Hiring for IT? Here's when to consider tech certifications in the interview process

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Ask any CTO about the value of certifications and you’re likely to hear one of two answers. Some will argue that technical certifications are a valuable way to demonstrate skills and knowledge. While others will tell you that too many certifications are easy to get and don’t reflect real knowledge or learning.

Given the hundreds of technical certifications available from software vendors, colleges, training companies and other tech organizations, both sides of the argument have a point. Rather than discuss which certifications are useful and which are a waste of time and money, I want to share a few thoughts about when you should consider certifications in the hiring process. And when it might not matter.

Tech certifications and the interview process

At some point during the interview process, certifications are bound to come up. Potential IT employees are eager to talk about them to show command of their skills. And employers tend to value candidates with multiple certifications because it indicates a job candidate is capable of learning as technologies change and improve.

But the need for certifications varies widely depending on your team’s technical maturity and an individual’s role and desired impact. Most certifications can’t tell you how long it takes an interviewee to learn new technology. They can’t tell you if job candidates can work with others to solve problems. And they won’t tell you whether or how they’ve applied that knowledge on specific projects. These are all factors, and you need to make sure your interview process digs deep enough to give you and the team a good understanding of how the individual scores.

When is a tech certification most useful in the hiring process?

First, if you’re hiring for an entry level position like desktop support, helpdesk or general technician type roles, certifications can give you a quick snapshot of a person’s knowledge. Folks applying for these jobs may have little to no experience and certifications might be the only way to know what they can bring to the job. Employees in these roles are going to be thrown into situations where they’ll need to troubleshoot everything from network configurations to software compatibility. In this situation, certifications can give you an idea of how much learning capability or technical aptitude a candidate has for particular technologies before you hire them. Having a broad range of technology concepts measured by certifications (network, security, server) may be particularly beneficial here.

Second, when you are looking to hire someone for a technology that you don’t currently have in-house, certifications will help. It can be hard to vet someone’s knowledge on a topic if you don’t have someone with that expertise to review technical answers. Certifications can help solve this for you. Let’s say you have a major new initiative to migrate to new solutions, or let’s say you have a large capital expenditure on Cisco equipment in your data center after management and maintaining a different vendor's equipment for the past 10 years. Your organization’s technical maturity in the space could just be in its infancy.  When hiring for this position, you could use Cisco’s certifications to help vet a job candidate’s ability to fill a specialized role.

In this situation, a certification indicates that Cisco or an outside authority has verified that this person holds these skills. Of course, you’re not only looking at certifications. You want a candidate with experience running that system. The certification is an added check that the person you are considering can do what they say they can do.

A third situation where certifications can be helpful is hiring for advanced IT positions. In this case, however, experience comes first. When interviewing these candidates, you’ll be asking about what they accomplished in their previous positions, the types of projects, outcomes and the return on investment they delivered. The certifications they hold help you identify particular skills and strengths and indicate that someone has verified that they do in fact have the skills you need.

When are certifications NOT useful in the hiring process?

Certifications are less useful in the developer world. Here employees are working with dozens of frameworks, databases and languages. There are endless options on how to mesh things together. Even inside your organization, teams might use different combinations of each for different applications and services internally.  Another company will have a different technology stack or approach to the tools you use. It may not make sense for employers to require employees hold certifications for every technology the organization uses.

Instead, experienced developers should be asked to talk about their experience and project portfolios. In an interview, one might say, “Here are examples of the 10 apps I’ve built and here are other examples of the different websites I’ve designed. And here are the examples of the user experiences I’ve designed, and this is my process for creating them.” These are tangible assets that candidates can use to demonstrate their proficiency with the technologies you use. Additionally, ask questions like how would you address a specific problem, and then follow up with questions that get at the why. Why did the candidate chose that and what are some of the alternative methods they could have used and why didn’t they choose those? Ask them. These answers will help you determine if they can add value to your team and work within your constraints and systems.

IT operations experts won’t have the same kind of work product to demonstrate. They may be able to share a PowerShell or Python script they’ve written to automate a task they would need to do or show an app they developed to assist their penetration testing efforts. However, when it comes to actual server and network infrastructure implementations, management and security there are few tangible assets these people can share in an interview situation. Many of which, for privacy reasons, you wouldn’t want someone who would be willing to share details and documentation. Certifications help fill that void.

In the right situations, certifications can shortcut the interview process, eliminating the need for test projects or assessments. Except for entry-level positions, certifications cannot replace real experience or team experience. So, when appropriate, look for a strong combination of both experience and certifications—especially for potential employees in your IT organization.

Learn more about what to look for when hiring IT employees and other technical talent with our guide.

Get the guide: You don’t need to hire a unicorn

Contributor

Gary Eimerman

(VP of IT Pro Content) heads up the IT pro curriculum at Pluralsight. He brought his expertise over from TrainSignal, where he spent eight years helping to grow the company into the leader in online IT training. Gary has a B.B.A. in Management Information Systems from University of Iowa and brings hands-on experience with computer hardware, networking and administration, as well as a passion for education, to the Pluralsight team.

You can follow him on Twitter: @garyeimerman.