I have long been an advocate of certification in the IT field, Sales Engineering not being much different. I also happen to know some very talented and effective SEs that shun certification altogether. Before jumping in with OPTAM, I decided to conduct an informal poll on just how pervasive certification was within the SE ranks. What I learned was that, on average, an SE held slightly more than two relevant certifications to his or her profession. So it seems that most have bought into the notion (or been brought along kicking and screaming) that obtaining a certification can help ones effectiveness or career. Those that always proclaim you should hop onboard with the newest cert, or similarly those that shout that all certification is a waste of time, are more belief systems than good career advice. In my opinion every certification should be evaluated on its own merit and a full cost-benefit review conducted before you embark down a path.
So is it worth it?
So if every certification should be examined on its own expected value, what variables should you consider becomes the next logical question. My hope is that this provides a framework from which you can begin your analysis.
Thankfully the cost of obtaining a certification can be somewhat easily calculated up front. The primary factors are:
- The hard cost of the exam, which may be $0 if your company is paying
- The time incurred from studying. Will your manager let you block working hours for studying or exam prep sessions? What’s the “cost” if you have to take 80 hours away from your family to do this? One of the most critical elements of this calculation is how good of a test taker are you? If you struggle, you could easily be spending 4x the amount of prep/study time that is advertised for the exam
- What’s the cost of exam prep, including any formal training or bootcamps? Again, your employer may likely foot some or all of the bill here.
- What does it cost you NOT to have the certification? If you, either inside your company or inside your customer base, are expected to have this certification and you don’t, you need to fully consider that impact
Early on in my career I almost went to work for a VAR because they guaranteed me a $5k raise every time I passed a new technology exam. It was very tempting because I consider myself a good test taker–one cert a month was pretty much a lock. Since that time, I have never again found such an instance where the monetary reward in obtaining certification was so immediate, not to mention determinant. Normally, there are numerous benefits to reap, but they are mostly “soft” in nature and hard to quantify. Still, there is some commonality with all certifications that are likely to come into play:
- Can you negotiate a raise or other direct benefit from your employer? Have you ever asked? Many large companies have some sort of spot bonus program for going above and beyond the job–perhaps a certification would qualify you for one
- Tiebreakers. Tiebreakers consists of a broad class of benefits that I can tell you from experience are extremely important, but as a category perhaps the hardest to quantify. During the time of my first SE role I had volunteered for an assignment where I would be elevated to being considered a formal SME (subject matter expert) in a particular technology. As a formal program within the company, this role carried prestige and good career visibility, so of course I wasn’t the only one volunteering. My manager had to go to bat for me against other SE managers trying to get their folks in those slots. My manager smartly used the fact that I already held a certification in that area and I wrote articles on my own for a couple websites to “break the tie” when on paper I and the other SE(s) looked equally qualified. The thing is, these tie breakers show up everywhere: salary increases, promotions, special assignments, vendor selection processes, hiring decisions, etc. Consider this aspect as you read through the other items
- Hiring decisions, especially for new SEs, can be very check box oriented. Sales Engineering as a profession is highly competitive. The market for associate level positions is even more highly contested. That means certification can be a distinguishing feature on your resume, which can lead to higher paying positions
- Grading decisions in larger companies can also be very check box oriented. Are you an Associate grade wanting to make it to a Senior grade? Managers, rightly so, are always after better and more objective promotion criteria. If your manager is actively pushing you in a particular direction, you can ask what it would take for your being considered for the next grade. You can always suggest a particular cert you’ve been wanting to pursue as a component of that
- As SEs our currency with the customer is credibility. You can earn credibility in many ways through your actions, but certification is one of the few opportunities you have to garner some instant credibility that a respected certification can convey
- Forced learning is another beneficial aspect of certification. That is, the pressure of a deadline and potential monetary penalty if you fail the exam are excellent intrinsic motivators for you to learn difficult or perhaps boring subject matter that nevertheless is important for you to know
- As an armchair economist and financial advisor I’ve always been a fan of the annuity model–where some initial work is done once, upfront, which then has the potential for continuous payback. Certifications have this characteristic to them, such that the initial investment upfront has the ability to keep “paying out” for many, many years after the initial test. Similar to the financial instrument, the earlier in your career you obtain them the longer the potential payback period
- One of the more important recruiting tools ever conceived–LinkedIn–gives head hunters, internal recruiters, and individual hiring managers the ability to search through all potential candidates in the area to proactively reach out to them in the event of job openings. Like resume databases in the past, job searches are still to some extent keyword based. Certifications are key terms that are searched for in many industries. Having those certifications (keywords) expands your potential job pool.
- Are you looking for fast-track opportunities for career growth? Look for speaking opportunities and writing assignments at industry events and periodicals. What helps you land these assignments? Impressive bios do. What makes an impressive bio? Your experience certainly, but if you hold a small batch of respected certifications after your name, it can really make a difference
When you consider the mostly temporary nature of the investment compared to all the potential benefits, it becomes clearer why certification is prevalent in our industry–and rightly so in my humble opinion.
Did I miss any hidden costs or benefits? Please feel free to add them to the comments!