Technical certification exams: Insights from experts

Four engineers share their thoughts and advice on pursuing tech certifications

The value in getting professional certifications can be a contentious topic. Opinions can run the gamut, with true believers on both sides touting their value, and their lack thereof. We asked four Capital One engineers to share their thoughts on the value of pursuing certifications, on picking the right certifications in the right phase of your career, and how they studied for their certification exams.

Headshots and bios of Madhuri Jakkaraju, Kelly Jo brown, Lakshmi Krishnan Raman, and Richard Shi

How do you personally determine which tech certifications to get?

Madhuri  - If there's a new technology I'd like to learn or need to work on, I explore available certifications around it. Machine Learning is the latest discipline I’m personally and professionally interested in. I recently completed Coursera’s Machine Learning certification to help me get grounded on the basics of machine learning. I enjoyed working through the course work and assignments. AWS also offers a specialty certification around Machine Learning, so I might explore that next to take my ML learning from a theoretical perspective to practical implementation.

Kelly - I generally get certifications for technologies that I’m interested in learning. For instance, if I’m studying AWS architecture, I might get the AWS Solutions Architect certification since I’m already learning the material. This has been pretty consistent throughout my career, I generally try to get a certification in whatever I’m currently learning, but at times this has gone outside the bounds of certifications, like when I decided to learn more about business and ended up getting an MBA.

Lakshmi - I ask myself whether taking any certification will increase the knowledge in a specific domain, help me to execute my current job effectively, or help me advance in my career. As a tech lead and product owner, having sound knowledge in a subject helps me to gain trust with my team, build a better roadmap, and provide solutions to customers. For example, I have improved my skills in project management using the Project Management Professional certification exam. I have also gained very good knowledge in AWS and Google Cloud through those certification processes, which helped me to migrate our product to the cloud, and to meet our timelines, using the correct architectures and technologies.

Richard - If the material covered by a certification is interesting, aiming for that cert is a great way to dive deep and learn about stuff. This way, you'll have a concrete goal to work towards while learning something new and engaging. You can read my piece on New Year's Resolutions for why I think material goals are necessary!

The best advice I've received about certifications is that they are only valuable if you can back them up by proving yourself. At the end of the day, a certification is just a piece of (digital) paper saying that you know something. Having a certification may help you get in the door, but unless you can demonstrate the knowledge and skills that the paper says you possess, you won't be staying long.-Richard

Do you find certain kinds of certification tests more useful than others?

Madhuri - Cloud Certifications since the intricacies of building and deploying software applications on leading cloud platforms like AWS, Google Cloud or Azure are generally not taught at college. The future of computing is cloud and getting cloud certified is a great way for college grads to enter the workforce equipped with a skill set needed to succeed in their roles. Mid Career and lead technologists also benefit from getting cloud certified as enterprises begin leveraging the power of cloud. It can help them step up their game and play a crucial part in their organization’s cloud transformation journey as well as help their teams be well managed on cloud. Most of these certifications can be attained via self paced study and practice. There is also a growing online community and increasing resources available around study tips, practice tests that help one’s chances of getting certified without getting overwhelmed.

Kelly - This really depends on the specific field you are in. Certifications are much more important in the security field than in application development. Security certifications are similar to professional certifications in other fields such as a CPA or PMP, and require continuing education to maintain the certification. This ensures certified individuals are keeping up with the latest advances in the field. 

Lakshmi - I prefer the cloud and security certifications, to keep your skills up to date with the current technology trends. Cloud certifications will help to develop /strengthen skills in the cloud, this will open a lot of new opportunities and advance your career (promotions? and help you to explore the new opportunities there. Security is no longer a separate domain anymore and everyone needs to update their knowledge in the security domain (CSSE, CSSE DevOps) and integrate security in the product life cycle so these are good as well.

Richard - Certifications that are aligned with your current work domain or interests are more useful to have than those that are not. For example, if you were working on a front-end application and have no interests in administering systems, then a SysAdmin certificate would be pointless to pursue and have.

The certification tests themselves vary among vendors. Most exams I’ve taken tend to be multiple-choice and are conducted through authorized testing vendors. One of the more interesting and impressive testing formats I’ve seen is used by Redhat where you are given a broken virtual machine and have to fix it to pass the exam.-Kelly

What certifications have been the most valuable to you?

Madhuri - Getting my AWS Certification helped me transform my career path from a Quality Engineer to a DevOps Engineer. In addition to building out automated test frameworks, I was able to codify our infrastructure config and build automated deployment pipelines. This opened up a lot of opportunities like building a good network, career growth, attending and speaking at leading tech conferences to name a few. In my current role as an engineering lead, I’m often evaluating the high level design and architectural nuances of our applications in the current state vs. the target state. What helps me envision a target state that makes our systems better and more efficient is the knowledge of AWS services and their interoperability that were introduced in the course content, suggested tech articles, and white papers I researched during certification.

Kelly - This has varied throughout my career. I spent many years as a government contractor and specific technology certifications were required for some positions. This is particularly true in the security area where DoD 8570 certifications are required for certain cybersecurity jobs within the Department of Defense. At Capital One there has been an emphasis in my organization on the CSSE and AWS certifications. While I had some Cloud experience before joining Capital One, I have been focused on increasing my knowledge and expertise in AWS. As part of my studies I’m working my way through the AWS Associate certifications and some of the specialty certifications such as AWS Certified Security - Specialty.

Lakshmi - The AWS certification provided me with the foundations and fundamentals of cloud concepts and helped me to strengthen my abilities in executing a cloud migration on our product. My interest in pursuing a Google Cloud Associate engineer certification was to understand the implementation strategies provided by different cloud service providers. This multi-cloud knowledge helped me to strengthen my architectural experience. The project management knowledge I gained from the PMP certification helped me to better plan and execute my projects effectively.

Richard - So far, the AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Associate and Developer - Associate certifications have been the most valuable to me. Not because of any intrinsic value in the certifications themselves, but rather the knowledge I gained through the process. Studying for the SA exam helped me understand how all the different AWS services tie together and how to build solutions using them. Studying for the developer exam has helped me understand and construct serverless applications.

Certifications are not always mandatory, but are a great way to establish your credibility for a newly acquired skill. Once you’ve identified a new skill or technology that interests you, take charge and get certified for a long lasting career impact.-Madhuri

What impact can getting certified have on the beginning level of one’s career?

Madhuri - Beginning of career marks an important learning milestone in one's career. There is no better way to take advantage of that than exploring technologies of interest and getting certified. The time and energy one can dedicate towards certifications is usually high. When I first started out as a .Net Developer after graduating from college, I remember forming a study group to go after Microsoft certifications. I was able to earn 3 certifications over the course of a year and helped train our next class of incoming college grads.

Kelly - I think certifications are a big differentiator early in your career. With little in the way of experience on your resume a certification can show you have some expertise in a specific technology.

Lakshmi - Certification provides motivation for focused learning. In the beginner levels, pursuing a certification in a related field helps you to gain technical knowledge and confidence, and adds value to your job profile. Ex: Pursuing a security certification will help you to gain and strengthen knowledge in the security domain, this will help increase opportunities as you work to enter into that domain.

Richard - Getting certified at the start of your career is a great way to stand out from the competition. However, as with any endeavor that can be used as a metric, there is the danger of what I call “certification creep.” Much like feature creep, where products and services continuously bloat themselves with (perhaps irrelevant) features, certification creep is where new grads and entry-level workers will have more and more certifications. This effect will slowly raise the bar for differentiation, which makes it ever more important to be able to back up the certs you hold with real knowledge and skills.

I’ve earned many certifications over my career. One of things I wished I had focused on earlier in my career is getting certifications related to the direction I wanted to go, instead of where I already was.-Kelly

What impact can getting certified have on the mid level of one’s career?

Madhuri - To diversify one's skill set and become a fungible resource who can be a great team player, mid career professionals can aim to get certified in technologies they are interested in. It can also become a propelling factor in one’s career growth if they choose a certification that aligns with their organization’s goals.

Kelly - In the middle of your career certifications are useful when you want to move into a new technology. Many companies want X years of experience using a technology when hiring for a position. This is a Catch-22 because people can’t get experience in a technology without doing it. A certification can bridge that gap and give IT professionals the opportunity to shift into new technologies and positions.

Lakshmi - Try to get certified in something to increase your competence level. Again, think on how to align it with your organization’s objectives; that is, unless you want to change your career path. Perhaps find out the improvement areas in your performance review and use the certificates to address those areas.

Now that I am managing contractors as a Tech Lead I am seeing the value in manager level certifications. These can help you with technical mentoring, evaluating the timelines given by team members, and understanding things in their technical language.-Lakshmi

What impact can getting certified have on the advanced level of one’s career?

Madhuri - To keep up with newer technologies and make informed decisions while making architectural or design decisions, Subject Matter Experts can benefit from getting certifications they are interested in. There are also Professional or Speciality level certifications offered that help dive deeper into the advanced topics for those who are looking to specialize in a particular field or technology.

Kelly - At an expert level certifications make less of a difference, but can still be a differentiator between two people with similar work experience.

Yes, it's even more important when you are a people manager. The team trusts you as you've walked their walk and they don't hesitate bringing up technical issues directly.-Madhuri

What are your best practices for studying for a certification exam?

Madhuri - Practice by doing hands on exercises and connect with individuals who are on a similar path to engage in discussions that'll help newer concepts sink in. And remember, you don't need to always know the correct answer. Sometimes knowing how to eliminate incorrect answers is really helpful and a skill in itself.

Kelly - Individuals learn differently, so I don’t believe there is one BEST way to study. Generally speaking a combination of book learning and hands-on experience seems to be the best approach. I prefer to take an on-line class for a certification first, followed up by hands-on practice, and then additional book learning such as documentation or FAQs. And remember, make sure you research a certification and ensure it is well regarded in the industry before spending time on it.

Lakshmi - Approach the certification with the open mind - understand the domains, practice the questions and hands-on labs diligently. The two key things are gaining thorough knowledge in the subject area and gaining speed to complete the exam within the time given. Create a clear plan and follow it. Also, practice, practice, practice.

Richard - Studying for a certification is no different than studying for anything else. To properly understand something, the learning should be spaced out (don't cram!) and repeated (don't cram!). Studying should also include applying what you learned, which is a form of active learning and helps cement the knowledge.

Have I mentioned you shouldn’t cram yet? While this may help you pass the certification exam, you're likely to retain very little information - essentially cheating yourself of valuable knowledge. Without retention and understanding, you will end up with a fancy piece of paper, but you won't be able to actually perform what is expected of someone who possesses such a certificate-Richard

Want to learn more about how to pass certification exams?

Header photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

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