Point/Counterpoint - Education vs. Experience

by Kyle Rankin

The past few columns, we've talked about everything from laptops to filesystems. Our Point/Counterpoint this time around touches on a subject somewhat less technical, but no less important. This month, we debate education versus experience—in today's workplace, which carries more weight?

Kyle: So the fact of the matter is, even if you get a formal Computer Science education, typically, you still get only a basic foundation. Most CS programs seem to be geared more toward programming than system administration, and even when they try to stay up to date, it's just hard to keep the academic curriculum up to the pace of technology. When you get into the workforce, you find you have to learn specific aspects of technology somehow, either through on-the-job training (if you can get it) or specific certifications. Although I think Bill and I both agree that nothing can quite beat experience, how can you get the experience if you can't get hired? That's where things like certifications can come in.

Bill: Maybe it's me, but as a hiring manager, I gloss right over certifications. Seriously. I give them a cursory glance, then jump right to the experience and skills list. Certification may prove useful in some cases, but I prefer to have people who are generalists on my staff.

Kyle: I guess that was lucky for me, because I didn't have any certs when Bill looked over my résumé. I think when it comes to certifications, it really depends on what the position is and what the certification is. If you've been in the industry for any period of time, you inevitably will run into someone who has a certification but doesn't seem to know the first thing about the topic. Does that mean the cert is bad? Not necessarily. It just highlights how difficult it is to force someone actually to learn material rather than cram information long enough to pass a test.

Bill: Exactly. I have seen “certified” people who couldn't administer their way out of a paper bag. I've seen Cisco-certified people who have no understanding of DNS, for example. Kyle's point is well taken—a cert may be just an indicator of a person who can cram and test well.

Kyle: I think formal training really comes in handy when you need to get ramped up on technology that has a high cost of entry (for instance, some enterprise virtualization products or SAN infrastructure). Most people don't have the funds to buy a bunch of expensive SAN gear or software licenses so they can build up experience at home. In those cases, formal training can be a good way to kickstart people onto a technology before they actually have to deploy it. I've also seen it come in handy when you hire people who have experience in 90% of what you need. Getting them formal training or certification can be a quick way to ramp them up on the remaining 10%, so they can learn the rest on the job.

Bill: Kyle, you're a bad example. When I hired you, I'd already known you for some time and had a good idea what you were capable of. However, there's another employee I hired without certs and much experience, but based on his résumé I gave him a shot at an interview, and he knocked me out. He ended up rounding out our team quite nicely, and we had a good, successful run for quite some time.

Kyle: I think this is one of those rare times when it's a good thing to be a bad example.

Bill: Your point about getting certified in expensive technology is well taken; however, I remember a certain bloke who had no formal SAN training and did quite well for a long time administering, and later architecting, an EMC SAN solution. I'm of the opinion that good generalists, with a good head on their shoulders and a solid thought process and troubleshooting methodology can figure anything out. I've watched many seasoned “certified” technicians lock up when they are forced into uncharted waters by some esoteric issue.

Kyle: Heh, well I think that guy was lucky to have a good work environment to get up to speed. I have to agree with Bill that when I see certifications on a résumé, I always take them with a grain of salt. Trust but verify. That's why most technology positions have some sort of technical vetting process—a certification might get you in the door, but you still have to prove you know your stuff once you get there.

Bill: That guy also was lucky to have a manager who valued a good work environment. But I digress on that. Back to the topic, a good technical interview is a great vetting process, and one that I live by.

Kyle: I think the same thing goes for most education. It really depends on how you approach it. If you look at a cert as a quick way to get a piece of paper and get a job, you will miss out. On the other hand, if you actually use it as an opportunity to learn and remember some new technology, especially if you couple it with plenty of actual experience, I think it can be very valuable. You know, we've gone this whole time without specifically mentioning Linux certs. What do you think of those, Bill?

Bill: I put less stock in them in general. It shows me people were interested enough to get the cert, but that really doesn't give me a clue as to their abilities. I'd much rather see a list of skills and accomplishments, and then ask people about the most interesting thing they've done in the last six months, either via a phone interview or in person. Hearing people get excited about technology they've grappled with and been successful with gives me an idea of how vested they are in their job.

Kyle: I think I agree with you here. I actually think sometimes some Linux certs can hurt. Unlike with other certifications, there's nothing really stopping anyone from building their own Linux network and learning at home. When it comes to Linux knowledge, I almost put equal stock in personal and professional experience, and those are the most important things to me besides just having a good fundamental knowledge of Linux, networking and so on. The challenge with Linux certs is that Linux is a fast-moving technology. Not to single anyone out, but as an example, the LPIC cert still had IRQ settings as a fundamental part of the curriculum until recently. I can't remember the last time I needed to tweak that. To their credit, this spring the entire course was revamped, and now it more accurately reflects what you would need to know on a modern Linux system. It's actually a good course now as a result. It shows though that if you are shopping around for Linux certs, be sure to check the last time the course was updated.

Bill: That's a good point. Often the curriculum will lag behind the current technology, particularly when dealing with open-source technologies, such as Linux. Other OSS technologies also suffer from this as well, which is another reason why I'm an advocate of staying on top of technology yourself.

Kyle: To summarize, I think (and I think Bill will mostly agree with me here) that certifications can be a good way to get ramped up on a new technology, but they are no substitute for actual experience. Not all certs are equal. Do research on how frequently they are updated, and if you do take formal training, don't just cram to pass a test. Use the class as a catalyst to learn the technology in a way that you will remember far after the test is over.

Bill: You can't go wrong with experience. Certs don't hurt, but in my book, they don't add as much value as many people think. Experience, a solid grounding in the fundamentals, a great work ethic and excitement about what you're doing are things I look for when I'm hiring a new employee. Unless you want to be something very specialized, certs are a minor differentiator in my book. I'd rather hire someone who's active in a LUG, contributes to projects like Fedora or Ubuntu and has some track record in the community. If you've contributed and been active in open source, you rate higher on my “hiring manager” radar than someone who's attended a lot of courses.

Kyle Rankin is a Systems Architect in the San Francisco Bay Area and the author of a number of books, including The Official Ubuntu Server Book, Knoppix Hacks and Ubuntu Hacks. He is currently the president of the North Bay Linux Users' Group.

Bill Childers is an IT Manager in Silicon Valley, where he lives with his wife and two children. He enjoys Linux far too much, and he probably should get more sun from time to time. In his spare time, he does work with the Gilroy Garlic Festival, but he does not smell like garlic.

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