I did a webinar a few weeks ago and was asked about the value of technical certifications. It was a question I was not expecting…. since I’ve been doing these types of presentations (since 2006) I have not been asked about the value of tech certs… My response was good and straightforward, but I have been thinking about another angle I want to address.
In 2018 I took a dream job for ten months. In that role I interviewed various candidates for, if I remember correctly, a couple of roles. During the interviews my colleague and my boss would stop the interview after I asked a question and say, “wow, that was a really good question!” It was flattering and awkward… but it showed me I had a different interviewing style they expected. It also gave me confidence in my interviewing skills since I apparently had better questions than the lists of most common interview questions you’ll pull off websites.
Putting on my interviewer hat, I wanted to talk address this question about technical certifications, and how to communicate the right messages.
Technical Certifications Take Work
Back in the 1900s there was a lot of chatter about people who got tech certifications who didn’t really know how to do anything. They went to boot camps for a few days, learned how to pass the tests, and then got certified (once they passed the test). I remember talking to an IT guy who said, talking about someone with a certification, “he has this server certification but can’t even turn the server on!”
You need to talk about the work that went into earning your certification. You might not say, “It sure took a lot of work!” (although you could). Perhaps you talk about the hours spent studying for the certification, practicing, learning, etc. Let the interviewer know, through your stories, you really put the work in. If they have hired people who went to the “how to pass the test” bootcamps, they might not see much value in the certification.
As an interviewer I’d dig into this. I’d ask questions about what you learned, what it was like studying for the exams, etc. I’d want to know what work experience complemented your studies. I want to really understand you have some level of mastery of the subject/certification, and can come in to this role with a certain competency. After all, that’s what a certification is supposedly declaring, right?
Technical Certifications Quantify Knowledge and Ability
In a job search interview, use appropriate jargon. Your certification says, “This person knows at least a certain amount about this topic.” I want you to share your knowledge and talk about anything you can so I can feel confident in your abilities. Use language you learned (or that was reinforced) while earning your certification. Talk like a professional… as if you already had the role. And do so with confidence.
If you don’t feel confident with this level of jargon then start chatting with people who have the role, and “talk shop” with them. You want this stuff to roll off your tongue. You need to be able to use these words and talk about these technical ideas as if it was second nature.
When you are in an interview, and you talk that way, it could be impressive. Of course, recognize who is interviewing you. If it’s just HR and non-techies, slow down on the jargon. But if you are talking with people who would be your peers and bosses, then you are probably fine to use jargon.
My only cautionary advice is to make sure you use the right words. If you use jargon wrong, they might easily pick up on it and realize you are in above your head. If you make a mistake, though, own it, brush it off, try to correct it, and move on.
Technical Certifications Could Mean Nothing
Depending on who is interviewing you, they might think certifications are the cat’s meow, or they might think certs are useless. I’ve seen profiles on LinkedIn that have a lot of certifications, to the point where I wonder if they only study for certs. Nothing wrong with that but it doesn’t give me the confidence that you actually specialise in, or understand, anything. Rather, that you have made time to earn tons of certs, and test well.
It is your job, as the interviewer, to communicate the importance and value of your certification. You need to have stories, anecdotes, or whatever information you can gather that puts teeth into those certifications.
As an interviewer I will have biases about certs (either good or bad). But if you were to tell me that it took you x hours studying, preparing, learning, in labs, etc. to pass your certification, or that you failed it two times before you passed it, I’m likely going to be more impressed.
Wait… why does failing it twice impress me? Because it will show me the certification is hard to earn, and not just handed out to everyone who sits for it. Perhaps a stat you share is that only x% of people who take the exam pass it their first or second time. In that example I’m looking more at the difficulty of the certification and way less at your ability to pass it the first time.
Remember, I’m evaluating the validity of the exam and certification as much as your abilities. If the exam is hard, evidenced by the number of people who don’t earn it (but try), I’ll be impressed that you have the certification.
Your Work Experience Matters
Don’t rest of just have one, or more, technical certifications. Sometimes, certain certs are really impressive. But if you have relevant work experience, I want to hear about it. Otherwise I’d just hire people who had the most, or the right, technical certifications.
Talking about your work experience will help me understand how you work with others, how you work through problems, what you think about leaders/managers, customers, and coworkers. If you don’t have work experience from this role, or related roles, that is okay. I still want to know these things. I want to know what kind of work ethic you have, how you feel about working on teams, carrying your weight, helping others, working under stress, pride in your deliverables, etc.
Here’s a job search interview tip I didn’t know about: When asked a question, instead of answering the question with the most concise reply, tie in experience or competency. For example you might say:
“That’s a great question. When I was working at ______, as a _____, I faced this exact issue. I ….”
And then talk about what you did. This tactic could be used in most replies. Guess what? You’ll want to practice this before you get there. I think the best way to prepare to respond like that, with those powerful stories and examples, is to write down your stories before, and have a list of them you can draw on. Sounds like a big project, for sure, so start now and maybe add a new story every day.
One more thing… my presentation from the beginning of this blog post was to students. Many times students aren’t sure what experiences to draw from. If you don’t have the relevant work experience you would like, draw from class projects, maybe an entrepreneurial venture you started, even the lemonade stand or lawn mowing business you had when you were eleven. As an interviewer I’m looking for any experience, and even patterns.
Your Soft Skills Matter
Another critical thing to keep in mind is that I’m evaluating you for your fit into my team. Do I think you are going to be too brash and offensive? Too meek and a pushover? Will you say what needs to be said? How will you fit in with certain indivuals? Of course, you probably don’t know those individuals, nor do you know my management style, but I’m making judgements based on what I see and hear in this interview.
This is far from the technical certifications conversation from above, but I want to marry hard skills and soft skills to find the best person to add to my team.
Just as you tell stories to quantify your work experience, you can tell stories that quantify your soft skills. Tell me about working under a boss you didn’t agree with, or working on a class project with a few slackers. Tell me about getting direction, listening, analyzing, negotiating, presenting… any soft skills relevant to the job you are applying to.
I’m looking for a well-rounded person to add to my team. Talking just about the technical aspect might not tell me the whole story of who you are and what you have to offer. So make sure you have some soft skills you want to talk about, and stories to support your claims.
By the way, I have a bunch of soft skill courses on Pluralsight. There are probably over 200 soft skill courses there now…. which is awesome. Complement your hard/technical skills with your soft skills and you’ll be on the path to win interviews and have a rich, rewarding career!