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The Certification Quandary

Corporate and open source community views on the value of certification

Welcome to the third installment of my Linux Careers column. The last two columns focused on recruiting strategies in the open source community. Now I want to examine certifications and their place within the open source community. This topic will be covered in two separate columns. This month, I examine the Linux/open source community's position on certifications as compared to the corporate culture.

In Part 2, I'll answer one of the most common questions we at HotLinuxJobs are asked by candidates: "Which certifications should I get?" I will provide insight from the corporate point of view on which Linux/open source certifications are the most valuable and marketable.

First of all, why the need for certification? This is an issue that has been debated throughout my four years of experience in monitoring the open source community. Many professionals who have been working with open source software for a number of years feel that the best measure of their expertise is the experience that they have gained through work and personal experimentation. While I largely agree with this assessment, it is the employer that sets the standards candidates must achieve. Many employers still make certification a hiring benchmark. Furthermore, "newbies" to Linux can display a base level of knowledge by obtaining a certification.

So like it or not, whether you feel that it is an "old school" mentality, certifications remain relevant in today's marketplace. In the mind of the hiring authority, they are another measure that can differentiate candidates, much to the extent of a college degree.

So what does the Linux/open source community think about certifications? That's a difficult question. I feel the Linux/open source community looks at certifications differently than other technology sectors and quite differently than corporate hiring managers. The Linux/open source community has operated outside the traditional boundaries of corporate culture for many years. This is rapidly changing as the adoption of Linux/open source grows. We see the two different sides colliding on a daily basis.

Most candidates we speak with are interested in achieving a certification to improve or enhance their skills in hopes of improving their current job performance. Others are looking for a new job, and some people just like the challenge of the exams and the sense of self-worth that they add. I have interviewed a number of candidates who obtain every certification they can, and mainly they relish the challenges and the benefits of having a lengthy list of certifications.

Most of the Linux/open source candidates we speak with feel that certifications are not a bad thing, just not something for them. The candidates have this image in their heads of lines and lines of MCSEs holding a piece of paper above their heads that says they are network administrators. During the tech boom, the qualified IT candidate shortage allowed quite a few people to get jobs in IT who wouldn't have in a normal labor market. People eager to enter the "hot" IT market took multiweek classes that churned out people with these certifications. One of the greatest impacts this has had is lowering the value of certain certifications and making it harder for candidates to stand out to hiring managers. These factors have given certifications as a whole a bad reputation; to individuals in the Linux/ open source community it reduces their perceived value.

Most experienced Linux people see certifications as meaning nothing in the real world. When things break they need to be fixed, and just because you have a piece of paper that says you are a network administrator does not mean you can solve a problem. Those certifications are laughed at because the tests are multiple choice, and anyone who can memorize material can pass the exams.

The corporate world has a very different opinion of certification. Most understand that the person who has the certification was able to pass a specific test on specific information and is not necessarily an expert. However, they use the certification as one criterion in the hiring process.

One of the reasons this practice has been increasing is the rapid adoption of Linux in corporate IT infrastructure. Many corporations want to move to Linux, and some have internal staff with some experience or exposure. So their safest hiring strategy is to require candidates to have specific, relevant certifications. Unfortunately, this methodology may result in candidates with significant hands-on experience being overlooked.

The certification market is very big business - corporations can spend millions of dollars getting their staff certified. You have different vendors selling the value of certifications to companies and tying in conversion and support packages with training and certification.

We've recently encountered a few examples of the Linux/open source community's resistance to certifications. We were working with a client in the Northeast that was recruiting for a senior-level Linux administrator. This client was new to Linux and did not have many people on its staff with Linux experience. In addition, the HR department, which was conducting the search, had no real knowledge of Linux. The job description that we were given required certain work experience plus a degree plus a certification.

The certification ended up being the hardest part for us to match with the level of experience the client required. The senior-level Linux candidates we unearthed had years of hands-on experience but generally did not have certifications. The candidates with certifications did not have the level of experience required. The client kept passing on candidates that were very qualified and had similar industry experience but lacked the certification. Their twin demands for certification and experience produced a profile that was all but unmatchable.

In conclusion, I feel that it is necessary for candidates to consider obtaining a certification(s). Corporations, some well informed and others relatively unsophisticated when it comes to IT, are requiring certifications for their open positions. As a result, certifications will remain both qualifying and differentiating factors when candidates' backgrounds are reviewed.

I always tell candidates that any training and/or certifications that they can achieve will only help their career. The technology field is a never-ending learning opportunity where job success and upward mobility are intrinsically tied to staying current with the evolution of technologies. Nowhere is this more prevalent than with Linux. Certifications will enrich your personal knowledge and make you more marketable to corporations looking for competent Linux administrators. Certification is a vital component in furthering your job prospects and providing a boost to your career growth.

More Stories By Rob Jones

Rob Jones is the president of HotLinuxJobs, an IT recruiting firm specializing in Linux and open source, based in Savannah, GA.

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