Eric's Technical Outlet

Learning the hard way so you don't have to

The Dangers of Certification

Don’t let the headline fool you; I’m not about to give you any excuses not to get your certifications. My aim is to bring light to the darker side of those achievements.

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in the resellers and VARs and solutions providers that come to try to sell me product. It is good that they’ve finally learned that sending in a salesperson armed only with buzzwords is going to result in a lot of exerted effort and not a lot of sales. Nowadays, the sales reps bring technical contacts of some variety with them. This has undoubtedly helped a lot; the technical guy answers the technical questions, the sales guy answers the sales questions, and everybody gets informed – almost.

During the initial contact, before they ever come out, a decent sales rep will ask you what you need the most help with. For that first on-premises visit, they generally select an engineer who most suits that need to tag along. In our case, networking is one of our bigger problems; we have more issues than we have inside knowledge and personnel time to manage, but not such a big problem that we need to hire a dedicated networking engineer. So, our sales visits usually involve – can you guess it? – not a networking professional per se, but somebody who can climb over the Great Wall of China by standing on his Cisco credentials. THIS is the problem of which I speak.

Don’t get me wrong, Cisco makes great products and are where they are for a reason, and the people who get Cisco certifications work very hard for them. The problem is that these guys usually aren’t just Cisco experts, they’re also Cisco evangelists – and may not even realize it. Almost inevitably, when I inquire about competing products, the technician will either answer dismissively or confess ignorance. These guys have worked so hard to know what they know that they rarely know much about anything else. They certainly don’t want to even entertain the idea that they’ve invested all that effort into a company that’s not producing the best product out there. This typically means that if I want their help, I’m going to have to buy a product that may not suit my exact needs.

It’s not just the certificate-holders. Their employers, especially in the reseller/VAR/solutions provider world, often design their entire sales infrastructure around particular products and companies. No technician can learn everything, no one has infinite space to store products for quick replacement, no one has unlimited time for product testing, etc. They focus on selling what sells and only occasionally make the necessary investments to look into other products. This is why, despite the fact that proprietary systems should be a relic of the pre-DOS days, we still see racks of all-Cisco networking equipment attached to racks of all-Dell servers running all-Microsoft operating systems. It’s also partially the reason this blog exists. Between the VCPs and their bosses who can’t get a margin out of free Hyper-V, it’s tough to find anyone willing to consider, much less commit to a Hyper-V environment.

The other danger from the certified evangelist is over-application of a good technology. For instance, I see a lot of starry-eyed heavily-certified bloggers trying to make the case that we should virtualize everything with a CPU. I see techs insisting that nothing less than a Cisco 2960G will work to connect two PC’s to a Windows Home Server. I see people spending twenty minutes getting their nifty tablet configured on the guest wifi at a prospective customer’s site so they can tap out two lines of notes.

If you’re a technician, then for your own personal development, it still makes sense to get [some] certificates. Just remember that the certificate vendor wants you to become an evangelist for their products. If you’re a customer trying to evaluate providers or a hiring manager trying to evaluate candidates, devaluing certificates is just as dangerous as overvaluing them. Certificates have a place, bittersweet though it may be, but technological agnosticism is still the guiding principle we should all strive to live by. If you focus on only one tech, you’re going to miss a lot of good tech.

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