Sep 29, 2010

The value of professional certification

A few years ago, before even VS2008 was out (Orcas was, though), I got excited reading about all the different Microsoft Certifications. I even bought a book to get started. Unfortunately for me, I quickly found out that I was much too inexperienced to even begin to pass the initial exam.

Well, I'm a bit more experienced now. I've made a lot of progress learning .NET through my career. About a month ago, I decided to revisit the idea of certification. The book I had originally purchased has since been supplanted by a second edition (updated for VS2008 and .NET 3.5), but the guides say it is not necessary to study 3.5 stuff to pass the exam. And besides, it's not like I've been completely ignoring anything introduced after 2.0.

Man, is the studying a kick in the pants, though.

It's odd, because I found I could skim whole chapters at times and sail through the lesson reviews, drawing on my several years of career experience in .NET. Other chapters I'd need to read carefully. It feels especially odd because none of the chapters are particularly in-depth or complicated. Really, the exam (and study material) serve more to force a broad introduction of many of the various sections of the .NET framework. This is not a complaint, mind you. Rather I mean to point out that at no time did I feel overwhelmed by it and yet there were quite a few sections that I had to follow carefully if only because my prior exposure had been little to none. It's surprising to me, I guess, how many parts of the framework you don't even know exist and that you're unlikely to touch on even after a half-dozen .NET projects. Some namespaces just get no love.

Even so, I do welcome the introductions to many aspects I may never have thought of or used. It's good to be aware of them as yet another tool on the ol' tool belt. Despite it being the older first edition covering only .NET 2.0, it has still been a worthwhile read.

Which brings me to my main point: the certifications and if they are worth it. Sure, like anyone facing the prospect of several weeks or months of off-and-on self-directed study and then paying a cool Benjamin for the privilege of a nerve-wracking multiple-choice test, I was skeptical of the whole thing being, well, worth the trouble.

Do employers really care about that stuff? Would it really help your chances in scoring interviews? Positions?

I tend to approach it, though, from a less career-oriented perspective. Simply stated, it is unlikely that having the certification on my resume would decrease my marketability. It may or may not help me but it certainly ain't gonna hurt to have it, right? So instead of focusing on that, since it is either a zero or a plus, I focus on the self improvement aspect. Regardless of whether it helps my chances with jobs, it definitely will increase my skills. And that's something I do value.

The exams force you to do a lot of dedicated self-study. It forces you to be introduced to many aspects of the framework you might not otherwise. It sharpens your skills on the aspects you already are familiar with. That alone is a good thing and can only make you better at what you do.

So I get improved skills with the potential of career benefit as icing on the cake.

Obviously, you could just study it yourself and not bother with paying for the tests and all that jazz. Sure. And people could just stop smoking, too. At any time. If they wanted.

The reality is that many of us need or like to have a structured program to follow. Whether it is a twelve-step program to relieve you of your drinking habit or four years to force an expansion of your education, you can always argue that one need not  bother with the package and just do it themselves. But, wouldn't you know it, people are a lot more likely to actually do it and finish it with a structured plan and support material/people at hand every step of the way.

I could very well just sit down and start going sequentially through namespaces on MSDN for thirty minutes every day. But I think I'll be more likely to follow through with the wealth of Microsoft Learning material, self-paced kits, books, study plans, you name it.

I'll talk more about certifications in the future as I get further into study and taking the exams proper.

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