What good are certifications like the Sun Certified Java Programmer (SCJP) and the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer programs? Unlike the Cisco certifications, you don’t have to renew these every couple of years (at least the Java certifications–in fact, everything I mention below applies only to the Java certifications, as those are the only ones of which I have more than a passing knowledge). I am a SCJP for Java2, and I have an acquaintance who is a certified programmer for Java1.1; a Java1.1 cert isn’t very useful unless you’re targeting .Net, or writing applets that need to run on most every browser. Yet my colleague and myself can continue to call ourselves ‘Java Certified Programmers.’ I realize that there’s an upgrade exam, but I’ve never met a soul who’s taken it; and I don’t believe I’m prohibited from heading down the Java Certification path and handing Sun more money because I am not an SCJP for the most recent version of Java. In fact, I’m studying right now for the Sun Certified Web Component Developer (SCWCD) and plan to take the exam sometime this summer. Even though these certifications may be slightly diluted by not requiring renewal, I think there are a number of reasons why they are a good thing:

1. Proof for employers.

Especially when you deal with technologies that are moving fast (granted, changes to Java have slowed down in the past few years, but it’s still moving faster than, for example, C++ or SQL), employers may not have the skill set to judge your competence. Oh, in any sane environment you will probably interview with folks who are up to date on technology, but who hasn’t been screened out by HR because of a lack of appropriate keywords. Having a certification is certainly no substitute for proper experience, but it serves as a baseline that employers can trust. In addition, a certification is also a concrete example of professional development: always a good thing.

2. Breadth of understanding.

I’ve been doing server side Java development for web environments for 3 years now, in a variety of business domains and application servers. Now, that’s not a long time in programming years, but in web years, that’s a fair stint. But, studying for the SCWCD, I’m learning about some aspects of web application development that I hadn’t had a chance to examine before. For example, I’m learning about writing tag libraries. (Can you believe that the latest documentation I could find on sun.com about tag libraries was written in 2000?) I was aware of tag libraries, and I’d certainly used them, the struts tags among others, but learning how to implement one has really given me an appreciation for the technology. Ditto for container managed security. Studying for a certification definitely helps increase the breadth of my Java knowledge.

3. Depth of understanding.

Another aspect is an increased depth of understanding; actually reading the JSP specification or finding out what the difference is between overriding and overloading (and how one of them cares about the type of the object, whereas the other cares only about the type of the reference) or in what order static blocks get initialized. (My all time favorite bit of know-how picked up from the SCJP was how to create anonymous arrays.) The knowledge you gain from certification isn’t likely to be used all the time, but it may save you when you’ve got a weird bug in your code. In addition, knowing some of the methods on the core classes saves you from running to the API every time (though, whenever I’m coding, the javadoc is inevitably open). Yeah, yeah, tools can help, but knowing core methods can be quicker (and your brain will always be there, unlike your IDE).

4. A goal can be an incentive.

Personally, I’m goal oriented, and having a certification to achieve gives me a useful framework for expenditure of effort. I know what I’m aiming for and I’m aware of the concrete series of steps to achieve that goal. I can learn quite a bit just browsing around, but for serious understanding, you can’t beat a defined end point. I’d prefer it to be a real-world project, but a certification can be a useful stand in. (Yes, open source projects are good options too–but they may not cover as much ground and certainly, except for a few, are not as widely known as certifications.)

I’ve met plenty of fine programmers who weren’t certified (just as I’ve met plenty of fine programmers who weren’t CS majors). However, I think that certifications can be a useful complement to real world experience, giving job seekers some legitimacy while also increasing the depth and breadth of their understanding of a language or technology.

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