What’s The Point of a Designation? (With a Venn Diagram!)

This is a fairly weak challenge to the pursuit of technical certification, but let’s start with it anyway:

I have come across a lot of my friends who aquired very nice percentage and received certificates though they have very minimal knowledge, or they have never worked on that particular technology. How crap is that, and now they are the proud owner of certificate, showcasing it proudly over their work desk. Ask them a very simple question on the technology that they have got certification, they would be for sure struggling to give answer to it. This is quite common, Certifications are being done only to get an extra point during their salary appraisals or job interviews. And I pity these corporate giants who would consider certification to be something remarkable.

How many out there would say, Yes certification is worth doing and it must be done to prove that you are good in a particular technology?

First point: if you’re an aspiring entrepreneur, stop right here. Stop reading, stop everything and go start building stuff. The longer you wait the harder it will be.

Second point: certifications are often required to work in a chosen field. That’s called occupational licensing and it’s often ridiculous. I’m going to concentrate on what real benefits certifications offer (in my experience) to the risk averse, hard working and ambitious. Doctors and lawyers need not read further.

I mentioned at the top the argument above is pretty easy to dismiss. Knocking something you haven’t actually tried? Striking down the straw man of heavily credentialed morons? Here’s a Venn diagram:

I did a fairly terrible job of scaling the image. The Red-only zone should be pretty tiny, the smallest of them all, really. Most people who spend the time and energy studying a topic do come away with some competence.

The deeper question is something anyone who spends a lot of time studying for tests should struggle with: is it worth your time? What does it get you?

Once upon a time I was at a dinner with a client who gave me some offhand advice: take some courses, they’ll teach you something, you’ll get an initialism for your business card and you’ll advance your career.

What terrible advice. I followed it, which I’ll get to later, but here’s what he should have said:

  1. Education is good, but remember its two functions: to teach you practical skills and signal your intelligence.
  2. Many certifications, unfortunately, are completely useless. By that I mean they teach you nothing useful and don’t signal a damn thing of any use to strangers.
  3. Most skills that will actually improve your job performance are best learned on the job. There is usually no good substitute for experience. Go help domain experts solve problems and effing pay attention. Study them.
  4. The most important skill of all? Check out this paper, which I’m actually reviewing for another blog post:

    In this study, measures of interpersonal and task-related skills were obtained from two groups of engineers: those nominated as “stars” by their managers and those nominated as “average”. Interestingly, the researchers found that the only distinguishing difference between the two was the stars’ interpersonal and affective skills. Specifically, the stars were better at developing rapport with coworkers and building extensive, loose networks of reliable problem solvers.

    Interpersonal skills. No certifications for that.

  5. Depressed yet? Well you should be. There is no reliable way to accelerate your career except to experience more. The only other possibility is to perhaps the change the trajectory of your career by changing the what kind of experience you get and how you respond to it.

NOW let’s talk about certifications.

Certifications work best as an introduction to a body of knowledge. Your goal should be enough understanding to follow a conversation between experts. Doesn’t sound like much, but this is incredibly important.

Imagine your mind dragging a net along behind it everywhere you go in life. You actually don’t have enough knowledge to properly interpret a lot of the experiences that pass through the net. Think of a certification as a way of shrinking the mesh of your net.

The second thing certifications can offer is the opportunity to work your ass off. Some certifications are really challenging to complete. Following my client’s advice I took a softball course, which has proven useless. The last module in it, however, was an introduction to finance which I really enjoyed (I was shocked – I HATED finance in undergrad and nearly failed it).

So next I tackled the CFA exams, then moved onto the CAS exams. Some would look at the amount of time I spent on these (over years and years) and shudder. Good. This makes them a fantastic signal of all kinds of qualities employers love.

But even the most grueling course yields nothing in isolation. What you want is the holy grail: high-value experience. By that I mean working with and learning from the best.

You see, the skills of the most incredibly skilled have afforded them prestige (always), wealth (often) and an extraordinary demand for their skills (always). They need help. And who are they going to pick? Putting nepotism to one side, they’re probably going to pick the highest status recruits, which means those with the strongest signals of quality.

I’m pretty fortunate to have a challenging certification available I can sink my teeth into. But programmers have an enormous expanse of open source projects they can attach their names to. And writers can always write, artists can, um, create, etc.

Certifications are ideal in mature industries where innovation is slow and the canon of skills relatively stable. In others, go online, the Internet has enabled quality signaling in just about any worthwhile pursuit.

But remember the iron law of education: if you don’t have to work hard for it then it probably isn’t worth your time.

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