Where are your certifications? Do you have a degree?

First of all, let me be clear, a certification, or a degree, or any other piece of paper, or even a bunch of letters after your name doesn’t prove anything. And it doesn’t matter who gave you those honors.

I’ve personally witnessed people graduating with honors from top universities who lacked technical skills. And I’ve witnessed people with barely a high school education who could program better than me.

Why are degrees, diplomas, and certifications so important then? I’ll tell you. They’re a guideline. In general, a person with a prestigious degree probably is better qualified than somebody without that same degree. But it’s not a rule. And it doesn’t apply to everybody. And there are ways that you can get around certificates. And, hey, if you do actually have a degree or technical diploma, or maybe you’re in the process of getting one, then great. Take what I’m about to explain and make it work for you too.

I actually wrote a report several years ago that said something very similar to this. It’s a message that I’ve been spreading for years now.

Hiring managers get swamped with unqualified candidates. HR departments can sometimes get thousands of applications for a single open job. There’s no way possible that anybody can sort through all the applications. So what most often happens is techniques are used to throw away applications. To get the list down to a smaller number. Something more manageable.

Having the right certifications is one way to make it through this initial round. But it’s not the only way. And there’s no guarantee that your application will make it through even if you do meet all the stated requirements. Listen to the episode, or read the full transcript below, to hear about the technique you can use to help you get hired even if you lack the required degree or certificate.

Transcript

First of all, let me be clear, a certification, or a degree, or any other piece of paper, or even a bunch of letters after your name doesn’t prove anything. And it doesn’t matter who gave you those honors.

I’ve personally witnessed people graduating with honors from top universities who lacked technical skills. And I’ve witnessed people with barely a high school education who could program better than me.

Why are degrees, diplomas, and certifications so important then? I’ll tell you. They’re a guideline. In general, a person with a prestigious degree probably is better qualified than somebody without that same degree. But it’s not a rule. And it doesn’t apply to everybody. And there are ways that you can get around certificates.

And, hey, if you do actually have a degree or technical diploma, or maybe you’re in the process of getting one, then great. Take what I’m about to explain and make it work for you too.

I actually wrote a report several years ago that said something very similar to this. It’s a message that I’ve been spreading for years now.

Hiring managers get swamped with unqualified candidates. HR departments can sometimes get thousands of applications for a single open job. There’s no way possible that anybody can sort through all the applications. So what most often happens is techniques are used to throw away applications. To get the list down to a smaller number. Something more manageable.

Having the right certifications is one way to make it through this initial round. But it’s not the only way. And there’s no guarantee that your application will make it through even if you do meet all the stated requirements.

Employers are first looking to avoid wasting time. They don’t want to spend hours on candidates that don’t have the skills needed. And if that means a few good candidates get tossed out along the way, then so be it.

Many companies offer referral bonuses to employees who recommend somebody that gets hired. This is a great way to get noticed. And it saves a company time. The company also gets somebody who has a higher chance of performing well.

It all comes down to the confidence that the hiring manager has in your ability to perform well on the job. A certification can help make a manager feel better about your abilities. A really good hiring manager will know how to evaluate your abilities directly.

This is why a lot of interviews for software jobs require coding during the interview. It’s a test. But you want to know something? I’ve sometimes had a hard time with interviews like this. And I still do.

I’ll explain more right after this message from our sponsor.

A typical interview lasts about an hour. I’ve experienced some where I was asked to start coding within the first 2 minutes. Now there’s not a lot you can expect of a candidate in such a short timeframe so the problems tend to be simple. They usually follow the scope that you might find on a college homework assignment with five or so problems. You know, the type of homework assignment that should take a few hours total to complete. I’m not talking about a major project.

I’ve been programming for 25 years and have designed and built many successful software applications. I also taught myself how to program. That means I never had to work through these types of questions as homework. I apply problem solving skills and try to think through different solutions. That means that I don’t always go straight to the desired answer. This is the type of skill you want people to have on the team but it’s not what is usually tested for during an interview. Too many times, the interview is just a more elaborate way to toss candidates.

With a compressed schedule, you usually have about a half hour at most to ask questions, figure out the scope of the problem, and code a solution. That might give you a few minutes at the end to talk about other things.

I’ve personally had much better luck when I was able to bring some of my work to an interview. Something that I worked on for several weeks at least. Now we can have a more meaningful discussion about design, solid engineering practices, scalability, extensibility, etc.

These topics become much more important at higher levels. It doesn’t matter if during my regular working hours if I need to research how to best implement some rarely used algorithm. By bringing in work of my own, I’m able to explain how I solved bigger problems. And this goes a lot further to make a hiring manager feel more confident than any certificate.

Here’s an example I used years ago. Imagine you want to build a garage and you place an add for a contractor. The first person you talk to is Paul who just graduated from a local building trades college and has an official certificate to prove it. He even hands you a record of his grades from all the subjects he learned. Impressive, right?

Then you talk to Tom who has no degree or certificate but lots of experience. Tom also seems to be genuine and likable.

Before you decide who to hire for the job, just consider that this is the choice most people find themselves in. Actually, there’s usually several people with certifications and a few without. This is the situation that colleges and universities want you to believe in. And that their documentation is the only way you’ll ever get a job.

What if there was another way though? Imagine another candidate shows up driving a truck hauling a trailer. On closer inspection, the trailer turns out to be a small garage on wheels. This is Bob. And Bob is bringing proof to show you firsthand what he can do. You get to see how he proposes to frame your garage, how the foundation will work. I know, it’s a little hard to show a foundation on wheels, but he has pictures of other real projects. You get to see how the door slides open and how Bob invented a unique ventilation system to help keep the garage cool.

Now, let me ask you. Do you ask to see Bob’s certifications? Does it even matter anymore? That’s where you need to be when looking for a job. Bring proof that you can do the job. Bring samples of applications that you’ve written and be prepared to explain how and why you made decisions. This becomes so much more convincing.

It’s a lot more work, true. Which is why so few people do it. Another reason is also because so many professional programmers are so busy working for their employer that they don’t think to write anything of their own. You can’t just bring source code to an interview from your previous company. Even if you did write it. That work belongs to the company. You need something of your own to show.

There will always be people and companies who refuse to look at your actual work. Who value degrees and papers more than real proof. I’m not saying this approach will work everywhere. It’ll definitely help though.

My advice is to focus on your skills and become the best programmer you can be. Then build projects that you can show to others as proof. Let that be your certification.

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