Certified vs. Certifiable: How Big a Role Should Certifications Play?

Not too long ago, I knew a Project Manager (PM) who needed to hire a new person for her team. She found the perfect candidate – he had just the right amount of experience, great references, and his salary range was within our budget. He was by far the PM’s first choice; however, the PM hired someone else. Not because she wanted to, but because the contract required a very specific certification that the candidate did not have. The PM eventually found a candidate who had the right certification, but had less experience and a 20% higher salary than her preferred candidate. They needed to fill the position, so they hired him.

When we hire people or companies to do certain jobs, we expect them to have some minimum level of expertise. One way to screen candidates is to require certifications. This can be very helpful, but on its own or used incorrectly it can lead to unintended consequences. Does having a certification make an individual an expert in their field, or does it just mean they are “certifiable”?

I spoke with several federal IT project managers, contracting officers, and contracting officer representatives (CORs) to get their thoughts on the value of certifications, and on the performance of certified versus uncertified staff. Their feedback was consistent and their opinions were very closely aligned with one another. The big surprise was that their opinions in most cases did not match their practices.

Here are the findings from my mini-focus group concerning the pros of requiring certifications for key federal IT positions”

  • Professionals have demonstrated a “minimum” or “baseline” set of knowledge, skills and experience required to do a particular job.
  • Requiring certifications saves time by narrowing the field of competitors.
  • Certified candidates demonstrate a commitment to their profession by dedicating their resources to educating themselves in their field.
  • Hiring certified candidates reduces liability because it is harder for someone to question your decisions if you have hired certified professionals.
  • Certifications are objective while experience is subjective.

The next topic we discussed was about whether being certified made someone better at their job than someone who was not certified:

  • In most fields, certification does not guarantee competence, let alone expertise.
  • There were many examples of people holding certifications in specific areas (project management, security, database administration) who were unable to perform basic functions in areas in which they were certified.
  • There were several examples of “best in class” professionals (engineers, project managers, and IT security professionals) who held no certifications at all.

Understanding the “pros” of requiring contractors or team members to hold certifications, we then discussed the potential “cons” of the requirement:

  • Certifications were never viewed as negative, but it was noted that certifications sometimes provide a false positive result in measuring qualifications.
  • Requiring a certification will often drive the price up.
  • Requiring a certification will likely result in missing out on highly qualified and capable applicants – many of whom would work at a lower rate.
  • At the company level (rather than the individual level) certifications such as ISO and CMMI (while expensive) do not equate to better performance.

In one-on-one discussions with my eight-person panel, a prevailing theme was expressed in one way or another by every interviewee: the best indicator of whether a person or company is capable of performing a job is whether they have successfully performed a similar job before. In other words, past performance, to this group, is far more important than certifications. They would choose experience over certifications every time.

This makes sense. As an analogy, if you are hiring someone to do work at your home and you can choose between a certified contractor you know nothing about or an uncertified contractor who did great work for three of your neighbors, who would you pick? Given this feedback, it was surprising that six out of the eight I spoke with said that for federal IT contracts they typically look for and/or require certified candidates for most or all positions.

At the micro level, this seems silly. A Scrum master with five years of experience building high-performing teams and delivering dozens of high-quality software releases might not be qualified to be a Scrum master on a contract. Then, by spending a couple thousand dollars and taking a three-day class s/he can become certified and suddenly be qualified for the same position. It is doubtful that the class is going to make them a better scrum master or fundamentally change their behavior, but the certification affects the hiring decision.

Conversely, consider an underperforming project manager with five years of experience who has never delivered anything on time or in budget. Half of their work is rejected for quality reasons. Then s/he takes a boot camp and earns a Project Management Professional (PMP) certification. Is s/he now qualified to run your project?

Why, then, are certifications so often used as “knock-out” criteria? I presented that question to my group and they gave a few different answers.

At the macro level you can make an argument that requiring certifications can be an effective means of screening potential team members or contractors. After all, it saves a lot of time by reducing the number of applicants and submittals that must be reviewed. Instead of combing through two hundred resumes, maybe you only need to look at fifty. It’s almost too good to be true.

The Chicken or The Egg?

If you are looking for a team member do you first look for someone good and then try to get them certified, or do you look for certified people and then see if they are any good? I prefer the first method but due to time constraints and customer requirements I admit to sometimes using the second. Fortunately for me, not everyone works that way. When I began working for my current company, the CEO hired me for a position because he believed my skills and experience were a good fit. I did not have any IT-related certifications at the time, but I had lots of experience in engineering and finance. The company sent me to a couple short training programs to pick up a necessary certification and thus my federal IT career was born.

The Flooded Market

Of course, when a certification becomes “en vogue,” more people want it. When more people want training, more trainers offer and advertise training. People learn to “teach the test,” companies send employees to “boot camps,” and resumes get padded. Then, the dam breaks. The certification means less because there is no way to tell if a certified widget inspector is really any good at inspecting widgets. It’s just another checked box.

The original intent was to use a certification to help show you are qualified for the job. Unfortunately, sometimes things work in reverse – that is, people with less experience or even substandard performance will get a certification so that they can appear qualified for a job, hoping that once they get the position they can get up to speed.

One of the CORs I spoke with believes that assigning a greater weight to contractor past performance – and a more rigorous evaluation of the experience - would be the biggest factor in improving the performance of IT contracts. “It takes an upfront investment of time,” the COR said, “but I believe it would deliver more value.” Unfortunately, a lot of contract requirements come with very short turnaround times. This creates some urgency and often means that certifications become relied upon at a disproportionate level.

Business Value

The conclusion from my panel of experts is that the greatest long-term value comes from hiring the right people whether they are certified or not, and hiring companies based on performance rather than paper qualifications. At the tactical level, requiring certifications saves time in the selection process which could theoretically reduce the cost of acquisition. However, certifications cost money and most likely increase the cost of the contract, often without discernable increase in value. In fact, improper use of certifications during the screening process can end up costing a lot more if an underqualified person is hired, because it can affect efficiency, revenue, and reputation – and could lead to turnover.

Most people would agree that having mature, efficient processes will help a company deliver higher quality service and also reduce internal costs. If you deliver high quality service and keep costs down, you should be more likely to win more business. Along the way, your processes and practices could help your company earn ISO and CMMI certifications, which should be treated as a badge of honor.

Alternatively, it’s possible to hire a consulting firm who will “teach the test” and help a company put together a compelling case for ISO or CMMI certifications, even if the company has poor or inconsistent practices. Having the corporate certifications might allow you to compete for more contacts, but if the sole purpose of getting certified if to compete for a contract, the certification will be expensive and difficult to maintain, and it won’t help you improve your processes.

In my previous role at GovernmentCIO, I worked on a team that consistently strived to improve quality. We were fortunate to have a fantastic customer who shared our commitment. Due to this commitment, the processes we followed were mature, consistent, and well-documented. When the company decided to assess our maturity level, these processes helped us earn a CMMI Level 3 without having to change much about how we delivered service and documented our processes. There was and is room for improvement, but if we had tried to have the processes assessed three years earlier there would have been significant gaps.

Conversely, I have seen other projects go through the same assessment when there were virtually no processes in place. The took a “fake it ‘till you make it” approach, hired an expensive consultant, and were also assessed as a CMMI Level 3 company. So if we compete for a contract, their company and ours look the same “on paper” – at least with respect to CMMI maturity level.

The contracting officers and PMs in my group unanimously agreed that experience should be prioritized above certification, assuming that there is enough time to verify the scope of the experience and the level of past performance. Certification is easier to verify but may be of less business value; experience is higher value but requires more time to verify. Like so many other challenges we face, the key is finding the balance that works for you.