to follow up on all these. I mean as we’ve been through the pros and cons, and we hit the cons as our second half of the list basically. I mean overall I think it’s a good thing. I just think that there is a lot of positives and negatives with anything.

Carlos: Sure, and I think we change cons to challenges, right? So we are not saying that it’s a con to take the exam. Again, we’re both in there, so just challenges. Yes, so what do you think of that list. We would be interesting in hearing from you and comments that you have. Of course if you have other ideas or things we should be talking about on this podcast please let us know. You can reach out to us. I am on Linkedin @carloslchacon.

Steve: And I’m on Linkedin as stevestedman. And we’ll see you on the SQL trail.