The Degree or the Certification: Answering the Question

Okay, finally, I’m going to answer the question. For some value of the word “answer,” anyway. I’ve spent three weeks thinking through various question you should be asking, along the way making three specific points:

Okay, so how do I actually decide?

First, ask: where do I want to go? Who do I want to be as a person, overall? This question needs to be a “bigger life” question, not a narrow, “how much money do I want to be making,” question. One of those other turning points in my life as an engineer was when Don S said to me one day, “When I’m gone, people aren’t going to remember me for writing a book. They are going to remember me as a father, friend, and someone who built a community.” It’s okay if the answer to this question changes over time — it certainly has for me.

Second, ask: what am I not very good at today? Do a classic gap analysis here — what do you need to get to where you want to go, and what do you need to get there? This isn’t just about technical skills, it’s also about mental skills, mental habits, and even soft skills.

Third, ask: what motivates me to learn? Do I need a professor in front of my face forcing me to read, or do I need a certificate at the end, or am I okay with just picking up a book and reading it? It’s expected that this answer will vary across different skills.

Fourth, ask: what is the best way to learn this? We often narrow our options down to degrees versus a certification, but there are a lot of other ways to learn out there, including certificates, audited classes, and many others.

Fifth, ask: what will have the biggest financial impact? While you don’t want to turn yourself into a widget, you also don’t want to just waste money pursuing the most expensive educational opportunities available.

Finally, ask: what do I already have today? I don’t want to sound like a killjoy, but I’d rather see two or three certifications along with two or three college degrees, backed up with a variety of other experience, on a resume, rather than 5xCCIE and nothing else. If you have bunch of certifications, consider a degree. If you have a degree, consider getting a certification.

Taking all of these into consideration, you should have a better feel for the right answer.

Two final thoughts before I close.

It’s important to balance financial solvency with passion. I tell my kids that there is some intersection between what you’re passionate about and what will make you the most money — remembering that both will change over your lifetime. Pick a path that will make a reasonable amount of money with the highest level of passion and the widest scope of flexibility into the future in terms of life changes and world changes.

If I had to choose a career path, I would choose the certification and work experience first, and then the degree. While it’s not the easiest thing in the world to finish a degree once you’re working, and you have a family, you’re going to learn a lot more in a college classroom after you’ve had a little life experience, and you pick out the pieces that are important, while just working through the rest.

So the right answer is this: be intentional in your education, from start to finish. Don’t think of it in terms of a degree versus a certification, but in terms of what your goals are, and what you should do next.

Degree or certification? All of the above.

The Degree or the Certification: You are Not a Widget

One of the things that bothers me the most about the Internet of Things (IOT) is how blithely we slip from talking about objects as things to people as things. Among all the things I do not want to be, a “thing,” attached to the “Internet of Things,” is not one of them. What does this have to do with the question of whether you should get a degree or a certification? Simply this: You shouldn’t treat yourself as a widget, either.

Let me explain.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say, “You should get a certification because it provides more bang for the buck.” In fact, in one rather amusing line of reasoning on the subject, Peter Thiel (who started the Thiel Foundation to encourage smart young people to quit college and take up a career instead), said in a recent interview:

Educational institutions are far too often interested in churning out graduates (i.e., getting their money) without imparting the ability to think rather than just work the system.

To paraphrase, you should opt out of college because colleges are just in the game to make money off you, and you’ll make more money if you don’t go to college. Or something like that. You can’t argue with the line of reasoning if you see college as most people do today: a college degree is mostly about learning a specific skill you can turn into money in your working life.

It’s just about here I want to throw up my hands and scream, “stop it!”

For in asking the question, “how can I make the most money,” or, “how can I be the most successful,” you’ve actually turned yourself into a widget. To this way of thinking, I have one fundamental piece of advice — treat yourself as you would have others treat you. If you treat yourself as a widget, thinking about education as a simple means to get money out of a company or consumers, then they’re going to treat you as a widget in return — treating you as nothing but a set of skills they can make money off of.

You are not a widget. Stop acting like a widget, stop thinking like a widget, and stop trying to become a widget. Yes, there are economic tradeoffs in learning skills. And yes, when it comes to specific skills, choosing the cheapest and most effective way to learn the skills you need is the smartest course. But life isn’t just one long economic tradeoff, and learning isn’t just about acquiring the skills you need to get through the artificially intelligent “buzzword filter,” at the next company you want to work for.

In my next post — probably the last in this series — I’m going to try and bring the two previous posts together (First Thoughts and Learn to See) with this one to provide what I consider the most definitive answer possible on deciding whether you should get a college degree or a certification. I’ll give you a hint in advance, though — it depends.

Part 4: The Degree or the Certification: Answering the Question

The Degree or the Certification: Learn to See

This week I was reading through various RSS feeds, and ran across a couple that fell within the scope of last week’s topic. So, rather than moving on to more practical concerns, as I had planned to do — well, I thought I should respond to some common lines of thinking.

First of all, the IT space is in constant change, and the speed of change is just increasing. That change manifests itself in new technologies coming about, and new processes associated with the technologies. Secondly is work experience: What you’ve done in the past is not necessarily useful for the future. Like in the financial realm, where it’s recognized that past performance is no guarantee of future performance, it’s also true in the work environment. When you look at past experience, it’s already dated, from a technology perspective. –IT Business Edge

Now, I’m not one to argue with the idea that the IT world is always changing. Certainly new technologies come, and old technologies go. As the saying goes, legacy just means what you’re currently installing. And certainly there will always be a need to learn the new language, the new command line, the new hardware choices, the new performance numbers. I don’t want to start a war, or pick on someone, but… I’m going to disagree. My first grounds of disagreement will be covered here, my second in next week’s post (because I just looked, and this post is 1100 words! Yikes!)

The article makes the point that the IT world should be more like the assembly line world — there are some people who design the cars, and some people who make them. There are some people who need to be able to create new algorithms, and others who just need to be able to use them, to put it in more IT terms.

A four-year college degree is useful, for example, if you want to get into the depths of designing algorithms, or writing complicated code that is close to the operating system, or writing programs for distributed processing, or if you want to come up with a new search algorithm. That might require a college degree.

To a point, the point is well taken. But I don’t think it’s really as simple as that. The image being set up of manufacturing is one of people who have a specific skill set to run a particular piece of equipment, but they couldn’t actually design the stuff they are building. I, for one, think this is a false picture of how the world really works. I’ve known lots of carpenters and builders in my life, lots of machinists, and lots of coders. I really don’t think that any of them involve the sort of “low level work” we’re implying here. There is a lot more room for craft and creativity, for theory and application, in the everyday life of the average carpenter than we’re giving the job credit for. If you don’t think that’s true, please, frame up a house, or work with a crew framing up a house.

But even if this were true, I don’t know that it applies to the information technology world. In such a virtualized world, the ability to abstract and to understand is always valuable. I’ve never met someone who doesn’t need to understand algorithms and how they work anyplace in the networking industry. Even folks who “just want to do hardware,” need a lot more than learn a high school level skill set and move on.

There is a second point missing here, as well. Let’s turn the question around a bit — how do I stop the firehose? Given that technology is such a fast changing field, and given my current skill set has a half life of 2.5 years (and maybe less), what do I do? Do I go out and retool every 2.5 years? Maybe when you’re 24 and single, this is possible. Not when you’re 60, with kids and grandkids, and are part of a real, thriving community outside of (or even inside) work. How do I solve this problem?

Let me ask the question another way: how have structural engineers resolved this problem? The solve this problem by learning the problem sets they must deal with, then learning how to slot new technologies into those problem sets. We really, really, want to believe that networking is different, that we are special, that we’re always facing new problems that need to be solved. Let me give you a hint — from TAC to Escalation to Principal Engineer, I’ve never met a new problem. I’ve met the same sets of problems at different scales, in different ways, and at different times. But new problems? They are really, really rare.

As Ivan P says:

The only difference between network-focused yammering and the rest of the IT is that everyone else learned to live with the reality instead of claiming that their domain is so broken that they’d have to reinvent all wheels ever invented (although on a second though I’m positive you can find apocalyptic claims in every IT domain).

Let’s look at how other branches of engineering have solved this problem and learn. Yes, there are 5,892,465 different CLIs out there (yes, I’m guessing). Yes, there are hundreds of tunneling protocols. Yes, there are tons of features, and tons of forwarding planes, and… But they’re all solving the same basic set of problems with the same basic set of tools. Which brings me to this point:

If there’s one thing we need to learn how to do, it’s to abstract the principles behind the problems and the solutions, and learn to see and recognize those principles in the problems we face, and the solutions offered. I’ve talked about models in other venues — I cannot emphasize enough the importance of learning models and modeling languages. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of learning to see — to see the patterns in technology, both problems and solutions.

So I don’t believe that we only need a degree if we’re going to “go on to advanced calculus,” or whatever. We can get so wrapped up in the content of our thinking that we forget we also need to know how to think. When considering a degree or a certification, these two ideas must come into your calculations. Don’t overestimate your ability to think because you have a lot to think about, and don’t underestimate your ability to think because you don’t have a lot to think about. I cannot begin to express how much logic and discipline in thinking I’ve gained by going after what many folks would consider an orthogonal degree in theology.

Part 3: The Degree or the Certification: You are Not a Widget

The Degree or the Certification

Having just come off doing a presentation on “being a great engineer,” I can tell you what the number one question people asked was: Should I get a degree, or a certification? In fact, several people were irritated that Denise and I were even talking about anything else, because it’s the only question that counts.

Let me counter that thought. If you’re asking whether you should get a degree or a certification, you’re asking the wrong question.

It’s not that I don’t have anything invested in certifications. I hold a CCIE (2635), CCDE (2007:001), and CCAr. I’ve written questions for the CCIE. I was on the original SME team that invented the CCDE and CCAr certifications. I’ve taught certification classes, written certification books, and generally been involved in the certification world for a long time.

It’s not that I don’t have anything invested in college, either. I have one four year degree, two Master’s degrees, and I’m currently working like crazy to gain acceptance into an PhD program (Philosophy, in Apologetics and Culture, if you’re curious). I’ve taught as an adjunct in the NC State MS program, and I’m on Capella University’s advisory council. I teach on a regular basis in high school and college classrooms, when I’m given the chance (and I wish I had more chances, because I’m a teacher at heart).

But let me return to the problem at hand — “Should I get a degree or a certification” is a goal question, rather than a process question. If you prefer, the way the question is asked implies getting some outside acknowledgement of your knowledge or skills is a destination rather than the road to get to a destination. It implies that once you’ve done this, you’re done. Wrong! The correct question is:

What should I get NEXT — a college degree, a certification — or some other form of education?

And no, I don’t care if you’re 17 or 70. I don’t care if you’re at the beginning of your career, the middle of your career, or the end. What should I learn next is always the right question to ask.

So now, with a clearer view of the problem in hand, let’s think about a real, and reasonable, answer.

What is my goal? What do I want to be? What do I see my life looking like? For me, I can’t see myself being a full time technologists for the rest of my life. At some point I must face the reality that I’m getting older and jobs for older geeks just aren’t out there — that the job market will dry up, no matter what my skill set is. At some point I must face the reality that I can’t keep up with the rat race forever, the physical toll the technical world takes on my body in terms of hours worked, and the mental toll of sipping from a firehose. At some point I must face the reality that there are other things in my life I want (and need — or am called, to be more accurate) to do — that I don’t want to be on my death bed at 90 years old and say, “well, I was a good engineer, after all… and then I retired and watched television.”

We all need to shift gears some time in our lives. What is your next gear shift, and when is it? Is it having a family? Is it “retirement” (whatever that means any longer), is it… Well?? What is it?

What skills will I need when I get there? What skills will I need to get there?

What is the best way to get those skills? Is it college, or a certification? Or maybe even something else, like a certificate program at a local college, or auditing some class, or getting involved in something that will make you learn those skills (sometimes the best way to learn is by doing, in real life, in front of an audience, and letting the failures fall where they may).

Next week, we’ll think a little about the practical side of these thoughts — and then maybe, just maybe, I’ll think about an answer.

Part 2: The Degree or the Certification: Learn to See
Part 3: The Degree or the Certification: You are Not a Widget
Part 4: The Degree or the Certification: Answering the Question