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The Hidden Costs of Certifications: Is It Worth the Price Tag?

Melchor Tatlonghari

Let's discuss the significance of certifications in Software Engineering. I have six certifications from various organizations, including AWS, Linux Foundation, Microsoft, and Oracle, for different technologies. However, does having these certifications truly make a difference in the grand scheme of things?

The Good

Certifications can draw attention from recruiters and companies. Platforms like LinkedIn hold certified individuals in high regard and allow engineers to showcase their accomplishments as badges, enabling recruiters to search for engineers with specific skillsets. During interviews, it makes the preliminary conversations much easier, it prevents most interviewers from trying to probe further knowing that you have passed well-known examinations; “Do you know cloud?” “I’m Solutions Architect certified”.

Certifications instill confidence in your understanding of the fundamentals of a particular technology. When people inquire about it at work, you can respond with utmost confidence and demonstrate your expertise.

Certifications enable you to speak a common language within the tech team. For example, cloud certifications allow you to engage in conversations with platform engineers, DevOps engineers, or site reliability engineers. As a Software Engineer, this broadens your understanding of common infrastructure issues and helps you anticipate potential pitfalls when writing code. For Software Architects or Principal Engineers, this skill is essential.

Certifications provide leverage when discussing career progression with non-technical superiors if utilized effectively. Managing Software Engineers can be challenging when it comes to measuring progression. As knowledge workers, there is no standardized test that allows comparison between engineers' proficiency levels. Comparing frontend versus backend engineers or full-stack engineers becomes complex due to varying skillsets and depth of knowledge in specific languages or frameworks. Certifications serve as a layman's measuring stick that managers can use to justify promotions based on industry-wide accepted standards.

The Bad

Certifications have become marketing tools for big companies. What often goes unmentioned is how corporations exploit certifications to promote their technologies. The annual ritual of renewing certifications becomes a self-imposed torture to acquire a marketing tool for larger conglomerates. At this point, you start to think they should be paying engineers to take certifications and not the other way around.

Certifications can be quite expensive, with costs increasing each year. It will cost you at least a couple hundred dollars, and that is assuming you pass the certification on your first attempt. However, if you don’t pass, the costs can quickly add up. The preparation courses are also not cheap, especially if they are company-sponsored. That’s why many engineers are taking advantage of this opportunity and creating their own exam preparation courses.

Certifications have short lifespans. After grueling months of deep diving on a specific technology, requiring you to understand every nook and cranny of every little piece of information needed to pass the certification, all the while still needing to do your full-time job, you quickly realise there is only a short-time that the certification will be valid once you obtain it. The hours and late nights you dedicated to getting that certification, you would need to do it again in a year or two. I understand that given the pace of how it evolves, but the excessive studying needed to pass the certification was it ever really needed? Not everything I learned on each of the certification I was able to take into the real world, I heavily understood the fundamentals for say Cloud, or Container Orchestration, but I didn’t need to understand every single detail needed in the exam to build an application in the real world, but then again what would be the point of giving everyone with base knowledge a certification? Hence, the conundrum.

Certifications (most, not all) are primarily theoretical. Does possessing a certification guarantee full confidence in working with that technology? Not necessarily. Many junior engineers struggle with this misconception, especially when it comes to becoming certified. They assume that obtaining a certification equates to proficiency in using the technology in practical situations. However, without real-world experience, a certification remains an abstract title and potential knowledge. It's akin to watching "how-to-drive" videos; true proficiency only comes from actually getting behind the wheel.

The Ugly

A negative feedback loop often emerges with certifications: engineers take exams, still don't feel confident, their certifications expire, and they retake the exam - all while companies profit from fees and courses.

Should you pursue certifications?

Deciding whether or not to pursue certifications depends on your experience and current circumstances. After reading this article, I hope you can make a more informed decision before embarking on the journey of obtaining certifications.

Digital Nomad