Ask the Expert

What role should certifications play in hiring someone?

We seem to be spending a lot of "grey matter" on the role of certifications in hiring an applicant. My opinion on certifications is that they represent "the beginning" of a field of study and experience that establishes a fundamental baseline -- no more, no less.

In many cases, companies demand this or that cert without really looking behind the knowledge base or the experiential value that the applicant brings to the table. That is a management issue -- not a cert issue. What am I missing that makes this discussion represent real value?

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Certifications often have currency, because they require hiring managers and human resources (HR) types to do less thinking and perhaps even spend less time evaluating candidates on their other merits. Sometimes -- and I suspect you're dealing with one or more of those -- certs function much like "checkbox items" in that they act as hurdles that successful candidates must surmount to make it through the application process. Who cares what they say about the person with the acronym behind his or her name? Of course, the real contribution that an applicant makes depends more on those less measurable things (knowledge base and experience) than it does on any certification he or she may have been able to earn.

On the other hand, certs do represent somebody's idea of what individuals need to know and be able to do within a sometimes idiosyncratic idea or sometimes within a well-researched and developed notion of a specific job role. That's why I stress with readers, cert candidates and those who solicit my opinion (like you) that it's what a person can say about their credentials (and of course, about their other relevant knowledge, skills and abilities) that really makes the difference.

In many cases, probably even the majority of cases, certs tackle the basics, the fundamentals or the most essential and elementary aspects of a field of work or study, and leave the rest to the school of hard knocks to deliver. (As Bertand Russell put it: "Experience is a dear teacher, but fools will have no other.").

That said, there are exceptions and not all certifications deal only with basics or fundamentals. (Think about higher-level SANS credentials, the Security University curriculum and the various certs from the former American Society for Industrial Security -- now ASIS International.). Likewise, even mainstream certs like those from Microsoft and Cisco now routinely seek to test beyond basic knowledge of terminology and concepts to focus more on real-world skills, problem-solving ability and related technical knowledge as much as possible.

Thus, it comes back to my first paragraph, wherein certs take on a certain convenience value -- an easy qualify/disqualify criterion -- for hiring managers, HR staff or others who may not want to delve deeply into the backgrounds, capabilities and skills that candidates bring to the interview. Not much we can do about that, except to get involved in the interview process and hiring decisions to inject some real-world acumen, judgment and assessment of the other, less tangible things that candidates bring with them along with their particular brands of "alphabet soup."


For more info on this topic, visit these SearchSecurity.com resources:
  • Best Web Links: Infosec training, career and events
  • Career and Certification Tips: Security certification landscape -- Vendor-neutral certs abound

    This was first published in December 2003

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