ROI of Microsoft Certifications

This article is part of my Better Return On Investment from Software Development series.
These articles are aimed at senior management funding Software Developer or IT Professionals attempting to show the ROI benefits of what can sometimes seem counterintuitive.
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In this article, part of my series explaining better ROI from software development, I’d like to look at a report on Microsoft Certifications.

I’ve talked previously about how I value industry certifications as part of learning in this article. Following a report on the benefits of Microsoft Certification (which can be found here) I thought it was worth a closer look.

I declare an interest

Before I start I want to declare an interest here. I have a Microsoft Certification – so I could understand you asking if this is just going to be a bit of tub thumping.

As best as I can, I will be taking a subjective view – if you don’t agree, feel free to give me feedback.

So first things first, I should also point out that the report has been commissioned by Microsoft – I always question a report sponsored by the organisation being praised. I would however say in this case that the results are interesting and I can see the logic of the results.

Results in summary

I’d certainly recommend reading the report – I’ll only summarise a few of the key points here;

“As you review candidates for openings within your organization, pay special attention to those who’ve earned Microsoft Certifications. Why? Because they make great employees—they drive fast time-to-value, onboard quickly, and are adept at responding to challenges.” “According to IT managers at interviewed organizations, certified application developers are almost 90% more productive and nearly 60% more efficient”

market report

I’ll not repeat the report – but IDC go through their analysis approach and how their claims are arrived at.

My take on it

I’ve said before that I value certifications. They force you look beyond the day-to-day as their criteria a generally quite board.

I found with the Microsoft Certifications for example that they include parts that you are highly unlikely to need in standard day-to-day (think the 80/20 rule here). By researching them however I have a much better understanding of the wider ecosystem – thus I can draw parallels to a good number of the IDC claims.

I wouldn’t say that this was restricted to Microsoft Certifications. When I did my Scrum certification I researched quite broadly – not just the Scrum practices, but the management theory behind them, how to enable change and lean thinking.

So, no surprise that I agree with a report that re-enforces my own stance.

And here comes the but ….

Being objective, there are a few gaps in the report for me.

The first is that there is no correlation examined between certification and experience.

I would argue that a lot of the benefits they are espousing from certification are the same benefits you would expect from experience. There is an argument that certification can act as an accelerator on experience, but the report doesn’t touch that area.

This does prompt the age old question – experience vs qualifications. And for me experience wins every time.

The second is learning. As discussed above, a certification requires a fair amount of learning & research. The report doesn’t examine the levels of learning between those with certificates and those without.

Again, similar to experience, if you have someone that is constantly learning & researching their area of specialism, I would expect them to exhibit the same benefits.

And the third is subject area. While there is a graph on page 5, it isn’t clear what sits within each of those categories. I suspect that roughly all, except developer, falls within infrastructure category which makes sense from my personal experience. You tend to find more infrastructure staff taking certifications – much more than developers.

There seems to be a natural draw to take the relevant certification once an individual gains a certain proficiency with an infrastructural platform.

That doesn’t seem to be quite the same in development.

This may indicate that the sample set was infrastructure heavy – which almost seems to be certificate mandatory – and thus may push the report further that a more neutral sample set might have been. But this is purely speculation on my part.

Are all certifications are equal?

In short, no.

Each certification scheme has its own rules, procedures and scope. This can lend more credence to some certifications over others.

Some certifications are awarded for simply attending a training course – I “earnt” a SCO UNIX System Administration certification back in 1995 for just attending 2 days of classes.

If I compare that to the effort I needed to take to learn and pass the Microsoft & Scrum certifications then … well, there is nothing to compare. The exams took months if not years of effort and experience.

So how do you tell the value of a certification?

If you are technical (or have access to someone that is) then review the certification and what it covers. Is there synergies with the work you have?

If not technical, then ask the individual to explain why their certification is important for your organisation. Ask them what they had to do to pass it. Ask them about the process. Generally you’ll get an idea from them if there is some benefit.

Certifications don’t mature

One thing to watch for is the age of a certification.

I’ve certainly have individual interview with me claiming to be Microsoft Certified for products that have been obsolete for 5+ years. While it may be true that they passed that exam – if the technology isn’t current, there is likely to be diminishing benefit in it. I’ll not say none, but certainly much less than a “current” certificate.

For those that value their certificates, they will generally try to keep their certificates current (I need to renew my every 2 years). Some will let them lapse through no longer being interested in that specialism. It is always worth digging into those situations to see if there is a reason behind that.

ROI Summary

Better training will always result in an individual having better productivity. And better productivity is always an improvement to ROI.

Microsoft Certifications in themselves are a reasonable proxy to demonstrate that an individual has good training.

Just don’t forgo experience for a certification on its own.

About the author:

Mark Taylor is an experience IT Consultant passionate about helping his clients get better ROI from their Software Development.

He has over 20 years Software Development experience - over 15 of those leading teams. He has experience in a wide variety of technologies and holds certification in Microsoft Development and Scrum.

He operates through Red Folder Consultancy Ltd.