Stepping Stones or Stumbling Blocks: IT Certifications & Your Knowledge Journey

When it comes to proving your IT mastery, there’s no silver bullet—but certifications still have a purpose.

Nicholas Thomas

Infrastructure Projects Manager

Like the choice of Google Workspace versus Microsoft365 or the debate of how a VLAN differs from a subnet, IT certifications are divisive. For some, they’re a hard-earned symbol of new knowledge. For others, they’re the bare minimum to be a hirable candidate. For still others, they’re merit badges, obtained just for show.

There’s no shortage of online discourse about certs: “Do IT certifications matter” returns 99 million Google search results. “Are IT certifications important”: 374 million results. “IT certifications benefits”: 353 million results. “IT certifications cons”: 868 million results.

My stance? IT certifications are not the be-all, end-all way for a person to prove their knowledge or advance their career. But just as one should use the right tool for the right job, IT certs have a valuable place in the industry as a launchpad for early professionals. 

What Are IT Certifications?

If you’re reading a blog post on an IT company’s website, you probably already know what a certification is (and you probably have a couple, too). For those who don’t, IT certifications are credentials awarded to individuals who have demonstrated their knowledge of a particular aspect of technology, typically by passing an exam. 

Certifications from vendor-neutral organizations cover universal foundations and fundamentals that aren’t restricted by product or platform. For those exams, it doesn’t matter how Amazon or Google or Microsoft does something; individuals need to know the underlying principles behind the technology.

These vendor-neutral certifications give you an opportunity to see what companies across the field do, their strengths, and their weaknesses. This helps you keep a pulse on industry leaders and challengers, which is key information for an IT consultant looking to keep their clients on the bleeding edge.

Vendor-specific certifications validate knowledge within particular products, often diving deeper into step-by-step processes versus methodology or approach. Vendor-specific certifications aren’t just limited to big names like Cisco and Microsoft.

More and more companies have begun offering specific certifications for their products, which has flooded the certification “market,” to some extent. For some organizations, vendor-specific certifications are a requirement to be able to sell or work on a product/service and inspire folks to continue their learning journey. Of course, this is a double-edged sword and can lead to gamification or other divisive means. (We’ll come back to that.)

Certifications As My IT Stepping Stones

My learning journey in this field included a course of study in computer science, but my industry experience would be refined with certifications. I started small with CompTIA’s A+ exam pathway. I read the book, took a practice test, and saw that this applied field of support and critical thinking was definitely the right choice for me to pursue.

I’m also a goal-motivated person, so the looming exams kept me attentive and engaged. They expanded my knowledge and helped me see how vast the world of IT, with its many specializations, could be.

For me, these certifications functioned the way they were intended: they attested to a baseline level of knowledge in a particular topic or product. They got me noticed, and they got me in the door. But once I was there, I saw a darker side of things.

Playing the Certification Game

I interned and eventually began working full-time at a traditional MSP (managed services provider) where getting a raise meant you had to obtain a new certification. Many factors can impact compensation and career advancement, and earning an industry certification is a valid consideration.

But at this organization, it was the only consideration—above job performance, billables, and operational efficiency. (Thankfully Pliancy doesn’t operate this way, but I would come to find that this mindset isn’t uncommon among MSPs.)

Employees adjusted their behavior accordingly. I’m sure some genuinely sought and absorbed new information, but many gamified the certification process, ignoring calls and tickets in favor of cramming exam materials. The knowledge itself didn’t matter; the exams were merely means to an end.

Some people became excellent test-takers who could parrot knowledge, but the problem started when they were given tasks and tickets to handle that should have been within their skill set… at least according to their credentials.

One particular memory stands out to me: I received a call from an overnight technician with several Microsoft certifications, Exchange being one of them. He told me that the Spam Filter was spooling emails and that the Exchange database was dismounted.

Naturally, to avoid suggesting something he’d already tried, I asked what he had done so far to diagnose or resolve the problem. He said his first step had been to call me.

It was immediately apparent that he didn’t have a great sense of how to troubleshoot Exchange, regardless of what the certifications implied.

The takeaway: certifications are not necessarily the best (and certainly not the only) way to sift out who’s experienced and who’s not.

Inside the Exam-Creation Machine

There’s no magic way to weed out professional test-takers from those with practical skills. Every test is different, and they change over time, but there is one that I can speak to from personal experience.

Earlier this year, I was invited by CompTIA (Computing Technology Industry Association, the largest vendor-neutral credentialing program for technology workers) to contribute to the next iteration of the Cloud+ certification exam. Over three days at their global headquarters outside of Chicago, Illinois, our motley group of SMEs—from Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Backblaze, and more—was trained in CompTIA’s exam writing methodology and learned the test’s objectives before getting to work creating questions.

Our goal was to create material that was applicable across any cloud environment and rooted in practical experience, not rote memorization.

I’m grateful to have been part of the chorus giving the test a dose of reality; to say, here’s what I experience in my work, here’s what people will likely encounter, and here’s how you could test those scenarios.

Writing and reviewing material was a collaborative process. Like a writer’s workshop, we would unpack why a question was a good test of knowledge or why another didn’t meet the test guidelines. It was our responsibility to put current, applicable questions forth. (We’ve all taken outdated tests that have made us shake our heads and think, ‘What year is this from?’) The experience hammered home that technology is ever-evolving and ever-changing—so technology exams must, too.

Certification Commodification

Certifications are changing, but not always for the better. As certifications have proliferated, they’ve become increasingly commoditized. What’s to differentiate one from another—except that maybe you got one for a steal on Black Friday? (Yes, there are Black Friday sales for certification courses.)

There are also free certifications, but you know what they say: if something is free, you’re the product. Displaying a badge from a lesser-known platform on your resume, on your LinkedIn profile, or in your email signature is free marketing. In cases like these, it’s in a company’s best interest to award certificates to as many people as possible.

All of this begs the question: What is the true value of an industry certification?

One Size Fits… Some

Examining certifications in a vacuum—trying to paint them as inherently good, bad, useful, or useless for everyone—misses the point. Instead, we should consider what people are trying to achieve and whether industry certifications can meet that need.

✅ Jump-Starting Your IT Journey

As a new professional or a career changer, hands-on experience isn’t always possible. Pursuing certifications can demonstrate your performance against an established standard. Instead of just saying you’ve “always been good with technology,” passing scores on foundational exams can substantiate those claims—to an extent.

✅ Exploring New Concepts

Studying for an exam is a convenient way to discover whether you have an affinity for a specific topic. If you’re part of a small team or at a siloed company, studying for exams and/or creating an experimental lab environment of your own might be the only way for you to gain exposure to the more specialized or advanced facets of IT.

🟨 Advancing Your Career

At a company where certifications are the only way forward, you may have no choice but to play the game, get the badges, and check the boxes. But speaking broadly, certifications are not a silver bullet for compensation and career progression. Mid-career professionals and beyond can demonstrate their skills and knowledge through real-world experience, portfolio work, and other concrete projects, rather than solely through certifications. Certs become a factor, but not the factor. 

❌ Proving Technical Mastery

From my CompTIA experience and in my personal philosophy, passing an exam is not automatic proof of being an expert. Our north star for test material was, “Would someone with 2 to 3 years’ experience know how to handle this?” Certifications show proficiency, not mastery. It’s equally important to note that someone can possess mastery of a skill but not have an associated certification, the same way not everyone needs a college degree to succeed.

IT Certifications & You

And so, reader, where does this leave you? There’s no cut-and-dry answer—but maybe you saw that coming. For better or for worse, it depends on who you are and what you want to accomplish.

Industry certifications are a tool. Tools help you build, but they don’t tell you what to build—or how, why, or when. You’re wielding the tool. You get to decide.

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