Network engineer Sharath Chandra’s view of certifications has changed in the past few years.

Earlier in his career, he saw them as “a way to get promoted at a job or stay in compliance with the company’s policy,” says Chandra, who works at a San Francisco–based medical testing company. Over the years, he collected multiple certs from both Cisco and Juniper, including a CCNA, a JNCIA and variations for security and firewalls.

But he hasn’t added a cert to his collection since 2015. He’s saved himself time and money, and doesn’t feel he’s lost any opportunities as a result.

He’s not alone. The combination of a tight labor market for networking talent along with fast-shifting requirements means companies are more consumed with finding people with expertise that goes beyond the basics. While certifications remain a good proof point for vetting low- to mid-level network engineers, they’re less relevant to the main pain points many networking executives face.

“Having a certification is never a bad thing,” says Jim Johnson, senior vice president at recruiting firm Robert Half Technology. But increasingly companies “hire on aptitude rather than paper.”

The reasons for this shift are many, but there’s a central theme at work: In periods of accelerated innovation, certifications lose some luster. Most successful certification programs are developed for technologies already in wide use, with well understood best practices. If a technology isn’t broadly deployed, few people sign up; if it’s rapidly evolving, chances are the certification program wouldn’t provide mastery of the latest advances.

“The experiences of early adopters just don’t provide enough data and feedback around which to build a certification,” says Steven Ostrowski, director of corporate communications for CompTIA, the industry association that offers many popular certification programs.

Networking is going through one of those turbulent, innovative times. Companies are shifting workloads to the cloud over fast-developing hybrid networks, and building the capacity to shift them back on-prem or elsewhere to respond to business needs. To achieve this flexibility, many companies are neck deep in the difficult transitions to both SDN and DevOps. While someone needs to architect, manage and service the physical network layer, far more of the decision-making will migrate to software that operates at a higher level of abstraction.

With such high-level initiatives to worry about, whether someone has a networking certificate—many of which are dedicated to a single vendor’s platform—isn’t the litmus test it once was. “I can tell you that if you’re trying for senior engineer or architect at Google or Facebook or Uber or eBay, whether or not you have a certificate means nothing,” says Lane Patterson, the former vice president of global network and edge infrastructure for Yahoo.


Why Certifications Could be Losing Their Luster

Overall, the IT certificates industry is doing fine. More than 300,000 people took an exam for a CompTIA certification in 2018, says Ostrowski, the third highest number since the group was formed in 1993. That’s a 20% increase from the previous year, driven largely by security-focused certs.

Within networking, certifications can signal whether someone has basic skills. According to a recent survey of 1,100 IT executives by CompTIA and research firm IDC, half of certified pros can configure a network within four hours, compared to just 32% of non-certified network engineers. The certified can also test and validate a network-related solution more quickly.

This value is reflected in the marketplace. In the first quarter of 2019, networking practitioners with certificates made 13% more than their non-certified colleagues, according to Foote Partners, a market research firm that tracks IT industry compensation trends.

The problem is that these aren’t the people executives are counting on for their transformation efforts.

“It seems like every CIO I meet wants to move to DevOps so they can be like the hyperscale cloud guys,” says Patterson. “For that, you need people who think like developers, not just implementers who can configure a switch. You need people who understand your applications and understand software-defined networking, and can create the glue that connects it all to your data centers, your private cloud and the public cloud.”

While he sees value in certificates as a “checklist” item, he says insisting on a particular certificate may in fact push companies away from the hybrid world they are aiming for. “The danger with certifications is that you get someone with a doctorate in how the vendor thinks the network should be,” he says.

Chandra, the networking engineer, has experienced this firsthand. “Certifications make you king of one trade when the requirement of the job is to be a jack of all trades,” he says. “For me, an engineer who can work on multiple environments and devices is more valuable than a CCIE or a JNCIE holder that can work on just one.”


What the Future of Certifications Could Look Like

But how to restore the luster of a networking certification? The onus is on the industry to create new programs that better reflect current conditions. Amazon and Microsoft have made a major contribution by creating effective programs for AWS and Azure. What’s really needed are new, widely accepted standards geared for hybrid, multi-cloud, multi-vendor world. “Right now, there’s a big gap,” says Patterson.

John McGlinchey, CompTIA’s executive VP for global certifications, sees big changes ahead. “In the future, certifications may not be that benchmark that people are using to hire anymore,” he says. “I think there’s a next stage where certifications will evolve into something even better and more relevant for IT professionals in the future.”

CompTIA plans to pilot “adaptive competency assessments” for its Security+ certification holders by the end of the year. The assessments will determine the level of competency that the employee has reached—beginner, mid-level or expert—through simulations, multiple choice and situation questions.

“Long term, we hope to have a virtual world where the student gets a ‘ticket’ from a department” and has to solve a problem in that virtual environment, McGlinchey said. That sort of evolution would mean certifications provide hiring managers more clarity on an individual’s practical knowledge.