18 July 2011

The Certificate Industry

I have been thinking about writing this for a while now and as I write this there is something of an education debate in part spurred on by remarks made by Peter Thiel.  I have no interest in being part of that debate. Actually this is more of a rant that is on the periphery of that discussion.  My complaint is that there seems to be a whole industry that surrounds the idea of certifying people as knowledgeable or learned in certain areas whereas my experience is that many people who carry these certifications then think themselves knowledgeable and or qualified to do certain tasks yet they are often severely lacking in knowledge and ability.  I have met many people who look at education solely as a means to a job and then rest on the laurels of their prior educational accomplishments and see no need to further their education beyond college.  I cannot tell you how many people I have met who seem to have no interest in the very subject that they majored in college, it makes me feel as though the degree was the only goal not the knowledge gained to receive the degree and picking a major was a mandatory option to attain the degree.  It is this type of goal oriented education that seems to be the bane of our educational system which is nicely, albeit nervously, articulated1 by Erica Goldson.

I am lumping college degrees including advanced degrees and corporate, often product related, certifications together, not to mention the mentality by corporations that these,  as Erica Goldson puts it, "pieces of paper that tell us that we are smart enough to do so" seem to be seen as the end all in qualifications. Now obviously not all companies think this way, in fact determining actual skills and knowledge during interviews, especially of programmers, seems to be a subject of much protracted debate on the inter-tubes.  I am not saying that are not people who effectively avail themselves of their educational opportunities and are not passionate about their fields, I just feel these people are not in the majority.

The certificate that I find the most irksome is PMI’s PMP.  In my experience I have dealt with many managers who proudly append this suffix to their names and companies seem to regard this as a concrete qualification for managing a project, however, my experience is that it usually is not. The most egregious example of this in my experience was using twenty-something liberal arts majors with PMP certifications to manage software projects as I have previously mentioned.  I know someone who is pretty involved in the PMI community and she points out that this deficiency is not the methodology itself but due to the fact that the processes are either not applied or improperly applied, so I am in no position to comment on the efficacy of their methodology.  Regardless of that fact it seems like PMI has a pretty lucrative business selling these certifications.

On the other end of the spectrum I have encountered people who hold masters degrees in Computer Science, who seem rather lacking in the fundamentals, I have met relatively recent graduates who strain to tell you the difference between an NDFA and DFA. In one case a young recent graduate saw a document on by desk with the title "Lambda Calculus" and asked me why I was reading about Calculus, when I responded "it’s not Calculus it’s Lambda Calculus", he replied with "what’s that?"  I then said, "You know what a Turing Machine is" thinking I would explain it in terms Turing Equivalence, and he replies "No."  At that point I was dumbfounded and retorted with "How the hell can you have a Masters in Computer Science and not know what a Turing Machine is?"  I then pulled it up on Wikipedia and he claimed to know it, he probably did, it turned out he was pretty bright with a fair amount of potential but kind of an airhead, still it struck me as pretty lame, plus shouldn’t someone with a Masters in CS at least have heard of Lambda Calculus and know about Turing Machines off of the top of their head?  Now this doesn’t only apply to theoretical knowledge, I have worked with some Masters degree holders who were terrible programmers.  Once again this not to say that there aren’t bright knowledgeable Masters Degree holders who are knowledgable and good programmers, but clearly having that piece of paper does not make it so.

Now these are just my experiences but you will find other mention of these types of experiences also related to Microsoft, Sun and other corporate certifications, remember selling certifications are businesses which can be fairly profitable.

I recently came across this article on the New York Times website about how the movie "The Social Network" has renewed interest in Computer Science Curriculums because many starry eyed college students are seeing themselves as possibly being the next Mark Zuckerberg.  This reminds me of a previous coworker who had graduated around the time of the last tech bubble, this guy was actually pretty sharp but he had sporadic interest in the day to day work and would often gripe that he really didn’t like the field, and he was only in it because it was a well paying career.  I admit as someone who is passionate about my career and my field of study I find this mentality extremely frustrating, I feel that these are the exact people that you do not want to hire, now obviously not all of these new enthusiasts will be like that, but as a word of advice, most people working in startups tend to make less money than salaried employees, because even if your company is successful that doesn’t mean that it will have some huge market valuation and if it fails you are out of the street to start anew or find a job, of course if you want try it go for it.  Now there are diverse areas that you can go into in IT but be prepared to find something that you like to do every day, don’t just do it because it pays well or you might get rich, both may happen especially the  former which is a lot less glamorous.  I’m just saying for every Mark Zuckerberg there thousands of us workaday developers who are just out there making a living at our "craft". And you may find that your life in this field ends up being more like the movie "Office Space" than the "Social Network".

Just to be clear here, I really enjoy and admire academia and academic work, but unfortunately I think, perhaps unjustly, that many CS curriculums are broken in terms of practicality and how and what math they teach you. So if you want to learn programming and start a company, you might want to: just do it, but if you are serious about the field and the discipline of software then you might want to go the education route and avail yourself of the possible opportunities that it offers.

Maybe it’s just because I’ve become jaded over the years but I am really skeptical about this Hollywood/Rockstar mentality that seems to now taint our industry and I think that in some ways this is indicative of the real problem with education in our society in that we view education solely as a means to a better job and we do not truly respect knowledge and learning. It’s all about the Benjamins baby. 

1I admire her Courage for speaking out like that.

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