The key question for developers, though, is whether there's any real demand for a particular certificate. Most cutting-edge technologies are too new to be testable, so employers look for other evidence of ability. The real market for certification will always be in bedrock tools like running an Oracle database or maintaining a fleet of Microsoft boxes. Companies that depend on Oracle or Microsoft will usually pay extra for people who've already demonstrated a skill. When your certification and the employer's needs align, everyone is happy.
But developers need to choose carefully. Preparing for exams takes a fair amount of time, and the questions often test trivial knowledge -- the kind usually provided by automatic tools built into today's powerful editors. I've taken several exams about the Java stack and thought to myself: Knowing that fact is Eclipse's job, not mine.
Certificates often have a limited window of usefulness as well. Being an expert on Windows XP was great 10 years ago, but it won't help much today -- unless the company is sticking with XP until the bitter end. You can often find yourself getting certified in versions 1.0, 1.1, 1.2 of a product.
What is the true value of a computer science degree?
If it's hard to discern whether a professional certificate for a particular technology is worth earning, it's almost impossible to decide whether to invest in traditional collegiate degrees. All it takes is one look at leaders like Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg to know that a bachelor's degree is not a prerequisite for changing the world.
But traditions die hard. Some companies simply insist on a bachelor's or even a master's degree because it's an easy way to cut their pile of résumés, or offers a measure of some intangible quality like a deep interest and versatility in working with computers. Whatever the reason, a significant number of people continue to believe that a sheepskin is essential, so developers with an eye on the want ads encounter the dilemma to stock up on diplomas time and again.
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