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Are Certifications Just a Refuge for the Inexperienced?

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LotusCertifiedQuestionStamp_200px.pngThe passing mention of Lotus Notes certifications in my recent "How I got started" post elicited a reader question:

I was curious what certifications you have?  I need to update myself, and was wondering what is marketable these days.


I had to laugh because I haven't bothered to get certified since R5 (shhh, don't tell), and really don't know what if any market value certifications have.  I am pretty sure whatever *added* value they do have decreases as actual experience increases. But for them to have any value at all they need the respect of folks who actually hire Lotus professionals (an insight only slightly more profound than noting water is wet). My own low opinion of certifications came about for two reasons.  First, I wasn't getting asked about them when interviewing. And second, it had become apparent to me that some "certified" professionals had simply mastered the test and, to put it politely, didn't know what the #*&!@ they were doing. This latter observation has been echoed by many other senior Notes pros with whom I have spoken over the years.

On the bright side, I have recently been made aware that some folks we all know and respect are now among those writing the actual test questions, and that as a result the tests have become substantially harder to pass without truly understanding the subject. I'm still not sure if there is any mea$urable value in certification for me personally, but it does at least appear that it may be regaining the respect of other Lotus professionals. These characteristics would put certification roughly on par with blogging, which isn't a bad thing.

So I ask you, dear reader:

1) What value do certifications have?
- Do companies reward employees for getting certified, or is the value only for those in the hunt for jobs or clients?
- How does the value vary for professionals with different levels of experience, or different levels of public visibility (conference speaking, blogging, etc.)?

2) For those who have taken the tests, which tests and what is your impression of their rigor?

3) Are there any specific certifications which stand out as more valuable, or any that seem likely to in the near future?

4) Am I missing anything else about this topic which deserves a mention?

Comments

1 - Well, this is a hot topic for me, having just sat (and passed) my advanced R7 developer certification. I've been in the Domino development game for 13 years now, and was last certified for R4. Why do my R7 certs now? Well, my perception is that it will certainly not harm my CV, if not add a huge amount of value. If nothing else, it helps to round the corners. And perhaps a potential employer would wonder why I didn't take them? Maybe they might read something into it, perhaps that I couldn't be bothered, or a fear of failure.

Another reason for wanting to do the R7 certs is that our company rolled it out a few months ago, and I knew that doing the exams would encourage/force me to thoroughly learn all aspects of the product. After 13 years, it becomes very easy to assume you know everything - and it's amazing the number of small nuggets of information that you never knew were missing. And there are big things too, like LS2J, that sound niche and complex, but when you dig through the details you realise what opportunities they bring (I have already used LS2J to good use to solve a particular problem).

And what about the exams themselves? I found them to have a reasonable mix of obvious and not-so-obvious questions. Probably a cowboy could get a pass, but I don't think a cowboy could get a very high pass - I would say you need a mixture of experience and studying to get a high 90's score. My only concern is that there are simply not enough questions. Perhaps the exams should be extended? Why not double the length of the exam? This would help to ensure more areas of the product are covered.

All-in-all, the certifications have to be something of a good thing. They at least show you have a grounding in the product, and likely some experience too. Back this up with a detailed CV and a probing interview and you have all the bases covered!

2 - @1 - Ian, excellent point about the benefits of being forced to review the material for the test. I had heard that before and should have mentioned it. I agree it is easy to become complacent and this is certainly a good way to combat it. This doesn't exactly address the question of value in the eyes of hiring managers, but as you say it can't hurt and does show there are other benefits.

3 - I am a technical interviewer in my company. I am fully certified in Notes and Domino 5,6,7 and 8 (admin and development). I am also certified in Websphere Portal 6 Admin, Sametime 7.5 Admin, Lotus Workflow Development and I do pay attention to the certifications shown un the CV of the candidates I interview.

Why ? Because you are suppose to be good in order to pass those exams !

Now, if you just read the book or somebody gave you the answers, you won't pass the technical interview. Believe me, after a few questions, you will know right away if somebody is not that good as they say they are.



4 - I maintained a PCLP certification from 3 through 'til 5, just because I figured I should.

I was so late in attempting to upgrade for 6.x that I missed the boat entirely, which meant I had to do the PCLP certs from scratch, using the new ND6.x exams rather than just a simple update.

In their defence, the new-style exams are FAR more rigorous than the old AD1 / SA1 / AD2 tests, that's for sure. But my experience of the certs is that very few people look for them (certainly I look at experience & other skills over specific Lotus certification).

5 - @2 Kevin, I've also been on the other side of the fence, looking through CVs and interviewing potential team members. Like Ben @4, I also looked for experience and other skills over the certification. But, certainly, a CLP does no harm, as it least it shows a willingness to put yourself through the rigour of an exam (which can be a scary prospect for some) that certainly does have some merit in my (recent) experience. I will know that either the person has at least a grounding in the product, or has just got lucky in the exam. And given the range of questions asked and the high percentage pass mark, it is most likely to be the former.

On a related note, has anyone ever done a Tek-chek (sp?) exam? I was asked to do one a few years back by a prospective employer. Now that was a challenging exam! Some of the questions has checkbox answers, with negative marking for wrong answers (e.g. -2 for a really stupid wrong answer!). It was fairly lengthy, and really tested you out! I don't know what percentage I got, but I got in the "top percentile" of people that took the exam - don't know how many people that represented though! Didn't get the job though... The stock "personality interview" over the phone scuppered me, I think... being asked questions like "Is music formulated?", and "What things annoy you?". Sheeesh.

6 - I'm PCLP Developer and Administrator for 5 - 7 (I think :)) and for me it is important as some proof that you want to do something more than just plain work, you are prepared to work on you and get something extra. Also we had a bonuses linked to our certification.

On the other hand I found most of those tests quite easy, except the "new" Security exam which is really hard (at least for me).

And I know that in fact there probably isn't difference between certified and noncertified people, it is just about experience not certification

7 - I've never worked anywhere that valued certifications other than the mandatory ones from OSHA or a licensing or accrediting body. Most of the time when you see a certification requirement in a job ad it's because the HR person put it in there, not because the hiring manager really cares. At this point certs don't really separate the wheat from the chaff (more on that in a minute).

I currently have the IBM Certified Advanced Application Developer, Lotus Notes 6.5 certification... or whatever they call it. I still say "Notes 6.5 PCLP". Emoticon In the past I have held Microsoft Visual Basic MCSD and Microsoft Access MCP. The hardest single test was the Access one, because it required knowledge of VBA in all Office products.

The only reason I did the PCLP exam for 6.5 was to learn the new material. I took the 6.5 Upgrade at Lotusphere 06 and went through the TLCC and CertFX tests a few times. They made it ridiculously easy to pass since at least 75% of the questions on the practice tests were on the real test. In the early days of vendor certification they had a lot of value. There were no sneak peaks, you had to know everything very well or you had no hope of passing. Then the practice tests and certification boot camps cropped up and seriously devalued them. Just look at the various forums. Even on Notes.Net you'll see people asking for sample tests, and I saw one forum where every post for the prior few weeks were people asking for pirated copies of sample tests.

The only certification I am seriously considering is ITIL, but I need to do some more research to see how easily it can be circumvented. If it's pure multiple guess I'm not going to bother.

So yeah.. I'm pretty cynical about the value of certifications. Emoticon

8 - I learned from experience that Certification doesn't guarantee any real level of skill when I was recruiting developers in India. In the end I found that recruiting good VB programmers and teaching them Notes had a better success rate than recruiting Lotus Notes certified developers.

I guess it was this fact that stopped me bothering so I'm still only an R5 PCLP in development!

Obviously, business partners need to have certified staff to achieve their advanced status so there are specific reasons why certification can be valuable.

9 - I've successfully passed all 4, 5, 6, 7 development exams. I tried to pass the upgrade to 8 exam last Lotusphere, with only 2 hours prep, no previous 8 experience. I failed with 1 point missing.
What do I mean: If you know your stuff, it's easy to pass. If you don't: you can still (almost) do it.
I do the exams as a 'personal' reward. I've never had any customer ask for my 'credentials'. I prove my 'worth' in the field. Certificates are just a 'nice to have' imho.

10 - @7 Charles, you stated that "They made it ridiculously easy to pass since at least 75% of the questions on the practice tests were on the real test." I've just sat the LotusScript exam, and a few days prior to sitting it I used the CertFX software to practice. I ran a mock test, and the practice mode with 90 questions. I have to say that, at least in my experience, only a handful of questions in the real exam resembled the mock questions, and none were identical.

11 - @10 - Ian I'm not sure if your observations about the CertFX software are complaints, but I would consider the minimal similarity to be a good thing from the standpoint of ensuring the integrity of the process.

@7/@8 - To Rob and Charles' points about piracy and India, it has to be said that those two threads are linked. I am certainly not saying that all Indian programmers cheat on their certs or use pirated software, but none of them would deny these are significant problems in South Asia. Having spent considerable time in that part of the world, I have seen first hand the laissez faire attitude toward software "acquisition." Of course, this attitude vis a vis certifications greatly devalues them for everyone and makes it harder to evaluate hiring candidates.

12 - @11 - Kevin, to clarify, my observations were not criticisms. And the fact that some questions were similar is to be expected - they are indeed covering the same narrow-ish topics! I felt I needed to counter Charles assertion that the mock and real tests pretty much overlapped.

13 - @8, I found that trying to repurpose a VB programmer was worse than useless. Some years ago I had a contractor fobbed off on me without my input, with the rationalization that a good VB programmer could pick up Lotuscript because they're "so similar."

My butt.

He knew nothing of the Domino object model, nothing of any administrative issues, nothing about the nature of Notes/Domino at all. I gave him some server-side agent stuff to do and without those skills he was essentially useless. He spent most of his time talking on his cell phone in Chinese and eventually went back to China to start his own company. Not a single line of any code he wrote in his eight months on my project survives.

Give me a native Notes/Domino person every time. Certifications or no. In fact, my CLP was earned on 4.6x. Did it as a stunt, mostly, since my day job doesn't give a poop about certifications. It was just that a bunch of "VB programmers" were taking (and failing) their MCSE exams, sometimes four and five times, and I took my CLP tests at Lotusphere and passed them all, no problem.

14 - I tended to upgrade my domino dev certification very late, almost at last minute. Still need to upgrade on Domino7.
But I've used certifications to get into other area. So over the years I've collected quite a rich set of Java, DB2, XML, Websphere, Websphere Portal and Webservice certification.
I think certifications are quite usefull if you are learning a new technology. You are not only read some books or dabble some code, but also expose your knowledge to the test.

15 - Ian, I haven't done the R7 or R8 exams so I don't know what may have changed. There was a huge overlap between either the TLCC or CertFX practice tests for the 6.5 Upgrade exam, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if that is one of the reasons there are new people making the exams now.

Turtle, I started off as a VB/Access programmer and moved to Notes. I like to think I made the transition fairly well, but I've been called delusional before.

16 - well keeping up your certiciations is just like a car seller who is not certified, who do you trust?

17 - { Link }

18 - On a development project I had to recruit sub-contractors. In order to track the technical skills, i had to create a list of questions, and realize a long time after the interviews that it was exactly what certification do, i.e. technical assesment.
Instead of "loosing time" in interviews with those topics, i would have rather spend that time "digging" the candidate's brain.

The funny thing is that I was last certified on r4. So I decided to certify again. As someone said before, I didn't even open a book, and succeeded the 3 development exams. In other words: when you know your job, certifications are not dificult at all.

Not only do they give you credit, but it's also a good way to know where you are regarding certain topics.

Moreover, it can help your sales men, for IT companies, to better sell you.

And for yourself, if 2 candidates are selected, the one with the certification will have a slight advantage. However, as someone else said above, in a non IT company, passing certification can sometimes sounds like a goodbye farewel... But do not forget neither that in certain situations, audits can also find it being a good asset too...

19 - It wierd I ran across this Blogg. I haven't not taken a Admin Certification Exam since PCLP R5 in 2004 (I think). I would like to get back on market after doing a few contract/projects.

A.Can you point me in the right direction for proper study materials?
Yellow Book for R5 was great but do not think they make them anymore?

B.Would you suggest I get certified in R6 or R7?

20 - Yes, I think certifications are some kind of refuge for unexperienced but then again certifications are the best shot of the unexperienced. As long as nobody would hire them as their are, the next step they make is upgrading their certifications...

21 - I've just taken and passed the first of the R8 dev exams and am still not sure if I'll bother with the other two, mainly because of cost. Prior to today my most recent cert was R5 PCLP, but now I may have to start putting the CV out again and think that certifications do help get the CV looked at.

That said, I really hope that no one recruits based on certification alone since experience, esp with Notes/Domino and it's quirky ways, is far more valuable. I fully understand why a recruiter confronted with a pile of applications would use CLP as one way of creating a short list, but that should never, in my opinion, be the reason someone is recruited.

Now I just need to decided if another $400 for the remaining 2 exams worth it, now that I can at least put R8 certification on the CV (even though it's really only IBM Certified Associate Application Developer). If they were cheaper, say $100 an exam, I'd recommend it to all experienced or new developers. It's good (at worst, not bad) for the CV and it is a good way to pick up some of the new stuff that you may not use from day to day.


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