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Certification vs. degree: We don't need no stinkin' degree!

Aspiring DevOps engineers should remember that you just have to get your foot in the door. And that doesn't require a pricey degree and staggering debt.

I have a friend. His name is Martin. Martin works at Apple. He's a very successful engineer, despite the fact that he does not have a college degree. Martin may not have a degree, but he is Java Certified. For the price, a $30 certification guidebook, a few months of study and a $245 exam fee, Martin is living the good life and he has not a bit of student debt.

Martin is my hero. Why? Because Martin managed to avoid the expense of college tuition while getting a commercially useful education. Martin looked at the IT certification versus degree debate and made the wise decision, emerging with an education and a career.

A college degree is expensive and many of those degrees are financed with debt. According to Federal Reserve Bank of New York Consumer Credit Panel/Equifax, by way of The Student Loan Report, the average debt per student borrower is $27,857.

Yep, you read it right; many, if not most, students graduating college are more than $25K in the hole, and that's for undergraduate only. Go to grad school and the number goes up to around $50K combined. In case you're interested, the 2017 interest rate on that nut is anywhere from 3.76% to 6.31%, depending on loan type. The typical term of repayment is 10 years (120 months). So, many students exiting from four years of partying and studying, with a few classes thrown in, can plan to pay between $300 to $338 a month on a $30K debt burden.

Given that the average salary for a person one year out of school is $58K, which translates into a take-home of a little less than $4K a month, (health insurance not included), paying around $300 out your take-home to pay off your debt is not too bad, provided you have a desirable degree such as in computer science, the economy stays healthy and you do, too. If you decide to be a Top Chef, you can expect to make about half the average, or around $30K.

The average debt per student borrower is $27,857

But still, college debt can be a burden when you're 21 and new to the world of work. As the numbers show, you'll most probably do fine. Good for you. Now imagine that you are 40 years old and for the last 15 years you have used your degree in journalism to cover your daily beat at the state capital for the Chicago Sun-Times. You just got through paying off your undergrad loans five years earlier. One day your editor calls to tell you, "Sorry, we're downsizing and you did not make the cut."

Now what? Go back to college for four years to get a degree in computer science hoping to get one of those well-paying jobs you've been hearing about in DevOps? Sounds good, if you can afford it. Maybe get some part-time work while you study, letting your wife make up the income gap so the kids can keep eating? Is that what you do? Is it really possible? Do you really want another 10-year loan hanging over your head?

Or, do you do what my friend Martin did and spend some time and a few hundred bucks to get a credible certification to put on your resume? This is when the certification versus degree debate begins to favor the former. Many certifications are available. Want to be a Certified Data Scientist? No problem. Pass the five tests given by SAS, an industry stalwart, and the certificate is yours. Of course, you should plan to pay between $180 and $250 per test, depending on the test. Still, it's not a bad use of your money considering the cost of a graduate degree for a California resident attending UCLA runs about $16K a year, and that's only for tuition.

While certification does come with significant benefits, particularly in terms of cost efficiency, there is a drawback. Some certifications can be quite granular, to the product level. These are called microcertifications or microcredentials. For example, you can become a Puppet Certified Professional, a Chef Certified Developer or a Jenkins Certified Engineer, for those wanting to move into DevOps work.

Having Puppet certification is great if you are looking for work in an IT shop that uses Puppet. But, if you are interested in a Chef shop, you need to get that additional certification. So you run the risk of playing certification roulette, getting certified in one product only to find out that the effort was wasted because you really need to be certified in a competing product. This can lead to a life on the certification treadmill: always in the process of studying to pass a certification exam of the next big thing.

Looking at the certification versus degree debate, there is the perennial risk of getting stuck with a useless piece of certification paper issued by a shady operation. You know the ones, those advertising that you can learn rocket science (or other ridiculously hard technologies) in 12 weeks. How do you spot these certification mills run by charlatans?

To answer this question, I asked Heather Wetzler, a person who knows a thing or two about professional certifications. Heather is the co-founder of Cue Career, a professional development platform that connects students with professional associations and professional development opportunities. According to Heather, here's the way to tell if a certification is on the up and up:

When looking at certification programs, which include badging and microcredentials, the first thing people should look for are certifications offered by respected sources, such as companies (a company in the space or a respected name like IBM or Google) or professional associations that have a long history of providing training and credentialing and are recognized as industry leaders. For example, if you work in digital advertising, you know what the IAB is, and everyone in the industry recognizes their credentials as the industry standard.

Those of us out on the terrain who have hired an engineer or two know that having a college degree or a certification on your resume is better than not having one. Given the volume of hiring activity, particularly automated resume analysis, and the increasing churn of technical talent moving between jobs, we can't really afford to spend an afternoon getting to know job candidates. There is simply too much to do. The piece of paper means something; in many ways, a certification in digital marketing might mean more than a B.A. in liberal arts with a major in business.

Still, even if you have the paper in hand, at some point you have got to be able to sling the code, write the script, do the deployment, or find the right residents in the right zip codes to receive your company's weekly email announcing the latest hot deals. You have got to be able to walk what your resume's talk, so to speak. It's important.

My friend Martin knew how to walk. The certification, like the diploma awarded to the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, just provided public confirmation of that which was apparent to most. But still, it helped.

So the next time you're sitting in a job interview for a full stack engineering job and the interviewer asks you if you have a CS degree, if you are feeling especially brave, take out your JavaScript Developer Certification, your AWS Solutions Architect Certification and your Python Certification, look him (or her) in the eye and say,

"Degree? I ain't got no degree. I don't need no degree. I don't have to show you any stinkin' degree! I've got the certifications and the chops to prove it!"

This was last published in June 2017

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