Certifications in Hiring, Part 1: A Certificate’s Value

There are a ton of certifications these days. Many demand only that you sit through a 2-day or even 1-week class and then take an exam. Some certifications demand that you prove you have worked in the field for some number of weeks/hours the previous year or so.

Most certifications do not demand that you show proof of your successful expertise in action.

Let me tell you a story about the last certification exam I attempted. It was the ASQ Software Quality Manager, back in the early 90's or so. I had been a Manager and then Director of software quality for several years. My companies appreciated my work. I helped the testers learn to improve their skills, which helped everyone. The developers were happy because they believed the testers helped. The testers were happy because developers and other managers took them seriously. I was happy (as well as our customers and managers) because we had fewer defects and were able to release faster. We had systems that worked for us.

I took the exam. I got all the multiple choice answers right, except for one or two about ISO. The problem was this: you couldn't pass the exam and receive the certification unless you got some credit for the open response questions. There were two open response questions. People marked those questions. I got zero (0, null, nil, nada) credit.

When I called ASQ to understand the problem, I asked for my exam. I wanted to learn from it. The woman told me she could not send me my exam. She would kindly offer me 50% off the next exam.

I checked. Was there any way someone else could explain to me why I scored zero on the open-response? No, there was no way.

Now, I knew which questions I had flubbed for the multiple choice. They explained that to me in my results letter. But the (to me) most important questions? The ones that might show how effective you might be? No. No answers as to why I got zero.

That's when I realized that—for many professional organizations—certifications are a way to remain relevant and keep making money. You need to get people to take the exam. You ask people to do ongoing learning and maintain their certification. That was the way ASQ did it. It's the way PMI works. It's the way the Scrum Alliance works.

In return, these organizations establish a demand on hiring managers and especially Human Resources. Why HR? Because the HR people often have no way to discriminate among candidates. When you use a certification as shorthand for knowledge or experience, you can include the certified people and exclude anyone without a certification.

Now, I have long said that the value of the certification is in the learning. You want to know about project management? Study for a PMP. You will learn about Markov scheduling, which is why Theory of Constraints and agile work. (The more you optimize the entire system and manage the current critical path (the current constraint), the easier it is to have schedule advances. Also, see PERT scheduling/estimation.) There is even a part of the PMP study guide that deals with people. It doesn't say servant leadership, but it comes close.

You want to know about agile? There are a gazillion certifications out there. I am sure that many of the CSM classes are much better than the one I took in 2006. (Even by the end of that class, people were confused by the notion of a timebox at the end. I swear. I cannot make this up.) The Scrum Alliance and ICAgile are just two of the certification bodies. I suspect that many of the teachers affiliated are great teachers.

However, teaching and learning are not the same as doing. As I said in Hiring Geeks That Fit, I spent 3-5 years early in my consulting career rescuing projects from PMPs. As I have hired people throughout the years (or coached my clients), I see people with all the “right” certifications who cannot be adequate Scrum Masters or agile coaches or agile managers or agile project managers or agile product owners. It doesn't matter how many certifications they have.

They have book/classroom learning. They have no experience to back up their certifications. The result? You hire someone and then you don't understand why they don't work out. Or, you say, “Agile doesn't work for us.” It might. You don't know because you haven't hired people with agile experience.

HiringGeeksThatFit.150In hiring, a certification means that the person was interested enough to pursue the certification. And, with any luck, they learned something through study. If you use certifications to discriminate among candidates, your filter is too narrow. See more in Hiring Geeks That Fit.

The next post is Certifications in Hiring, Part 2: Hiring Traps The third post will be about tips.

Update Jan 12, 2016: My friend and colleague Bob Woods posted Alphabet Soup: I'm Certified Therefore I Am! It's worth your two minutes to read it.

The series:


9 thoughts on “Certifications in Hiring, Part 1: A Certificate’s Value”

  1. Joanna we are in total agreement. I share with newbies looking to get a CSM or PSM that the certification without actual experience on a couple of agile efforts is generally regarded as a negative. However, one or two years of experience plus a CSM or PSM can be a positive. Some of the least useful people I have known in our industry have an alphabet soup of certifications, but they could not “servant lead” themselves or a team out of an alley with only one entrance.

  2. Johanna,

    Thanks for speaking out on this ‘touchy’ subject. I have encountered several hiring organizations that require candidates to have certifications from ONLY the organization where they obtained theirs. Talk about limiting your hiring candidate pool.

    Unfortunately, certifications (and classes) in the Agile arena are, mostly, a money making game. A few years from now they may be obsolete as new certifications become available and ‘hot’. As you said, successful experience is the only empirical evidence to prove your qualifications. How you disseminate that experience on a resume is the real challenge. Once you get to speak with someone beyond HR you can usually get your knowledge & experience across.

  3. Jacqueline Bowlin

    Love this article. I am currently looking for employment. I have been told that my age will work against me. I have also been told “Have you tried getting some certificates” or “Go ahead and lie about your education, at your age no one will verify”. These comments come from individuals 1/2 my age and less than 1/2 of my work/life experience. Yet, they are working, I am not. hmmmm
    I have 30+ years working within the corporate environment at a mid to senior level, I have lead, engaged, managed many people (and all that entails) I am proud of my experience and want to learn more….but lie….Not a chance!

    1. Jacqueline, yes, ageism is rampant in many fields, especially in technology. I have some recommendations in Manage Your Job Search.

      I agree, don’t lie. Do develop a target list. Then network like crazy to reach the decision-makers for your target companies. Best wishes to you.

  4. Pingback: New PM Articles for the Week of January 4 – 10 - The Practicing IT Project Manager

  5. Certifications are an important part of hiring a candidate because it tells you that the candidate has a good understanding of their role and theoretical knowledge however certification does not mean that the candidate will be good at their job as those skills can only come after experience.

    1. So you folks have a business in certifications. That’s fine.

      However, as a hiring manager and as someone who has worked in my field for 40 years, I can tell you certifications have no meaning at all in terms of being good at a job. You are correct that people need experience to be good at their jobs. That experience does not need to come from a degree or a certification.

      Too many certifications require zero work experience and application of the subject under discussion. For example, at this point in time, none of the agile certifications require any agile experience. The agile certs are all about taking a class (or several) and doing whatever practice is in the class.

      The PMI certifications do not require successful project outcomes. They require project experience.

      If you don’t learn from the experience, you get the same year of experience over and over again.

      You folks have a business model where you teach and provide certs. I have no idea if you are any good at this. I do know that just because a candidate has a cert does not mean that candidate will be successful.

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