I often get asked for career advice and the value of certifications. We live in a rapid pace world and people often look for the shortest path to success. They are trying to use the Dijkstra algorithm on their careers 😉

This post is not a “People with degrees are better than others” post and is written from my perspective as a network architect. I do believe though that the skills I will describe here are applicable to all networking/IT jobs and will be even more relevant further down the road. Here is some of the value I see in a degree based on that you get a degree in a relevant discipline at a good university and that you have the willingness to learn.

Consume information – Working in IT means you need to consume a lot of information. For topics that you aren’t familiar with you need to be able to know where to look for information, what to do with the information and be able to draw a conclusion based on this information. IT is moving at a more rapid pace than ever and people that can’t consume a lot of information will struggle stay relevant in the industry. When studying at the university you read a lot, both books and research papers and learn from that information. It’s also common to write a paper where you summarize your findings and possibly what conclusion you have come to.

Analytical skills – In IT we must be able to analyze information, analyze the state of a network, analyze while troubleshooting a network and so on. If you have a degree with a background in math and science you will have developed your analytical skills. You are also used to analyzing a lot of information which is very helpful when troubleshooting networks. In my role as a network architect I have found this skill to be very useful. I have to be able to analyze a customers current network, their business needs and what technologies are relevant to them. I had several math courses at the university where I didn’t see how I would be able to apply that knowledge in my career but I think it helped improve my analytical skills.

Communication – The days of where an engineer could be sitting in a basement working on arcane things is almost entirely gone. Working in silos is not efficient and the modern IT worker needs to be able to communicate with engineers with different specializations. He/she must also be able to understand more of the business side. The best value is created when people come together and work towards the same goal. A lot of the work we do in IT is done in projects where people from different disciplines work together. At the university you will be exposed to working with people in groups. These people will have a different background, gender, ethnicity etc. and you may or may not like these people. You still have to work with them to be able to get a good result. This is something that is useful when you start your career. You need to be able to cooperate with people regardless of your personal opinion of them and what background they have.

Writing – Some people are very strong in technology. Some people are very good at writing. When you have someone with both skills that is a very powerful combination. I’ve always been comfortable with writing which has helped med tremendously in my role as a network architect. There are people that have difficulty writing and spelling for different reasons and that’s perfectly fine. I try to stay professional in all of my communication even if it’s a simple e-mail. It looks so much better if you spend a little time thinking about what you are trying to communicate and writing it down in a proper manner. When you are writing documentation or a network design people will be able to consume the information much better if they can follow your line of thought and the formatting is good. When you study at the university you will have to do a lot of writing. Both personal notes and papers that you have to turn in. Sometimes you feel annoyed when you get a paper back with a lot of minor corrections but that’s what will make you a better writer in the end.

Presenting – This one ties in to the communication part. Many of us in IT have to do presentations. It can be internal training of staff. It can be presenting a solution to a customer. It can be presenting a solution or new technology to staff in management positions. It doesn’t matter how good you are in a technology. If someone else is better at presenting than you and they are presenting a worse solution/technology than you are, it’s still likely they will get the funding because their presentation was better. Many of us in IT are introverts by nature. So was I but I’ve trained myself to be better and to be comfortable leading a discussion and presenting. If you want to be really successful in your career you need to be good at presenting.

So choosing between a cert or degree. Which one should you choose? Both! That’s my response as well as my friend Russ White. Having a degree can be very valuable especially if you want to move up the corporate ladder. Most of us swear to never move into management but I’ve heard rumors of this happening 😉

Career – The Value Of a Degree
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8 thoughts on “Career – The Value Of a Degree

  • November 4, 2016 at 3:36 pm
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    I´ve recently seen quite a few critical posts on linkedin about the value of university degrees versus certifications. Well, let me say something: anyone criticising a university degree does not quite understand the difference between education and training. A degree is an education while a cert is training. Like Daniel said, we need both.

    First let´s clarify what type of degree. In the networking world, a useful degree is either in Computer Science or Computer Engineering. If it is on something else, then it´s only useful for a management career.

    if one is planning to get a university degree and pass with low grades, then don´t bother with a degree at all. But if you are smart guy or gal, then a university degree will teach you something no certification will ever teach you well. That is a) the fundamental theory and b) critical thinking.

    ask yourself these questions:
    a) the day cisco or any other cert provider goes out of business, then what are you going to do with you certs? Can you say the same about a degree?
    b) if you are wondering how a network guy can survive in the coding world of SDN, then would you still be concerned if you had a degree in computer science?
    c) SDN is only phase 1. Routing is also subject of AI research. What are you going to do with your certs the day network nodes become plug and play? Can you say the same about a degree?

    Certifications are a shortcut and a marketing tool. The use of braindumps is so widespread that they have completely lost meaning in my opinion.

    Reply
    • November 5, 2016 at 8:53 pm
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      You make valid points (specifically with respect to SDN/AI), but also many invalid ones. Transparency first: I have multiple CCIEs and hold a BS in CompSci from RIT.

      Cheating is/was rampant in college programs. I witnessed it firsthand in school and its why I had almost no friends back then; I studied and learned alone because it became difficult to separate the honest from those looking for a piece of paper. A guy named Eugene was my only study-buddy. Dumping certifications and dumping the incremental deliverables required for a degree are both problems. I’ve interviewed fake CCIEs and fake Master’s Degree holders all the same.

      Second, I respectfully challenge you to find me a true expertly-certified (VCDX, CCIE, CCDE, etc) engineer that does not understand the fundamental theory of their trade, and is likewise incapable of critical thought on said topics. The word “true” relates to those who did not cheat. An anecdote for thought: I served in the US Marine Corps with a fellow officer who had a BS in CompSci but could not describe even the basic operation of well-known searches and sorts. We were discussing it on the shores of Haiti many years ago, in casual conversation, and I was suspicious.

      Finally, degrees are marketing tools as well. For-profit colleges use the promise of a degree (leading to a promise of a good job) to attract students, just like for-profit companies use certifications to do the same. Jobs that require degrees for entry are logically equivalent to jobs that require certifications for entry; they can either promote a raised education standard or a motivation to take shortcuts.

      I’ll agree that, generally speaking, degrees are more timeless and education-focused, while certifications are more temporal and training focused. Some certifications are temporal than others (e.g., CCIE Security is more temporal than CCIE Route/Switch is more temporal than CCDE), but to call them a shortcut discredits the intellect it takes to achieve any of them.

      Reply
      • November 7, 2016 at 2:11 pm
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        There is a reason I wrote not to bother with a university degree if one aims to pass with low grades. That’s referred to all those aspiring to get a degree through cheating or little study. It is conceivable to assume that someone getting high grades is very unlikely to be a cheater.

        I feel very sorry to hear that cheating is rampant in US universities. I suppose that is why university ranking and name are so important over there. I can’t say to have experienced the same where I studied from and I would like to think that most universities actively detect and punish cheating. Something I can’t say about certs.

        There is one huge difference between certifications and university degrees that is often and conveniently overlooked. What you get taught in certifications is determined by commercial interests and not for the sake of science. Also let’s not forget the IETF has been vehicle of such interests for the last 20 years. No wonder universities had little participation in the networking world until someone from Stanford university got fed up with the vendors stronghold and decided to spice things up with SDN.

        To sum up:
        A) A cert ain’t going to teach you what a vendor does not want you to know, no matter how hard that cert is to achieve.
        B) certs started as training programmes with tests to verify someone’s ability to use one or more solutions from a given vendor. Trying to convince other people that certs are better than degrees is marketing. Certs and degrees teach different things. A university degree ain’t normally going to give you cisco training (some do as an extra-curricula activity). comparing them with certs is comparing apples for oranges, especially when the comparison is made against unnamed courses and universities.
        C) me, discraditing CCIE/CCDEs by calling them shortcuts? You got me out context dude. Apart from Daniel, others who have attempted to put cert vs degree on the stand tried to make a case against the need for a degree. Someone considering certifications as replacement for degrees is someone looking to justify a shortcut. It is certainly no shortcut for those with both degrees and certs. It is certainly a shortcut for someone without a degree to braindump all the way to the ccie and there is no damn good reason in the world to justify that. So what’s the value of the cert when so many cheat? Oh yes, let’s claim that cheating is just as bad in universities so that we can all feel better about our hard worked certs.
        D) the value of a university education is far greater than most people even realise. it’s part of mankind’s broader scientific and intellectual development.
        E) certs have given the opportunity to a few smart people without degrees to prove themselves (and shine). And yes there are people with degrees who are complete idiots. But none of these cases can be used as valid points to justify the usefulness (or lack-of) of higher education.

        Reply
        • November 9, 2016 at 2:57 pm
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          The central point of my argument was balanced. I never asserted that certifications were more (insert superlative adjective here) than degrees. I am placing certifications and degrees on an equal level with their own unique sets of trade-offs.

          “Someone considering certifications as replacement for degrees is someone looking to justify a shortcut.”

          You’ll have to quantify this better. I’ve seen people spend more time, money, and effort on certifications than degrees. I’ve also seen the opposite. What does “short” mean in this context (time, money, effort, something else)? Are you using a subjective measuring system whereby the “longer road” is one that is arbitrarily more prestigious and rooted in “science” without the evil, greedy vendors? I am not disagreeing that degrees will be less vendor-centric and more thought-oriented. This does not imply that certifications teach you skills that are not extensible beyond a vendor nor does it mean those who hold them are incapable of critical thought.

          Let me ask you a hypothetical question. If cheating were rampant in all universities as it is in many certifications, would that reduce the value of the degree? By your logic, it would. By my logic, it would only reduce the value of the degree holder for the individual who cheated. You continuously bring up braindumping as justification for certifications not being valuable; in those cases, the certification is only useless for the individual who cheated. It doesn’t matter how many CCIEs cheat, to me, because they aren’t really CCIEs.

          PS – The concepts encompassing SDN are not new. I’m not going to start this flame war on Daniel’s blog lest we pollute the discourse further.

          Reply
          • November 12, 2016 at 6:22 pm
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            – Degrees and certifications are not at the same level. They are completely different things and they are not comparable. A car and a plane are both transport methods but they are not at the same level. Once again, relevant degrees give you a scientific or engineering education while certs verify professional training. Claiming they are at the same “level” is plain wrong.
            – People seem to confuse the theory element learned through Cisco certs are something equivalent to a university education. It is not. Cisco was forced to put some theory in their certs because universities didn´t teach networking in their undergraduate programmes and one could not properly troubleshoot or design networks unless the theory was reasonably understood. But that was a necessity with traditional networking and it is very likely to change with SDN. We are heading towards GUIs and APIs. The inner workings will be gradually hidden away from us.
            – all these blogs discussions on the subject of degrees vs certs are trying to make somewhat of a point, right? My point is this: to get an undergraduate and postgraduate education in engineering or computer science typically takes 5 years of full time studies or 9000 hours of studies here in Europe. Subjects are assessed through assignment, presentations, papers, written and viva examinations. A CCNP is 300-500 hours of study and a CCIE is typically 800-1200 hours of study (depending on experience and other factors). Surely one could call certs a shortcut considering that CCNP and CCIE combined are equivalent to one year of university. How is that at the same level as a full university education again?
            – evil, greedy vendors? It´s business dude! call it whatever you like it but rest assured Vendors certainly don´t do certs for the advancement of mankind or some sort of noble cause. Vendors are for the money and universities for the knowledge. I most often hear people taking certs for the money and not for the knowledge. If they were after the knowledge then why not going for a degree to begin with? That´s why they are called shortcuts.
            – Yes, if cheating was a widespread and chronic issue with universities, then degrees would have no value. In the real world, degrees have different values depending on which course and which universities they come from. Unfortunately bringing your personal experience of widespread cheating from your university is no proof the situation is like that for every course or university in the world.
            – Bottom line, the value of a cert or degree paper stands on its ability to establish whether the body of knowledge was acquired or not by an individual. How can a third party know whether someone passed the exam by cheating or not if passing by cheating is too easy? If the exams are known to be easily cheated, then they lose value. With certs, that confidence cannot be established because braindumbs are freely & publicly available. Hence the cert value is objectively lost.
            – Cheating at university assignments and exams for 5 years and not get caught is damm hard. The risk of being caught & expelled is very high and so is the damage to your reputation & financial investment. Also the grades matters a lot and universities in some countries penalise the grades of students who fail at the first attempt (sometimes even expel them for repeated failure). So why would anyone get a huge student loan to see it vaporise due to cheating? Sorry, that would make no sense!
            – I agree, SDN is not a new concept. It´s just one that has disrupted the business model used by traditional network vendors for the last 20 years. Possibly the certs business model too.

  • November 4, 2016 at 4:50 pm
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    I think that you have the causal relationship backwards. That people with degrees on average are better in the categories that you outline is mainly because people that are strong in those areas tend to get degrees. Because they get degrees, they then have an easier time getting jobs where they get to hone those skills further.

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  • December 28, 2016 at 11:27 pm
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    I’ll mention that as a CCNP, Infrastructure Architect, on my second public sector position, my salary offer was calculated based on a formula which included my college degree, and required less job experience due to the degree.

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