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Certificates Don't Prove Competency

I’ve written before about how I think college GPAs are a useless metric for hiring managers.

It should come as no surprise that I don’t have a very high opinion of certifications either.

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I recently needed to hire an engineer with deep knowledge of AWS. Given the job description saying as much, I received hundreds of applications from folks with a variety of AWS certifications. I ended up interviewing a few dozen of them.

The candidate I ended up hiring didn’t have any certificates listed. I don’t even know if he has a bachelor’s, went to a bootcamp, or neither. None of that actually matters (I say this after suffering quite a bit to earn my bachelor’s).

The reason I made this choice is because my interviews are structured to go over real problems and see how a candidate would perform on the job. No trick questions. No textbook answers. The problem is “how would you actually implement this system?” followed by a lot of probing questions about various decisions and trade-offs.

Much like the job itself, my interview questions don’t come with right or wrong answers. They don’t even have good or bad decisions. It is primarily focused on why a decision was made over the alternatives and what are the potential downsides of that decision going forward. How do we deal with those downsides if they come up?

The people who excel at my interviews are people who have done the job and understand the fundamentals of everything they had to do. A certificate doesn’t prove that.

The fundamental problem with certifications is that they are by definition standard. Everyone reads the same material. Everyone takes the same test.

Name one developer job that has been exactly like a previous job. There is nothing standard about a position. Every job works with a unique system for a unique product that has a set of unique quirks. Those quirks could be the demands of your particular customer base, the challenge of the technology itself, or some legacy code making it harder than it needs to be. Your ability to do the job well lies in your ability to adapt to a variety of situations.

Since certificates are all standards, they only include generic descriptions of hypothetical situations. There may be an opening for nuance with something like “You may want to consider X for some situations”. There are no descriptions of those situations because nuances are so varied that they can’t possibly include them all. But literally every job has nuance. There are no cookie cutter positions when building software.

That creates an interesting conundrum. Attempt to add those nuances in the certification and you are including content that people taking the certification will likely never encounter. Neglect to add those nuances and you have no test for adaptability.

I have yet to see a certification that can solve this problem and that would be the only one that actually proved a candidate’s competency.

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