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Understanding certifications and technical interviewing

In today's world of increasing technology and vendor certifications, how do you determine if someone is a paper professional? This column shows you what you need to know.

In today's world of increasing technology and vendor certifications, how do you determine if someone is a paper professional? You know the type, very zealous people that buy every study guide out there, cram for the tests, pass the tests and when the going gets tough – they are the first ones on the phone to someone else while your problem escalates. We have all run up against these people, both in interviewing employees and consultants and as coworkers. Even worse are those that feign certifications that they do not have.

I will admit that maintaining certifications is an extremely expensive enterprise. Is it completely necessary for someone to have to retest for each and every operating system? Maybe and maybe not. It really depends on the certification and what someone intends to do with it. I know several IT experts that are awesome technically that don't even have certifications because they chose not to get into that cycle. I also know several that have had a certification and dropped it because the costs of maintaining them were prohibitive.

This leaves people technical and non-technical trying to ascertain a true level of expertise for the people they are interviewing for whatever roll. The IT industry is not the only industry with certifications. The truth is that they exist in all walks of life. Many carry continuing education requirements, some just require updates as new releases or procedures surface. Others contain various levels of certifications from beginner to expert. Now, before you decide before or against becoming certifiable, think about what the certification means.

In order to determine the worth of a certification, let's look at some of the certifications and where they are used. The first type of certification is an industry required certification such as becoming a certified billing specialist, certified human resources specialist, or other non-vendor specific certification that relates directly to the duties of the job being performed. These types of certifications assume a level of technical expertise in their fields, but more importantly, may be required to do business. If the subjects taught in the certification can protect you from a liability, or enable you to operate, then by all means, they should be updated as necessary. Rules and regulations change and many of these are akin to a doctor receiving continuing education. In general, they mean better care in their respective professions due to continuously staying on top of things. The advantage of many of these types of certifications is that they require some hands-on experience prior to being able to test.

Another type of certification is a vendor specific certification. These certifications can cover a variety of topics vendor specific or not, but convey a level of competence with the vendor's products. If the vendor's products rely on industry standards, the good vendor program will cover these standards as well. If your vendor certification has requirements that involve updates to standards, these should be kept up as well. However, some of these certifications are so vendor specific that they teach nothing but that vendor's topics. While these may be necessary for business, they can be quite pricy if they have to be updated with each new program release. Unless you know you are going to use the technology, don't get certified. A good litmus test is to determine if their training qualifies you for any CEC's within your industry standards body. If so, you can be assured that the vendor training will prepare you well for your job and will equally well accepted in the respective industry.

It is a proven fact that the human brain retains little of "crammed" knowledge long term. If you don't believe it, go back and take one of your tests from college after you have been out a while. YIKES! It can definitely be a humbling experience. So how do you know if you can rely on these certifications? First, you need to understand the alphabet soup. Understand the type of certification and what is taught or learned when it is earned.

Secondly and MOST importantly, you must determine if there is any practical experience that goes with the certification. I know of some consulting firms that boast how many of each certification they have, but there is little meat behind the claims. They hire kids out of college and send them to certification camps. When one showed up on site, even my junior staff knew more than they did and didn't carry an $85.00 per hour price tag. Needless to say, they weren't consulting for us very long. It is not realistic to expect that certified people will never have to call for help. In fact, many training classes teach very "ideal world" training where nothing goes wrong leaving their certificate recipients ill-equipped to handle a crisis. The combination of systems and applications is literally factorial, and there is no substitute for real world experience.

Everyone has heard the standard interviewing questions like "What was your greatest achievement" or "Where do you see yourself in 5 years?" But, you should ask questions like:

  • What is the biggest crisis you have had to deal with and how was it resolved?
  • What other projects have you worked on and at what level – part of a team? Solo?
  • What was your biggest mistake and what did it teach you?

    Ask technical questions. If you are a non-technical manager, ask your staff to supply you with three questions and expected answers. Discuss the answers you get from your interview with your staff - of course you don't have to reveal the identity of the candidate. You can also get questions and scenarios from peers within the industry. These questions should be clear enough to help you determine their troubleshooting abilities and logical thought processes. You should also be able to tell at what point they would ask for help. This is a key piece of information. My granddad always told me that the only stupid question is one that remains unasked. If you are down you don't want the exposure while someone is trying so hard to fly solo that he scratches his head while tempers escalate.

    Understand the needed tasks and the level that you expect the resource to operate. If you are trying to hire a junior level person, don't expect 20 years of experience or answers that would require 20 years. Don't be afraid to discuss scenarios. If you have help-desk logs, pull some help desk tickets and ask the candidate how they would bring them to resolution. Ask them to what level they installed switches for instance. Did they take them out of the box and plug them in while someone else did the programming? How many installs have they done – as a team and/or solo.

    Finally, if you are interviewing consultants where the company brochure boasts the certifications, it is not a bad idea to ask for resumes or curriculum vitas for the people that will be working on the project. No bait and switch allowed. Brochures get printed once a year, as a rule, make sure that the information about the certifications is current and how much experience accompanies each one. Find out how many people they have at the same level to backfill your project team should one leave the project or company.

    Remember that a certification is NO guarantee of expertise if it is not accompanied by experience. You must know what is included in any certification that you are requiring, whether experience is a prerequisite and what continuing education is required. You should also remember that some of the best professionals aren't certified, but have extensive experience that will provide you with an awesome resource.


    Carrie Higbie, Network Applications Market Manager, The Siemon Company
    Carrie has been involved in the computing and networking industries for nearly 20 years. She has been involved in sales, executive management, and consulting on a wide variety of platforms and topologies. She has held Director and VP positions with fortune 500 companies and consulting firms. Carrie has taught classes for Novell, Microsoft, and Cisco certifications as well as CAD/CAE, networking and programming on a collegiate level. She has worked with manufacturing firms, medical institutions, casinos, healthcare providers, cable and wireless providers and a wide variety of other industries in both networking design/implementation, project management and software development for privately held consulting firms and most recently Network and Software Solutions.

    Carrie currently works with The Siemon Company as the Network Applications Market Manager where her responsibilities include providing liaison services to electronic manufacturers to assure that there is harmony between the active electronics and existing and future cabling infrastructures. She participates with the IEEE, TIA and various consortiums for standards acceptance and works to further educate the end user community on the importance of a quality infrastructure. Carrie is one of the few that chose to work with applications and networks providing her with a full end-to-end understanding of business critical resources through all 7 layers of the OSI model. Carrie currently holds an RCDD/LAN Specialist from BICSI, MCNE from Novell and several other certifications.

    This article originally appeared on

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These are good tips. It really depends a lot on what area of IT you're hiring for. I know that a lot more emphasis is put on certifications for roles like systems admins. 

I'm involved in my company's hiring process for software developers and QA. I think that most of us put very little weight on certifications. It is mostly about the candidates degree program (if recently graduated) and the coding/testing skills that they can demonstrate. We ask problem solving questions and ask them to go through some coding or testing problems so that we can at least get an idea of their thought process.
For me, the importance of certification falls to the ability to have one that provides a solid litmus test of demonstrating skill. One of the reason the CCIE certification is valued is the fact that to earn it, you had to go into a broken lab environment and make it work in the allotted time frame. Either you can do that, or you can't. Anything that does not have a demonstration of skills as part of its criteria is not even considered as part of our hiring process.

As far as the technical interview side, again, we want to bring people in and get a feeling for how they think and how they go about solving problems. If automation skills are part of the discussion, then yes, we give them some coding exercises to see what they can do.