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Certifications and the hiring process

My good friend Stretch wrote an interesting article about the usability of certifications in the hiring process. I can’t agree more with everything he wrote about certifications, it nicely summarizes the various topics Greg Ferro and myself wrote about during the last year (please note: I’m not claiming Stretch was in any way influenced by our thoughts, anyone seriously considering the current certification processes has to come to the same conclusions).

Regrettably, I have to disagree with most of his alternative approach (although some of the ideas are great). It would work in an ideal world, but faces too many real-life obstacles in this one.

Certifications are a much-needed filter. If you’re forced to hire from the market (which is the worst thing you can do, good engineers are never on the market), you’ll get tons of (mostly lousy) responses and you have to have an initial filter to reduce the clutter to a manageable size. Joel (not surprisingly) has a few more interesting ideas.

Participation in forums and mailing lists. The idea looks promising: candidates that participate in public exchanges of ideas are more passionate about their work. Unfortunately that’s not the case. If you’ve ever followed a mailing list (for example, the generic Cisco mailing list), you know that you get bored and drop out after a few weeks or months due to highly repetitive questions from people who tend to use the mailing list before Google. Forums are not much better (worst example: /.). One also has to wonder what the over-commitment to forums means for the daily workload (and the amount of work getting done). I would rather have an engineer who focuses exclusively on the problems in his work than someone who has time to reply to every post in a public mailing list.

Blogging. There are millions of engineers working in Cisco’s ecosystem (what a wonderful marketing term), but less than hundred blogs worth mentioning (the ratio is similar in the CCIE world). Engineers are usually introverted people who rarely feel the urge to express themselves around the blogosphere.

What’s left? Hands-on tests are considered discriminatory in some environments (this is a hearsay; I can do them in Slovenia. If you have more details, please let me know), certifications are not a reliable indicator, so what’s left? There’s plenty you can do, starting with growing your own people, keeping in touch with great engineers, building your social network and (if at all possible) not hiring through the market. Luckily I don’t have to write about these things; Joel Spolsky was doing that for the last 10 years … and he should know what he’s writing about; he’s been running his company (and hiring people) since September 2000.

9 comments:

  1. Hi Ivan

    Great post, but I feel the need to disagree with you on one thing.
    Good engineers CAN be and ARE on the market, its just a matter of timing.
    Contractors eg, coming to an end of a contract, or a contract coming to a premature end (due to a fault with the company, not the contractor), or a perm good engineer working for a telecoms company that just happens to shift the dept to india etc.

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  2. Hi Ivan, I have just finished reading your book EIGRP Network Design Solutions. Have you ever thought about releasing a revised/updated edition as I for one would be happy to buy it.

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  3. OK, let me rephrase: good engineers are rarely on the market (and usually not for very long time)

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  4. Unfortunately Cisco Press has no plans for another EIGRP book.

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  5. Masood Ahamd Shah04 December, 2009 21:39

    Does it mean that EIGRP is EOL or going to be EOL...

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  6. Short answer: NO

    Long answer: it only means that someone @ CiscoPress (which is quite independent from Cisco) doesn't see a huge market for another book describing 15 year old technology that's already been covered in numerous books, including at least two I've written ;)

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  7. Ivan, thanks for sharing your thoughts! Admittedly some of the alternative ideas I suggested were half-baked, as that wasn't the real focus of the article. I do plan to expand on them in the future though and would appreciate further feedback when I do. I feel like I should expand on a couple points though.

    My intention in suggesting the review of a candidate's forum and mailing list participation wasn't to look for volume but rather quality, even if it's just a few posts/emails. (For example, has he provided helpful answers to questions posed? Or has he been expressing difficulty with fundamental topics his resume claims he already knows?) Though I agree that an abundance of posts made during work hours is probably a flag to be considered.

    Certainly most people aren't going to run their own blogs. However, that doesn't mean they can't publish a quality paper now and then. Guest posts and aggregate blogs like http://www.ccieblog.com/ potentially offer a great platform for such infrequent writing.

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  8. It's amazing how we're complementing each other. Using forums/mailing lists as a bozo filter ... that's ingenious 8-)

    As for "writing/publishing": for many engineers working outside of the calm ivory towers of academia these activities rate somewhere close to nail pulling :-E

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  9. Why is that certifications cant be just ONE factor in the hiring process instead having to be THE factor...why is it that its almost implied that certifications are useless and ALL certificate holders are simply brandumpers that really cant do the job or be a good employee. It needs to be understood that not everyone can simply put their name on an application like Ivan and be hired. Some people use certifications as ONE way to distinguish themselves among others....lots of people can say they have 10,15 years of experience... lots of people can say they've worked with "xy" technology...does that mean they are proficient at it.....maybe..maybe not....lots of people can say they have worked on a project involving "xy" technology....yea..what capacity?.... Most HR don't want to read "pages and pages" of experience to determine potential..

    Not to be vain in anyway as I still learn even the simplest of things everyday...but I feel im more knowledgeable and experienced than others with similar years of experience ...and why....because certifications have pushed me to learn new technologies that I don't do everyday at my current job...have pushed me to learn the technologies much deeper than I would have simply on the job. Could I have learned new technologies or learned the technologies deeper without certs...sure...would I have "truly" pushed myself to know the technologies like I do for certs...probably not...why... because I wouldn't have known better (its sometimes hard to quiz yourself on what you don't realize you don't know) without an outsider. How often do we kid ourselves that we know something when we really don't.

    I have known many people that have said something similar..."I thought I new "xy" technology until I started studying/took the test. Then I realized I don't know the half of it". I know many people who say they know EIGRP really well because they have entered in "router eigrp 1" "network 10.0.0.0" "no auto-summary" 100s of times...sorry, no.

    Maybe a cert. could be a sign of other qualities.....maybe a candidate with 10 years of experience and several certs compared to someone with 20 years of experience and no certs shows signs of "hunger" to still learn...signs to learn new things as they arise as technology as we know it always changes....a lot of people with 20+ years of experience (unlike Ivan) dont still have the passion to learn new things...dig in deeper than is needed for a job..(Ivan is of that less popular breed from what ive seen) .instead, a lot get "complacent"..do the minimum or pawn it off on the "juniors"...

    Do Certifications 100% solve these issues...of course not...its all about combinations of things...years of experience, types of experience, types of positions, types of companies, types of certs, levels of certs, how quickly you got your certs..how well do you answer my "experience" questions. (no, Im not going to ask you what the AD is of RIP)..how well do you navigate in the cli, interface, etc in a quick hands-on demonstration..

    To simply disqualifying certs as meaningless would be just as silly to disqualify people on any other attributes people mentioned..(whose to say that you simply didn't have a 4.0 GPA because Mommy and Daddy pushed you at the time..also...that maybe was 15,20+ years ago...some people get lazy or have other priorities at they get older...How do I know that your 5 years of AD experience on your resume wasn't simply you updating users accounts everyday. There is no 100% way.

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Ivan Pepelnjak, CCIE#1354 Emeritus, is an independent network architect. He has been designing and implementing large-scale data communications networks as well as teaching and writing books about advanced technologies since 1990. See his full profile, contact him or follow @ioshints on Twitter.