To be certified or not to be certified?

I have been pushing my team to get certified on Azure technologies for the past 24 months, with various degrees of success. I am quite lucky to have a team who does not discuss the value of the certification, however much they discuss the relevance of the questions.
But, as I am now going over almost 15 years of certifications in IT, I feel quite entitled to share my views and opinion.
Keep in mind that I work in infrastructure/Operations, and in France, which will probably give some bias to my analysis 🙂

I will start with some general comments on the value of certifications, from a career perspective, and dive into some specifics for each vendor I have certified with over the years. Some of my exams are a bit dated, so please be nice. I will conclude with my general tips to preparing for an exam.

As I said, it’s been almost 15 years since my first cert, and I started that one before even being employed, that gives me some insight about the relevance of such investment in my career. I took my first dip into the certification world during a recruitment process with a consulting company. We were two candidates, I was the young guy and the other one was already holding his Microsoft MCP. I felt, at that time, that I could benefit from one myself, and compensate some of my lack of experience with it. As I registered for my first MCP exam, for Windows 2000 (!), I was contacted to get into a kickstart program to get my certification level up to Microsoft MCSE, everything started from there.
After a few months, I passed the final MCSE exam (out of 7 at that time) and was recruited, to work on Cisco networking, which had nothing to do with my skills, by the very same company that had interviewed me when I discovered the MCP. I still think that the fact that I went through the certification path did a lot to convince my boss to be of my motivation and ability to work hard. Over the years I refreshed my MCSE with each version of Windows (from 2000 to 2016) and added a few new ones, depending on what I worked on at my positions : Cisco, RedHat, Vmware and Prince2.

Even though it was not obvious in my first job, the following ones were pretty clear cases where my certifications held some value to my employer. We discussed the fact during some of the interviews rather openly. And I was in a recruiter’s shoes myself a few times, and here is why I feel is useful regarding the certifications.
First it show that you can focus on sometimes gruesome work, for a while. Passing these kind of exams almost always forces you to learn tons of new information, on software or devices that you maybe never handle.
Then it show dedication to maintain them over time, when they have at least some value to your current position.
And, let’s be candid, it show you can take one for the team, because almost every vendor partnership requires some level of certification.
And, as I said, I know for a fact that I had been recruited, at least partly, twice thanks to my certs.
On the salary part, I am not definite on the impact of certifications. I do not feel that the cert plays a part there, but I cannot prove or disprove it.

That being said, when you take one of these exams, you will experience very different things depending on the vendor, and sometimes on the level of certification. Let’s take a closer look.
We’ll start with my longest running candidate : Microsoft. Apart from one beta test ten years ago, I always had some kind of MCQ with them. You may have some variation around that : drag and drop, point and click etc. But, by and large nothing close to a simulator or designer. This had led to a bad reputation a while ago, when you may have had an MCSE (which was like the Holy Grail of Microsoft certification) while having absolutely no hands-on experience with Windows. They have kept the same format for Azure exams, and are taking some heat also, because the exams are deprecated almost as they go out. I am wondering whether they are working on some other way to certify.
Cisco had a router/switch simulator for a long time, which had brought some rather interesting exams, for the lowest levels. I only took the CCNA 15 years ago, so I do not know how it goes for higher levels. The only caveat, from my perspective, was that the simulator did not allow for inline help and auto-completion, which you still have in real life.
RedHat, for the RHCE exams, had the most interesting experience in my view. The exam was completely in a lab, split in two sections. First you had to repair a broken RHEL server, three times. Then you were given a list of objectives that you had to meet with a RHEL server. You could choose whichever configuration you would prefer, as long as the requirements were met (with SELinux enforced, obviously 🙂 ). You had a fully functional RHEL, with the man pages and documentation, but without an internet access. I still feel to that day that this way let you prove that you really were knowledgeable and had the necessary skills to design and implement a Linux infrastructure. And the trainers were always fun and very skilled.

I also certified on Vmware Vsphere for a while and that brought me to a whole new level of pain. The basic VCP level is fine, just along the same lines as an MCP. But when I started to study for the next level, VCAP-DCD (which stands for Vmware Certified Advanced Professionnal-DataCenter Design), I had to find some new ways of preparing and learning. You see, where a usual exam requires you to learn some basic stuff by heart (like the default OSPF timers, or the minimum Windows 2000 workstation hardware requirements) it was still a limited scope. For this exam, you had to be able to completely design a Vsphere infrastructure, along the official Vmware guidelines, form all of the perspective (Compute, Storage, Network). And there were just a few MCQ. The most questions were just designs, where you had to draw, Visio-style, the required infrastructure, depending on a list of existing constraints and requirements. Believe me, it is one of the few exams where you truly need to manage your time also. I am a fast thinker, and had always completed all of my exams under 25% of the total allotted time. My first take at VCAP-DCD, I almost did not finish in the 3h30 I had. And I failed. There has been talks in the certification world that this exam was the second hardest in the world (at least in its version 5), at that level.

Over all of these exams, I can share some advice that is quite general, and absolutely not ground breaking. First you need to work to pass the exam. Get to know the blueprint of the exam and identify whether there are some areas you do not know about. Watch some videos, practice in labs, learn the recommendations from the vendor. Second, get a decent practice exam, to get used to the form and type of questions and also to check whether you’re ready to register for the real thing. And last : work again, read, practice, discuss if you can with some other people preparing the same exam, or someone who already took it. We are not at liberty to discuss everything in an exam, but at least we can help.

The short version is : get certified, it is worth it, at least in France where most of IT people do not take the time to go through the exercise.

Velocity London 2017

This October I had the opportunity to go at the Velovity conference in London ( The exact title of the conference is “Build and maintain complex distributed systems”. That’s an ambitious subject. The event had been suggested by a customer who went to one of the US editions and found that it was a brilliant event, both in terms of DevOps subjects covered and in terms the attendees & networking. So here I am, back in London, for 4 days of DevOps and cloud talks.

I have started the conference with a special 2-days training on Kubernetes, by Sebastien Goasgen (@sebgoa)

The training was really intense, as Sebastien described many standard objects and tools of the platform, as well as a few custom options that we can use. We played with Minikube on our laptops, which is a really great way to have the experience of a Kubernetes cluster, in a small box. It was really packed, and we had to rush to keep up with Sebastien’s tests and labs, even with his Github repo containing most of the scripts and K8s manifests. I came out of those days a bit tired by all the things I had learned and tested, and a long list of new functions and tools to try, new ideas to explore etc, it was immensely fun, thank Sebastien!

The conference itself was rather overwhelming, and a big surprise for me. I am used to large conferences like Vmworld or Tech-Ed where you get the good word for the year to come from an editor and its ecosystem. Most of the sessions in those are obviously diving into the products and how to use them.
At Velocity, almost all the keynote speakers were somehow working in research, or such bleeding edge domain that it might not even exist yet. I loved being presented with what might be happening, and by people who are scientists at heart, not just marketing infused with a light touch of technology. Moreover the sessions themselves were mostly feedback on the speakers own experience on a specific domain/issue/subject. Usually they are not into a particular tool or software suite, but rather on how to make things work with DevOps and large distributed systems.

Overall, I I really enjoyed this conference, because it very well organized, and small enough to be a human experience. As we have four days with the same group of around 400 people (227 to this day according to the attendee directory), in a rather small area, you cross path often with the same people, and it makes it easy to start conversations. Also they came up with a lot of ribbons that you can attach to your badge, to let other know what you are here for :

I was used to much larger conferences, where I always found the networking a bit difficult, if you did not know a few people beforehand. In Velocity’s case, it is so easy, you have only a handful of attendees and speakers, and you can meet everyone informally, during lunch breaks or just by asking. It came as a surprise for me to able just to chat with some of the speakers that have impressed me, like Juergen Cito and Kolton Andrus just by going and sit with them at a lunch table.

I’ll probably write about what I learned and took away from this conference in the near future, so stay tuned!