Hot debate: Degree vs vendor certification

Dino Covotsos, Telspace Systems

Dino Covotsos, Telspace Systems

For decades, technical professionals have debated the merits of formal education versus the less formal vendor certifications. There is no right or wrong answer, and issues of time and money weigh in, as do where an individual is in his/her career and what his/her long-term goals are.

For decades, technical professionals have debated the merits of formal education versus the less formal vendor certifications.

There is no right or wrong answer, and issues of time and money weigh in, as do where an individual is in his/her career and what his/her long-term goals are.

Many feel that a bachelor’s degree is becoming an expectation, but at the same time, an increasing number of employers are looking for highly specific skills such as those acquired through vendor certifications – they cannot be obtained in the traditional classroom.

Training Guide 2015 gets feedback from local IT professionals to find out what they think about the degree versus vendor certification debate, and to see which path they have personally followed.

 Adrian Schofield, manager at the Applied Research Unit, Joburg Centre for Software Engineering at Wits University

“As a professional who has been observing and serving the ICT sector for many years, I would say that it is not a question of qualification versus certification. Both have their places, and one may be more appropriate than the other under particular circumstances.

“Young people who have made it to university and achieved their graduation have given themselves an important first step on the career path they subsequently follow. Many employers regard this as a good indication of the ability of the applicant to learn, to think, to communicate and the foundation on which experience can be built. Young people less academically inclined can choose to follow a more practical path towards the world of work, by achieving certification through commercial or further education courses.

“What both may often find in the future is they need to obtain a certification or qualification from the ‘other’ path in order to build their career. The holder of a degree may need to obtain a vendor certification in order to work in that vendor’s environment, such as SAP. An experienced systems developer may wish to get a degree or MBA to enhance his/ her earnings and promotion prospects.

“The value of the certificate/diploma/degree is that it demonstrates the holder’s ability to learn a curriculum and/or technique up to that point. That learning must then be applied in the work environment in a way that adds value. Learning through experience is as critical, if not more so, as learning through study.”

Chris Anderson, MD of the SPI Group 

“As someone who has two degrees and is currently attending university again, I have a strong belief in the value of tertiary education. However, the value of the degree does not necessarily lie in the ‘skill’ acquired, but in the abilities acquired. For example, university graduates are usually more agile in their thinking, and can think across disciplines. This means they can bring wider knowledge to bear in solving problems.

“Vendor certification, on the other hand, tends to lead to a much narrower focus, but perhaps to a greater depth. My preference would be to have a mix of the two, with a degree providing a base on which to build in-depth knowledge.”

Yacoob Manjoo, communications co-ordinator in the IT department at UCT

“I’m not in the technical field myself, having moved from business analysis into technical writing and communication. However, from my experience – as well as seeing many others in my organisation – I feel a university/college degree is always best as a first step, a base, because it gives you broader knowledge of the field and exposes you to a lot of other areas that will be useful, even if you never specialise in them.

“It’s important to look at the bigger picture and see things holistically before specialising in one particular vendor’s project or area.

“However, regarding tertiary qualifications, I would favour institutions or qualifications that emphasise the practical more than the theory. The university I went to had too heavy a focus on theory, and not enough practical. And I found that, after graduating, I forgot most of that theory and really just learnt more from actual doing in the workplace.”

Dino Covotsos, Telspace Systems

“I followed the path of no degree. At the time of starting my business, I was 19 years old. The extra time I had from not going to university full-time allowed me to focus very heavily on penetration testing and starting a business. At that time, there weren’t many certifications or qualifications specifically for penetration testing in any case.

“I also did specific modules on information security management at various universities to assist with running a business. These days, things have changed; while it’s not completely mandatory at all firms, it’s now more important to have a solid university degree plus extra qualifications for our industry.”

Stuart Mann, head: Analysis at TPS Technology

“If I am doing an entry or junior-level hire, the tertiary qualification is very important. I typically would not look at candidates who do not have an IT degree. In some cases, I would look at candidates who studied a non-IT degree but then got vendor certification later, but this would be by exception. If you want a ‘development projects’ IT career in a blue-chip company, a tertiary degree is a prerequisite.

“When hiring more experienced resources, I am usually more interested in the actual experience, as well as strength of references, than tertiary degree or vendor certification.

“It may be different for the more ‘plumbing’ aspects of IT, such as desktop and network support, but in my team of over 80 business and systems analysts, there are very few without a tertiary degree – less than five – and very few who have a vendor certification.”

Gavin Hetherington, MD, Neworder Industries

“Back in my day, going to university was the correct thing to do. At the time the world was not experiencing [cyber] attacks like there are today and social media had not evolved. There are now 470 information security companies in the world, many of whom have only come on board in the last two years. I now have my CEH, ESEH and CISE, and I find more people are interested to know whether you are a certified Information Security Expert rather than [if you have obtained] a BCom-Economics [degree].”

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