Certifications are the icing on the cake

Wondering whether or not you should get certified on something?

Experience is cake, certifications are the icing.

It’s hard to sell icing without cake.  Yes, there are some people who like to eat icing by itself, but frankly, those people are freaks.  They’re not healthy.  Something is wrong with them.

If you take an easy-to-get certification into a shop and the manager immediately proclaims, “You’re hired!” then you should run.  The kinds of managers who instantly hire based on qualifications are not the kind of managers you really want to work for, because they’re desperate for head count.  They’re not desperate because the skills market is so tough – they’re desperate because they have a really bad work environment and they’ve already burned every bridge in town.

The job you really want is going to require experience.

If you’re hungry and you don’t have cake, those ads for icing might look mighty tasty, but hold on there for a second.

Icing by itself isn’t the best option for you.

Geeks like certifications because they’re relatively easy to get by studying at home alone on weekends.

Geeks are really good at doing things at home alone on weekends.

The problem is that you’re competing with other geeks who are also home alone on weekends, and they’re all out getting certs too.  If you want to stand out, you have to do something different.  Look at your resume and count the number of people that you can count on for great references.  If there’s not at least five, let me suggest that you learn to make something other than icing.

Let’s say you’re itching to improve your job options, and as a result, you’re thinking about pursuing a certification that will take six weekends of study in order to achieve.  To determine its worth, consider its opportunity cost: what else could you do in those same six weekends?

  • Network with potential employers
  • Get experience with someone who can vouch for you (and yes, you can do this in six weekends – try volunteering for IT work at a local non-profit)
  • Build a marketing campaign for yourself (blog, Twitter, local user groups)

All of these have something in common: other people.  People are what give out jobs, not software programs or tests.

Having just icing is better than starving to death.

If you use terms like “meatbag” when describing other people and you’re dead set against interacting with them, then yes, go get certified first.  It’ll be something on your resume other than an arrest record, and that’s good for something.

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31 Comments. Leave new

  • You forgot:

    Choose one aspect of the technology you love and do a really deep dive into it.

    Certification by its nature scatters you across the entire domain. And that’s good to make sure you have a breadth of knowledge. But when you know something at a really deep level, you can find a lot of places to apply it, you can teach others about it, blog about it, expand on that solid core to learn other things at a deep level.

  • What? You mean talk to people? 🙂 I agree that certification can sometimes be mis-used but I do like to complete courses to ensure I understand the product. One can get tunnel vision on a project and only realise there was a better way when you RTFM. I find pushing myself to certify means I actually RTFM.

  • Brent totally agree, and I might be able to help get you to do the exams for free, but this might only work if you’re in the UK (afryer @microsoft.com).

  • A couple of things spring to mind – I always learn something when I work on certification, secondly it is easier for an employer to hire me if I have certifications. If your good at what you do references are rarely an issue – I blogged about this topic myself recently

  • Iain – you’re right in that you always learn something when you work on certification, but is that the right way to learn skills? If you’re just getting started in a field, learning the stuff that’s required for certification doesn’t always equate to learning what you need to get the first job or the second job. Certification training doesn’t place priorities on what you do most often, or what you need to know the most. Take the SQL exams – do you really need to know the syntax for DBCC commands well in your daily work as a DBA?

    I totally disagree about references not being an issue – there was a time during the hot & heavy IT market when references weren’t checked, but those days are over. Now, not only do employers check references, but they run credit reports, blood tests and double-check your college degree. Small companies & startups aren’t doing it yet, but the number is rising.

  • I hope you don’t mind me replying to your comment – we can take it offline if this is not the appropriate place.
    First I’d like to be clear that I do not think certifications are any substitute for actual experience
    I agree that certifications rarely equate fully to learning what you need to get the job done. The SQL server exams do have some pieces well covered like backup and recovery strategies. They also have some obscure stuff like CLR integration.
    DBA work has become pretty diverse, a lot of companies out there never use replication or any of the availability features. Yet these are covered in the exams. I have had very different roles as a DBA in previous positions – how is a certification going to accommodate this – I think its in the eye of the beholder – I view certification as a way of demonstrating that a person is at least aware of the features being tested in the exam. Not that they are necessarily competent at anything. I covered in my last comment why I choose to take certifications.
    As for references I disagree, In the last few jobs i have taken, I have had background checks but I have not had my references checked ( this is partially related to my previous comments, if you are good at what you do, you may be recruited or work with people you have worked with before. ) this may be more of a symptom of the area you live/work in – Seattle and the surrounding areas have an abundance of jobs it seems. Also it appears to be a common practice to use your friends, co workers as references which are not necessarily truly reflective – This may be why companies don’t bother to check them(in my experience only it seems). Personally I always encourage potential employers to contact my previous employers/managers

    Hope this was constructive

    • Not only that but it takes lots of work and dedicated thinking to get most of those IT certifications unlike the types that even spotty teenagers can cram-and-pass.

  • Thanks! It absolutely was constructive, and I think it’s good to have it out here so that readers can see both sides of it.

  • Funny timing, as I just got my icing of MCITP: Database Administrator for SQL 2005 🙂
    But I did only add icing after I have the cake

    Now I have a pretty cake with icing ^_^

  • Hmmm. When the icing isn’t that rotten “Best Creme” garbage, I have to admit that the icing is my favorite part of the cake. This analogy therefore doesn’t work with me 😉 I may be a freak with an unhealthy attitude for icing, but man is it good 🙂

    As for certifications, well I have my SQL 2000 Admin and Dev but I’ve just been way too busy for getting them in 2005/2008. I will though. I like icing.

  • “It’ll be something on your resume other than an arrest record” – LOL, that amused me.

    I’ve never bothered with SQL certs (I have a CCNA from years ago!) and I’ve never been particular impressed by mentions of them on any cv. I feel my experience over the last few years is infinitely more valuable that any MC

  • Brent, since Master Degree in DBA Management will not help get a job as DBA. I’ve taking a SQL DBA adm course and worked for about 2 years on SQL Server DBA. I would like to get a certification what type of certification should I get and what books should I get to study for the certification? Thanks.

  • Certs are where I am being steered, since I have lots of SQL experience in Access, but zero SQL Server experience. It is not easy to find a job where Access people are given an opening to work on SQL Server, even for guys like me in Seattle. Hence, the cert.

  • I really understand what you said. I got the DBA certificate, but I have no work experience, no boss can trust me that I can keep their data safety.I know what I have to do immediately is like you said :
    •Get experience with someone who can vouch for you (and yes, you can do this in six weekends – try volunteering for IT work at a local non-profit)

    But, my question is how can I search their info.I would like to do some volunteer job, How can I contact they? I have search volunteer job from Internet, but I haven’t find DBA volunteer nearby my home.

    • Illy – the thing with nonprofits is that they don’t have enough time, money, or skills to build web-facing databases listing every opportunity they have. You’ll need to pick up the phone and start calling them. Talk to your church, get your pastor’s list of favorite nonprofits, or start by looking at anyone who takes donations. You could even start by picking causes that are near and dear to you. Then call ’em, talk to them, offer your services. They probably won’t let you touch their databases right away, because they’re valuable, but you just have to start doing Windows administration or basic coding or writing reports. Next thing you know, you’ve got a relationship with them and you’re their part-time DBA.

  • That why I suggested Microsoft should raise the bar for their exams. When we heard some high school kids get his MCSE certifications, many of us would think oh what a smart kid AND what a joke MS certification!

  • Obviously @BrentO never tasted bacon flavored icing.

    PS: Is there really bacon flavored icing? 😉

  • Whilst I understand the point I believe you were trying to make, I am hoping you see the irony in the statement you are making. At the end of the day whilst a tougher nut to crack the MCM is just another exam, yet it has at least in a small part opened a door for you?

    Normally I hear this statement that certs are worthless from two kinds of people. The first are professionals with years of experience that secretly wish they had them but really cant be bothered to go that extra mile and the others are people masquerading as professionals that really don’t have a Scooby Doo.

    I would usually hire the candidate with experience and certs long before I hire the candidate with experience alone (if they are the same in other respects). From my own experience I have learnt far more detail about far more technologies than I would have ever been exposed to by experience alone. The amount of DBAs and Windows engineers I have met over the years who dont have a clue about what is behind a windows partition is incredible. Some have no idea what RAID level it is running at, whether the RAID 1 array is actually one of several virtual RAID 1 arrays sliced from the same actual array and therefore competing for IO. Some read in a book that disk queue length of 2 or greater is bad and then don’t have the foggiest to understand that you need to calculate the queue size from the number of disks in your array.

    Generally whilst studying for certs you tend to come across some of these facts and irrespective of whether you ever really learn how to do something you should at very least learn what is or isnt possible with a particular techology and therefore can (should you then need to use it) look up more detail to a solution. If you dont know the possibilities of a technology then you will never know that there even is anything to look up.

    I am biased though because I have taken 21 or so MCPs over the last 12 years. I did however have a period (fairly recently) of 3-4 years of not seeing the point of doing any more certs and didnt. I am now, without a shadow, a better DBA for having restarted my study and certification again than I was before. Certification for certification’s sake is obviously a complete waste of time, but that does not make certification a waste of time just the individual doing so.

  • Mark, there are certifications and then there are CERTIFICATIONS. The context Brent is using is in the exams which are accessible to most anyone. The MCM stands out because it is several tests + a lab exam. This puts it in the same arena as a CCIE with respect to requirements. And that’s not something you can get by spending 6 Saturdays with your nose tucked in a book.

    • Hi Brian I feel my point is made in my reply, so I wont rehash it again, but if you misunderstood me please make the time to re-read it again. In part it was in response to the comment Brent made on twitter namely “. @K7CB my two cents: most certifications aren’t worth two cents. http://bit.ly/axdDMJ” and I am ensuring that this statement is challenged. I respect Brent very highly for what he has achieved, what he does and where he is now but I do not worship him and am not afraid to challenge when I believe him to be wrong. I may well be in the minority of people who respond here since most (like me) will read this blog because we like and admire what Brent has to say. So I expect to read a lot of statements saying “oh yes you are absolutely right etc etc”….

      However, I am old enough to remember the bad/ good old days when Novell was king in the server/ network arena. At the time, becoming a Novell Netware CNE was an expensive business and demanded a large fee and was way beyond the personal cost of your average admin. Microsoft revolutionized certification and made it accessible to almost everyone – THIS IS A GOOD THING!!! The by product of that is that you will get people taking exams that really shouldnt be in IT, but the exam is not the problem here.

      Your comment about the MCM is not really relevant, I am sorry if you don’t agree but it IS still an exam. Much harder – YES. Much more expensive – YES. Accessible to the majority – NO. My “tests and labs” come on a daily live basis, and I like to think that I do not disappoint.

      If an employer cannot determine whether a candidate is good or bad and goes purely on their certifications, then they will probably be a good fit for each other don’t you think 🙂 ?

      • Mark, I did understand your point, and I disagree with it. Brent and I have disagreements all the time (*cough* running as Administrator for demos *cough*) and I wasn’t agreeing with what Brent said because Brent said it.

        My point wasn’t geared towards expense. It was how easy it is to be able to obtain the cert without real experience and knowledge, hence my comment about having a nose in a book for 6 weekends. I need to obtain my MCITPs but it’s been a struggle and the reason is because I do see a weakness in the exams (it’s also why I stopped actively pursuing Microsoft certs after obtaining my NT 4 MCSE). Look, when one can go to a boot camp for a week and leave with a certification or two, that says the exams can effectively be passed without real world knowledge. That’s a problem. And that means the certifications inherently have little value in my eyes.

        I’ve also been on the hiring end and I’ve seen plenty of MCDBA and MCSEs trot through and guess what? They didn’t know RAID levels, either. In fact, the last time I interviewed candidates for what was a position to be my backup at the time (infrastructure architect), the one guy we hired was the only one who knew the RAID levels correctly. And that was after looking at 3-4 MCSEs. Guess what? The guy we hired wasn’t one. So at the end of the day, I use the certifications as a push when candidates are judged equal in knowledge.

        And to put a further stamp against the value of these “low-level” certifications, I’ll leave you this from the interview process. Only one guy got it right (the one we hired). Every MCSE interviewed flunked it. One of our smart-aleky Citrix engineers asked this AD question of every candidate, “Tell me the difference between a forest, a domain, and a tributary.” The closest wrong answer we got was when a Windows Server 2003 MCSE was able to tell us what a forest and a domain was. But where he exposed himself was when he said, “A tributary… I know this! It was just on the tip of my tongue! I just remember re-reading this on the TechNet site as I was prepping for this interview.” Um, no you didn’t. A tributary feeds into a larger river. It has nothing to do with AD. Examples like this make me suspect the generally accessible certifications.

        • 🙂 haha very good. No, I agree with your sentiment. I think what I am trying to say (and this includes the MCM) is that its what you DO in order to achieve an exam, NOT having the exam that is important , therefore as a candidate if I had the certification, but didn’t work hard in order to obtain it, then and only then would it be worthless and the only person I am really fooling is myself. This should be self evident to a good employer pretty quickly – as you have demonstrated you did in your reply.

        • @KBK – HAHAHA, running as Administrator during demos. Thanks for pounding that into me during my demos, because I’ve changed my ways (mostly). And I actually do think of you when I notice somebody else doing it now, or running under SA….

      • Mark – I think it sounds like we agree. I said “most certifications aren’t worth two cents.” I didn’t say that studying a topic wasn’t worth two cents – I’m all about research and practice. But I think you’re confusing what YOU do to pass a certification with what other people might do.

        The MCITP certifications can be passed without touching the product. (I’m tempted to go cram for some obscure MCITP test and then pass it just to prove a point.) YOU might study and work hard to pass the certification – but that doesn’t mean everyone does. I might respect YOU getting the MCITP, because I know you worked hard at it, but that doesn’t mean I respect the certification itself – because others don’t work hard to get it. They just cram, take, retake, and pass. Because of that, I can’t trust the certification itself, and it’s not worth two cents.

        The study and experience process? Worth money. The certification that can be passed without it? Not so much.

        • “I’m tempted to go cram for some obscure MCITP test and then pass it just to prove a point.”

          I hold two Sharepoint certs (just the MCTS), one for WSS, one for MOSS. I’ve never even installed MOSS, let alone actually worked with it. Passed the exam with a higher mark than any of my SQL exams.

  • Times are different than when I started out.

    In the “dot com” days if you could correctly spell the word “computer” you could get a decent job. Companies were chasing growth and weren’t averse to paying for talent.

    Now, it is all about cost reduction. I have seen outsourcing being used by consulting companies to bring contracting rates down and employers seeking FTEs tell me they want people LESS experienced who are willing to work for less (a LOT less).

    This is a new world and it’s not pretty.

    From my experience (and as I’ve outlined, that exp is from a world we’ll likely not see again soon) certifications were a waste of time and often were presented INSTEAD of experience.

    It would be easier to suggest certifications if IT would require licensing. Licensing would increase wages and don’t hold your breath for that to happen.

    Any real learning experience adds value. IF you decide to get a certification, REALLY STUDY and push yourself. Focus mainly on trying to learn, not collecting certificates.

    Even better, get a job working for someone you think is a great DBA. That’s the best way to learn.


  • I’d say that *most* certifications aren’t worth 2 cents, too. But that’s just based on volume. For instance, the following types of certifications seem questionably to me:

    – Pay $$, Take a single 50-question multiple choice exam, pass with 66%, get letters after your name. Lots of these out there. Minor value.

    – Pay $$$$, attend a 3-4 day class, take no exam, get letters after you name. Many, many of these out there. These are the certs that I value the least.

    – Pay $$$, interviewed by a single person (who owns the certification), awarded certification. Okay, another one I don’t value.

    – Pay $$$, attend a conference, no exam, no nothing. Get a certificate and letters after you name. Minor value.

    – Pay $$, have your existing credentials (education, training, experience) assessed by a committee of experienced professionals. Take an exam that involves labs/interviews/discussions. These I have great respect for. Often managed by a professional body, not for profit. They are difficult to maintain and often require continuing requirements to maintain cert.

    – Pay $, take a non-guessable exam (labs, some multiple choice, some fill in the blank, etc.) Do whatever prep you need. Usually managed by either a vendor (for product certs) or a professional body (for non-product certs) Medium value.

    I’m biased in that I’ve managed programs (as a volunteer) for non-product certs. Don’t do that any more, though.

  • Only getting to this now through the archives (which are awesome by the way), but certs to me are similar to belts in martial arts. There’s a saying that “A belt only covers 2 inches of your ass, you have to cover the rest”, I think it’s also true with certs. It opens doors and gives you a good general knowledge, but it isn’t a sign of expertise (at least at MCITP level) and you still have to put the work in. Still, the converse is that it’s much easier to sell a cake with pretty icing on it!

  • […] not cake. Remember this. There’s a 10 year old post over on Brent Ozar’s site, which I read for the first time about 5 years ago. This perfectly sums up my experience with […]


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