I’m sure I’m not the only technical professional that debated the merits of vendor certifications vs. more formal education options such as college education. I’m a big believer of self-improvement and education. However, there can be debate if to invest your time and money on a formal college degree or vendor certification.
This isn’t a simple question nor is there a right or wrong answer. The answer depends on where you are in your career and your career goals.
A Case for Certification
I personally owe a good deal of my early career success to certification. When starting in IT, I didn’t have formal education to leverage as a way into the industry. I entered the market when there was a lack of IT talent. I was basically a self proclaimed geek and power user. This was enough to get a job working the helpdesk. However, I wanted to further my career. I had racked up a total of 20 hours of community college class work toward a degree so, going for a Bachelors in Computer Science seemed unreasonable as I had a young family to support.
I discovered the wonderful world of vendor certification. Evidently, companies such as Microsoft and Novell offered programs that were meant to display your knowledge of their products to employers. I leveraged the vendor certification path to open doors for my career. After obtaining my Certified Novell Engineer (CNE) certification, I got promoted to a Network Administrator. I discovered hot vendor certifications were a great way to get targeted jobs such as today with the VMware Certified Professional. A challenge with the certification route is that it seems like you have to constantly chase certifications as one vendor’s solution falls out of favor for another. I’m sure no one really cares about my CNE 5.0.
A Case for a Degree
The great thing about a Computer Science degree is that it doesn’t expire. The disadvantage is that you may not necessarily learn practical skill such as installing VMware vSphere or designing a Storage Area Network based on the leading vendor’s technology. However, you gain knowledge such as the fundamentals of TCP/IP, which allows you to develop the foundation to learn any vendor’s technology.
Another argument for a degree is career advancement beyond the technical role. I’ve argued in the past that the System Engineer as we know it is changing. We are seeing SE’s being required to have business skill as Cloud computing becomes a larger part of the enterprise. A good number of these skills require something very different than what you can get from vendor certification alone.
With an increasing amount of free education options becoming available from sources such as Stanford, it’s hard to determine how an engineer who has done the classwork through these free channels can show their depth of knowledge without paying for formal recognition from a tradition higher education institution.
A Case for Both
In reality, I find myself obtaining and recommending both vendor certifications and formal education. The brutal truth is that Bachelor Degrees are becoming an expectation. More employers are looking for additional separators such as vendor certifications. Outside of getting higher exposure there’s the practical side of certifications. Going through the process of certification study allows an engineer to pick up relevant skill that can’t be picked up in the traditional classroom.
Either way the important thing is to learn as much as you can so when you are given the opportunity to do so, you can show your stuff.