Monday, January 19, 2009

More Important to IT - certification or experience or Degree?

It is an age-old question: When you hire IT staff, is more consideration given to IT certifications or experience? Perhaps your company wants both. The Tech Herald recently posed this line of questioning to various companies to see what they had to say on the topic.

When it comes to IT, there is a high degree of mental ability needed for the job; not just for problem solving, but also so you can deal with stress as well. However, critical thinking and problem solving are something rarely taught, these things are instilled in each of us in one form or another. Some will be better at it than others, and this mix can help IT teams thrive.

There is also the granular expertise that is needed in IT. Most IT departments have team members who are, as an example, Microsoft Certified Professionals (MCP), and, depending on their area of focus, have proven they have the ability to manage Microsoft-based infrastructures with ease. There is also the argument that they have also proven they can memorize sample questions and answers at a local MCP boot camp -- but that’s a completely different issue.

However, each of these MCP certification holders will almost certainly know about more than just Microsoft. For example, some are likely Apache experts because the company uses that platform to run Web services. This mix of skill is required because of a few reasons, the largest being adaptability. Not every company can afford to hire a Linux/Unix system administrator, so the present IT staff has to adapt to the systems in use and know how to operate them.

There are IT teams where none of the staff has single certification, yet they run circles around certified IT people all the time. These 'jack of all trade' types are pure geeks, and know just a little bit about everything. What they do not know, their passion for technology drives them to learn and adapt to. With this type of IT team there is rarely a problem that cannot be solved. Research and information are their business, and business is good.

When asked “When you hire new IT staff, which do you consider more: certifications or experience?” most executives are split on the question. Some want both, some say it would depend on the job the person is being considered for, and others say one or the other. While most agreed on a few points, all of them showed that no single company sees things in the same light as another.

As one response put it: “While most technologists see things as black or white, choosing someone with a specific certification versus someone with specific experiences isn’t so binary.”

The next page highlights the responses that were given for this article. Each will offer insight into how the executives weigh each applicant when filling a job in IT. Businesses and IT managers are encouraged to chime in with opinions and thoughts in the comments section.

“As a CEO of high-tech company, we heavily rely on engineering and IT personnel that are extremely smart and are experts in what they do. Even though having a college certification is not good enough in itself, I believe it provides a certain level of filtration and proof of goal-oriented, dead-line driven work ethic. Therefore in our organization we require college degree as a bare minimum threshold, but expect to see experience and knowledge in the space as our fundamental recruitment guideline,” explained Cahit Akin, CEO of Mushroom Networks.

Another company uses both education and experience as a factor in their overall hiring process. “We’d rather hire very bright people on the assumption that they’ll figure out the rest. One example: for an entry-level software engineering position, we hired a very bright person with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Harvey Mudd College that had been working at Blockbuster Video for the previous two years as a store manager. It was a wise hire for Voltage, as the engineer is now a key contributor for one of our encryption products,” said John Weald, VP of Engineering at Voltage Security.

Weald added to this, giving a little more detail on the hiring process. He explained how Voltage screens candidates when making the choice between experience and education (certifications or college).

“Again it depends on the number of years of experience. Engineers with less than five years of experience need at least a bachelor’s degree in a computer or mathematics-related field from a school with a good reputation to make it past the resume-scanning phase at Voltage. Once they move onto the interview phase at Voltage, it is more important that the candidate can excel-we ask them problem-solving and computer science-related questions.

“If a candidate has many years of experience, then college and certification information becomes less important. Focus is then placed on progression in their career and positive learning experiences at each prior position. Here at Voltage Security we have a very rigorous interview process, where we ask candidates to solve complex problems. We’re not looking so much for the correct answer, but rather how they go about attempting the solution. Engineers that join the company often say that they enjoyed the interview process as it allowed them to stand out compared to others. We have such a rigorous interview process at Voltage because we’re trying to see, for example, if experienced engineers actually have ten years of experience or one year of experience ten times!”

In contrast, Max Huang, President of O2Security, gave a more pointed answer, saying: “Is college and certifications more important that experience and knowledge? No, experience and knowledge are more important than college and certifications. That is not to say that I do not value college and certifications; they are of great importance and statistically proven to increase the opportunity for employment in the IT industry. However, in my experience, individuals with real ‘use case’ experience have been able to adapt to various environments and contribute equally -- if not better -- than those with college degrees and certifications.”

When he hired new IT staff, Mr. Huang said that certification and experience are equally important, but maintains his opinion of experience over education. “I believe they are both important, but as I mentioned before, having real ‘use case’ experience and solid technical background in my experience is equally sufficient, if not better. Some entities require that you have basic certifications as a pre-requisite to pass a first-phase interview. However, I believe that you will get a real sense of the IT candidate once you get into the specifics of the technology you are hiring for.”

“There are two different issues here. One is the value of a college degree for IT staff and the other is certifications vs. experience,” explained Eric Basu, President and CEO of Sentek Consulting in his response to The Tech Herald.

“I'll address these questions in order. Over the years, the value of a college degree has had proven staying power. The "piece of paper" as I've heard it referred to, does have value for demonstrating a person's ability to commit to and achieve a significant education goal, if it's from a reputable school. Although everyone has several examples of successful senior executives and strategic thinkers without four year undergraduate degrees, these tend to be both exceptions and exceptional individuals. If hiring for a junior, technician type of position in IT, a degree is not required. For more senior and management positions, a degree is preferred. Certifications are useful for demonstrating that a candidate has the interest in a particular field and the ability to test well. Beyond that, they have little value in demonstrating aptitude at a particular IT skill set and experience in a specific area will always outweigh a certification.”

Sergey Blyashov, Chief Technology Officer of Enviance offered a solid example of hiring processes that drive the consulting market in IT, saying: “While most technologists see things as black or white, choosing someone with a specific certification versus someone with specific experiences isn’t so binary. Really, the answer depends on a number of factors including whether you are looking for a long term employee or someone to help shorter term on a project; whether this is this an entry-level or management position; or if this position has higher risk, ‘mission critical’ responsibilities (e.g. a production manager).”

Mr. Blyashov added, “If we were filling a permanent, long-term position for a relatively low risk job, we would weigh college knowledge above hands on experience because longer term, this person would be able to provide more substantial contributions over a number of years. Fundamentally, a solid education enables new employees to see the bigger picture and therefore make better, more informed decisions - knowing that experience comes with time and effort. On the other hand, if we needed a production support manager, our preference would be someone with hands-on, relevant experience able to quickly manage risk and improve productivity.”

Yet, Mr. Blyashov said that there are exceptions to his guidelines. “...the position dictates the answer to this question and each decision is dependent on the specific situation and needs at the time.”

Another consideration between experience and certification that was raised is the nature of the position the applicant is being hired for, especially if the job is government related.

“In our business it is generally not, however more and more of our work for the DoD requires labor categories that specify college degrees, certification and experience,” said Douglas W. Burke, CEO of DefenseWeb Technologies.

When asked to choose, Mr. Burke was crystal clear in his answer: “Experience. Anyone can get certification but not everyone can get experience and there is nothing like having experience in what you’re developing. The certification requirement we see the most is Project Management Institute (PMI) certification, rather than certifications for IT. We want employee who can work with the latest technologies and those technologies require experience. It is unlikely that the schools are ahead of someone who came out of a technology start up company using the latest software and tools.”

Justin Singer, President of SMBology, Inc. explained that: “Experience and knowledge [are] far and away more important than certifications. Certifications are nice. At a minimum, they show some level of dedication on the part of the individual. Beyond that, there are no guarantees. I have talked to plenty of people who are certified and can fire off [sic] answers to questions – they have no idea why the things they are saying are true. College ultimately provides a foundation.”

He added, “The curriculum of many colleges provides a shaky foundation at best, above which strong students persevere. The best programs provide a solid framework for problem solving. Either way, whatever knowledge and understanding is typically only on a very ideal level. College IT is about concepts and how they operate in an ideal world. Real world IT is about coping with the reality and challenges of the world. All experience is not created equal, but in general if an individual has been working in IT for a while, chances are they are much better at solving real world problems.”

Matt Chabot, VP of Managed Services at Tier 1net said: “Assuming we are referring to a mid to senior level position, experience and knowledge would be the first criteria for a candidate's resume to make it past the initial screening process. That by no means indicates that a college education and certification are not important. The candidate with a college education and experience would be far more valuable than the candidate with just experience.

“Nonetheless, Tier1net's primary focus is customer service and we find that that is not something that can be learned in college or a certification course. It takes a certain level of experience to be able to communicate professionally with non-technical staff, clients, management, etc. Its also experience that enables an IT professional to be able to evaluate and prioritize a technical issue with regards to how it is impacting someone's business. Still, a college education is a close second to experience because it provides one with the capacity to quickly process and retain new information in an ever-changing profession.”

Responding to that, Kit Rodgers, VP of Business Development & Licensing at Cryptography Research, said: “At Cryptography Research we feel that experience and knowledge are more important than college pedigree or certifications. A background with strong education and certifications can give an indicator of an individual's motivation, which is certainly helpful, though at the end of the day it is the individual's skills and capabilities that we care about. Also, perhaps just as important as experience and knowledge are technical aptitude, problem solving skills, and a "can do/team" attitude. We have a lot of complexity in our business, so finding the right technical team members is huge for us.”

Do you agree with the executives? Have an opinion or want to add your thoughts or personal experiences? Your voice can be heard via the comments section below.

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