Technical certifications can advance careers and lead to better pay, but they're not a golden ticket to success.
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Information technology professionals may be able to boost their earning potential through IT certifications -- or maybe not, depending on whom you ask.
Companies that sell certification training, perhaps unsurprisingly, tout the value of certifications. IT training company Global Knowledge, for example, earlier this year published its list of the 15 Top-Paying Certifications for 2016. Thirteen of these were associated with average salaries over $100,000.
The SANS Institute, which offers information security certifications, in 2014 published a report that found "proven certifications can provide up to a 5% increase in compensation for certified staff over non-certified staff." It also found that the majority of its ~4,000 survey respondents cited security certifications as the biggest contributors to career success.
There's clearly some value in some certifications in some circumstances. For example, the Department of Defense requires certifications for some positions. A consulting firm called Foote Partners regularly attempts to measure what certifications are worth.
At the same time, plenty of IT professionals get paid at least as well without them. In a post on tech career site Dice.com last year, UK-based software developer David Bolton argued that certifications are not worth it because technology moves too fast, certication providers lack standards, and employers don't care, among other reasons.
In an email, Anita Lawhon, head of brand and communication for Dice.com, said opinions about certifications are mixed. "Some experienced professionals dislike certifications because they believe their working experience with technologies is more valuable [than] a certification," she said. "However, inexperienced professionals feel certifications give them an 'in.' Employers are mixed. Some believe experience and teamwork say more about a tech pro's work than a certification. Some say having a certification can't hurt."
In a sense, certifications are like compliance rules. They demonstrate a certain level of diligence, but they don't guarantee anything.
In an email, John Reed, senior executive director for Robert Half Technology, explained that the value of IT certifications depends on the job candidate's experience level and role. "Earlier in a technology professional's career, having certifications is certainly a boost to a resume that may not be fully developed," he said. "But it's rare that a certification will trump relevant work experience -- especially in a tight market for skilled IT professionals."
Certifications can still boost salaries, sometimes as much as 10%, said Reed. While they may serve to differentiate candidates, he said, they're almost never the sole reason a person gets hired.
Presently, certifications for cloud, mobility, security, app development, DevOps, and big data are popular among employers at the moment, along with those related to project management and Microsoft, said Reed. But skills matter more.
"We find IT leaders placing more weight on the skills and experience that a potential employee is bringing into the organization than any other factor," said Reed. "And now, more than ever, there is a much greater emphasis on soft skills and business acumen to go along with someone who is intellectually curious and works to build on their skills throughout the course of their careers."
According to Reed, half of CIOs in a recent Robert Half Technology survey cited staying current and learning new skills as the best advice for young technology professionals.
Reed acknowledged that certifications tend to matter more to large enterprises than small companies and startups, where things like open source contributions and performance at hackathons serve as a form of skill verification.
Hiring managers, Reed advised, shouldn't consider the absence of a certification a deal-breaker. "An interview is the best way to truly understand what someone can bring to your organization," said Reed. "I tell hiring managers to present a current business issue and ask [the candidate] to walk you through [his or her] solution -- certifications alone would not be able to tell that story."
Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio
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