Developer Certifications: Obsolete & Indispensable

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Certification has historically been associated with any of the significant technology waves in enterprise adoption. Consider Novell’s NetWare, which pioneered the personal computer networking market during the late 80s and early 90s. In 1990 Novell introduced the Certified Novell Engineer (CNE) certification program (followed by the Certified Novell Administrator in 1992, and the Master CNE in 1995). Novell’s CNE program was intended to ensure a baseline of proficiency equipping engineers to install, maintain, and support this technology. Even before the internet boom, Novell heralded the rise of vendor-led certifications by establishing a highly-branded landscape that, despite complaints (particularly among senior-level practitioners), perseveres four decades later.

It is perhaps unsurprising that today certifications are dismissed by some as an outdated vestige of 1990s business sensibilities. Engineering team hiring managers understand that paper credentials are not necessarily evidence of qualification. In fact, some tend to view developers possessing numerous certifications with suspicion. This distaste, while subjective, certainly reflects the field’s well-known valuation of merit over paper tokens, and real-world experience over test-taking proficiency. Indeed, it is a truism among software engineers that the learning process in this profession never ends. Between the constant appearance of new technologies and the field’s breadth (full stack developer memes, anyone?), retaining a growth mindset is absolutely essential. However certifications are perceived to be more hoop jumping than evidence of actual education. It is no wonder there continues to be a disconnect between certifications and the skills they promise.

It’s worth pausing to include a few counterpoints to my admittedly negative assessment of developer certifications. Certifications are one of the best means through which a well-packaged platform technology enables broad deployment. Technology is never adopted in isolation, and certification has been one of the most significant means to build an ecosystem of skills around it. Moreover, as RedMonk’s own James Governor has argued, certifications can offer a means for historically marginalized groups (women, non-white persons) to enter tech spaces. While exclusionary ideas like “fit” and “culture”–squishy notions that tend to reproduce white, male dominated spaces–continue to play oversized roles in hiring, certification can be a tool of inclusion by demonstrating ability beyond identity.

Salesforce’s Trailhead, for instance, which began as a gamified learning platform with badges and has become a global scale community offering a more formal series of certifications too, has been instrumental at getting seas of non-technical people, often from under-represented groups, into the technology field and systematically leveling them up, certification by certification.

No matter where you stand on the subject of certification’s merits, today these programs look to not only endure, but also expand. The Covid-19 pandemic has made remote education and training even more in demand–especially as the hiring shortage in the tech industry shows no signs of abating. In this post–the first of what I anticipate will be a series–I have considered the subject of developer certifications (and the training and education that often accompanies them) because these programs paradoxically continue to function as both obsolete and indispensable parts of the tech industry.

Disclosure: Salesforce is a RedMonk client.

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