Path to Mastery: Why I Miss Certification

The last certificate test I took was the Sun Certified Web Component Developer exam maybe 10 years ago. At that time certificates were the hottest thing going around. If you had a cert it would get you in the door. Then the whole thing kinda imploded on itself because people finally realized just because you had that piece of paper it didn’t mean you knew what you were doing. That led to backlash against certificates and I don’t think they’re really used in recruiting any longer (thank God).

I don’t miss the negatives that came with certification (using it as an HR filter) but what I do miss is a clear path to mastery of a subject. When I first learned Java web development I had next to no web experience and had no clue what I was doing. I read a couple of books, did some mock exams and passed two certifications and guess what: I STILL HAD NO CLUE WHAT I WAS DOING. But guess what I did have? Context. I now had been exposed and was made to learn all about the internals of a technology I was being paid to use. That gave me a huge leg up early on in my career and allowed me to see the bigger picture of what was going on on my projects.

Early in my career those certifications were gold. Within a couple of years they were worthless. After developing for a couple of years I learned the ropes of Java web development and I finally had some clue of what I was doing when I approached a problem. But I still think back to those worthless certificates and how they laid the groundwork of future success for me in my career.

I think as our technology stacks mature we really need to think about newer developers and provide them clear avenues to master the technologies we use everyday. There are a lot of really good documentation sites, good books and also video based training sites out there now (PluralSight, PeepCode, RailsCasts, etc) and I think they do a great job of filling this gap but as someone new you really have no clear direction on what you should learn. I think all the training is (mostly) out there but what’s missing is direction. We as a technology community need to find a way to incentivize newer developers down a path of mastery without turning it into an evil recruiting tool.

Don’t get me wrong, mastery takes YEARS of practice. YEARS of learning. YEARS of building. It will never come simply by taking a test or a piece of paper. But I still think back to my early days and how my road to mastery was a lot shorter because the path was already laid out in front of me and I didn’t have to wander around looking for it.

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