With programmers and developers in such high demand these days, it may be tempting to think that a decision as stodgy as pursuing a certification is a waste of time. After all, doesn't it all come down to the art of your code?
According to those who are hiring and those who have completed certification coursework, you might be in for a surprise. While nothing beats experience and real-world development skills, having certifications can definitely help give you a leg up on landing your dream job.
We spoke with a number of IT professionals, from hiring managers to certified and self-taught developers, about the impact of certifications on the hiring process -- and which certifications are drawing the most demand today.
Proof of aptitude
While today's developers may feel their GitHub portfolio provides evidence enough of their coding chops, certifications can enhance your marketability in the field, as many employers view certs as tangible proof of your aptitude in specific areas of programming or development, says John Reed, senior executive director at Robert Half Technology, a staffing firm that focuses on filling jobs in IT.
"Certifications may be seen as a key differentiator for candidates seeking roles on technology teams," Reed adds.
Most certification programs are conducted and proctored online, with certifying groups testing your knowledge in the field at large, as well as your specific expertise and problem solving for the particular certification area.
Whether it's a more conceptual certification, such as for software development management, or one that is highly specific to a particular tool, programming language, or vendor-specific platform, having a certification shows you are deeply engaged in the profession, says Marty Puranik, founder and CEO of cloud hosting company Atlantic.Net.
"Most programmers list multiple languages on a resume or CV, even if they only have a passing interest in them," Puranik says. "Listing a language on your resume is very different than [being] certified or accredited in X language."
Certification, Puranik adds, certainly gives you "a leg up on others who don't do anything to show engagement with the language in question."
But in a hot market for programmers, don't code samples provide proof enough? Why would you want to go through all that extra effort to get accredited, instead of banging out more code?
Those who have gone through the certification process say it pays off.
"As much as companies are scrambling to find developers these days, anything someone can do to set themselves apart is going to help them get hired over the competition for the more discerning organizations," says Nathan Wenzler, senior technology evangelist at security products provider Thycotic, who has earned 13 developer and other IT certifications over the past decade.
Education and certification demonstrates "that you have taken the initiative to take a test, or series of tests, and be able to successfully answer the questions or problems posed," Wenzler says.
Certifications can be especially helpful early in your career.
"I'm a big believer in early career certifications and definitely found benefit before I was able to prove I had an established skill set," says Jeremy Steinert, who heads up the devops services practice at WSM International, a technical services company specializing in cloud migrations. Steinert is certified in technologies from Cisco, Red Hat, Puppet, and other vendors.
Usually, once a development professional acquires about five years of progressive working experience, certifications become less important because they have a demonstrated level of technical capability and confidence in their assessments and execution, Steinert says. "Then it becomes a measure of continued education through newer iterations of technology," he says.
Certification can lead to higher pay
More to the point: Earning a cert can help you earn more. Data gathered for the Robert Half Technology Salary Guides shows that salary ranges can be boosted up to 10 percent over the national average, based on specific skill sets and certifications, Reed notes.
"That said, employers are not strictly looking to certifications, nor, in most cases, will certifications supersede hands-on experience," Reed says. "But certifications can give candidates an edge, especially if they reflect an aptitude for using the latest technologies."
The more specific the knowledge, the greater the impact provided by certification, especially in terms of monetary compensation, says Igor Landes, vice president of engineering at enterprise software development company Exadel.
"For example, a consultant with a MongoDB certification would likely be paid more than a consultant without such a certification," Landes says. "Of course, if you have enough experience in a specific area and employers become aware of your expertise, the difference most likely goes away."
Programmer and developer certifications tend to be more important in larger enterprises and less important in small startups, Puranik says.
"Part of the reason for this is startups tend to use newer technologies, which may not have a certification path available," he says. "Another reason is that the enterprise space tends to have more legacy code, and thus older languages in use that would have certifications available."
Within "corporate culture I expect to see a correlation between more certificates and better pay," says Elijah Murray, CTO and co-founder of Lenda, a mortgage refinancing website. "In the startup world you're rewarded based on your ability, not accreditation. Experience is the best teacher, and startup culture rewards the hacker/hustler mentality."
It's reasonable to see these kinds of boosts happen for someone who is certified, "provided they also bring experience and legitimate knowledge to the table," Thycotic's Wenzler says. "We've seen many times in the past within other areas of IT and information security where individuals would become 'certified' by passing a test, but had no practical knowledge or understanding of the material.""
If you've already built a skill set and can demonstrate a high level of expertise, "then yes, certifications will only further bolster [your] case for better opportunities, more pay, etc.," Wenzler says.
Programmer certifications can bring value not only with employers, but also with their customers. "We know from experience that our customers place value on certifications," WSM's Steinert says.
Plus, specialized certifications can give hiring managers confidence that you can get up to speed quickly with the technologies the organization already has in place.
Which certs are hot today?
Which certifications carry the most weight today? That depends on your target employer and the projects it wants to focus on in the years ahead.
"With the hundreds, if not thousands, of different programming languages out there now, and [the fact that] most every governing organization is providing a certification in their particular language, it's pretty tough to pick one or two that are most in demand by employers today," Thycotic's Wenzler says. "It will depend on the languages that company uses in-house and what's important to them."
But clearly some certifications are especially popular, and areas that are hot with enterprise IT -- anything related to the cloud, mobility, security, devops, big data/Hadoop -- are likely to create a demand for certifications.
One of the hottest certificates in the IT profession today, experts say, is Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer (MCSD).
"A professional with the [MCSD] certification has exhibited the ability to design and create apps across a wide range of Windows products," Robert Half's Reed says. "This is certainly a sought-after certification, and those who have it may have higher earning potential than those who do not."
Amazon Web Services architect and devops engineer certifications are a great place to start, Steinert says. "Then it depends on the employer's preference, but I know that Chef, Puppet, SaltStack, Ansible are in high demand on the devops side," he says.
Devops certifications, in particular, are hot, with many system administrators and developers pursuing devops-related certifications as their fields converge, Steinert says.
"On the programming side, we believe MCSD and Google Apps are important to pursue, but of course as technology evolves, there will certainly be newer certifications that are valuable and likely specialized," Steinert adds.
Certifications that are broad in scope and address either multiple languages or incorporate more programming and technology concepts to give developers a big-picture view into how code will fit into the business are a good bet, Wenzler says. In addition to MCSD, that would include certifications such as (ISC)2's Certified Secure Software Lifecycle Professional (CSSLP).
Data-focused certifications -- those that can help demonstrate that you know how to build apps that turn data into business value -- will give you an additional edge, Reed says.
But some certifications are clearly fading in popularity.
"Certifications for more obsolete Web-based programming languages are often disregarded completely, as there's simply no need for them anymore," Wenzler says.
On the systems/applications side, some of the older platform certifications for AIX, Lotus, Novell, and others in that area "are not nearly as useful as they were five years ago," Steiner says.
The bottom line
Not everyone agrees that certifications are necessary to land your dream job -- or that they reflect future performance.
"I am an entirely self-taught developer," Lenda's Murray says. "I dropped out of school after freshman year [in college] because I was learning too slowly, and since I wasn't able to find a technical co-founder I decided to learn to program myself."
Certification "simply means that you have passed someone's test on material in that domain; it doesn't say much about how you will perform as an employee," says Sebastien Taveau, chief developer evangelist at financial services company MasterCard. "Certification is a proxy enquiry for 'are you interested and knowledgeable in this area?' Which may be better than nothing."
As for the future of certifications in the field, experts don't see the need going away.
"Certifications have increased in importance in the recent past," says Sri Ramanathan, CTO of enterprise mobility technology provider Kony. "One driver for this has been the need for more skills and the need to hire in a more distributed and scalable way across geographies. If one is hiring developers in China or India, having an objective to validate competency and skill levels is useful [and] certifications are one vehicle to accomplish that."
More experienced and senior-level programmers "are going ahead and getting certifications as a way to bolster their resumes and add to the ever-growing list of strengths to give an organization a reason to hire them," Wenzler says. "A candidate who has 10 years of experience plus a college degree and a few certifications is a much more attractive candidate than someone who may only bring one of those qualifications to the table."