UPDATED 2:28 pm with minor grammatical edits
Kris Buytaert, with whom I normally agree, has a post out today entitled Open Source Certification , Friend or Foe (go on, read it, I’ll wait) suggesting that certification in Open Source products isn’t worth very much in the long or short run.
This has not been my experience. While I have not felt the need to acquire many certifications myself, I have hired lots of folks with them, and have seen the effects of their implementation both from the consumer and producer side of the industry (disclosure: my company, Puppet Labs, just announced its own certification program, scheduled for release in September. My feelings about certification have not, however, changed since Puppet announced its certs, and most of my experience around certification was gathered before my work for Puppet).
There are many things certification represent, and your view on whether or not certification is worth it is heavily influenced by the direction from which you approach. I’ll take a very simplistic approach today and discuss the impact certification had on my own career.
Early in my career, I was a fairly strong UNIX/Linux zealot. I had gotten my start working on Digital UNIX, my first Linux was Slackware, I abhorred RedHat for being “too commercial” (these are the RedHat 5.x days – not RHEL, but RedHat) and I refused to touch Windows or MacOS at all. I stubbornly ran Linux on my laptop long before such was easy or even fully workable.
At work, however, the environment was skewed far more toward “enterprise” software. Debate as you like the merit of that phrase, there are companies that believe it exists, and who will only invest in products that purport to deliver it and its litany of intangible benefits. As such, while DEC and Solaris had managed some UNIX penetration, I was having no luck at all getting Linux and Slackware traction even within my own group. Further, Microsoft was making heavy plays for my company’s business, and while we ran a huge Sendmail infrastructure, the move to Exchange seemed more imminent by the day. My daily arguments about freedom, about vendor lock-in, about extensibility were gaining me absolutely no traction at all.
I realized very quickly – and I was still in my late teens at this point – that I was going to have to learn everything I could about this Microsoft infrastructure in order to counter the arguments they were making, arguments frequently couched in terms like “vertical integration” and touting the benefits of the nascent Active Directory – this was ca. 2000 – for which I had no response. And so much to the derision of the peers in my group, I embarked on getting my MCSE. I had access to a small VMware environment – this was pre-ESX, so GSX, their primary environment also ran atop Windows – and using this I set myself an Active Directory environment and proceeded to use Microsoft’s curriculum to teach myself Windows administration. Say what you want about the validity of MCSE’s in those days – yes, they were paper certs – but I was not attempting to memorize test answers to get a credential. I was attempting to scope and learn a new technology for which I had no teacher and no guidebook, and to understand it as completely as the technologies I used daily. I built networks and broke them, learned RRAS, removed Domain Controllers in completely unacceptable ways, torched DNS, and then learned to fix the entire environment without starting from scratch.
By the end of that process – which stretched around a year – I was done, I had passed seven exams, my boss jokingly threatened to reduce my salary for having achieved MCSE status – and I began being taken seriously by the higher-ups. I was soon invited to and able to participate substantively in conversations about the technological direction of my organization. Now granted, MCSE certification, particularly in those days, was more about teaching you how to sell MS products to your boss than it was about teaching you how to use them, but I had taken the trouble to understand and not just aim to pass, and so I had something to contribute – and I understood exactly what arguments were being made by my MS-oriented peers, and how closely they aligned with reality.
But something else had happened to me, something that in the long run turned out to be far more important. In exposing myself to a product I didn’t like through a certification process I considered ridiculous, I learned some of the strengths of MS products, and I learned to understand where they had my own systems of choice licked. I didn’t change my views on software freedom, but I now understood what RedHat was doing – making FOSS acceptable for the “enterprise-only” club – and I began to realize that there were elements of this “vertical integration” that weren’t just sales-speak.
Ultimately, neither side won the day at that organization – both began to work together to build a hybrid solution – and I think that was very likely the best outcome. For my own personal growth, though, something more interesting happened.
Sometime around 3 years later, after I had left that job, I was contacted by its sister organization. They had a gigantic Windows infrastructure, their head of servers was a UNIX guy and detested it, and they needed somebody who could come in and broker a peace between both sides. As a result, after 5 or 6 years of championing UNIX and then Linux, I was suddenly a Windows administrator with nary a Linux box under my control. And this began a career direction for me of entering organizations which were experiencing contentious technological disagreements and brokering a peace – what would become for me, in time, a focus on DevOps. An opportunity and a direction that never would have opened for me without those four letters, MCSE, on my resume.
I’m not even close to saying that certification will bring anything close to that direction to most people. Ultimately what made me successful was my initial willingness to pursue the MCSE and to better understand my adversaries, and then to embrace the stronger technologies on both sides at the end of that process. But certification was a means to an end, and more importantly, with years of Linux/UNIX experience behind me, it was a way to signify to potential employers that I had knowledge about a subject that didn’t show up directly in the experience section of my resume.
Certs are not a panacea. But they aren’t worthless for the aspiring SA either. They are an element of an ecosystem…and they can be worth pursuing.