Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts and Certs Bearing the Promise of Fat Paycheck
Every now and then a big, fat obvious target comes along. I have to admit that these things are like pinatas for me: I just can't resist grabbing a big stick and taking a few swings. Today, the target comes courtesy of clearancejobs.com, a website that aims specifically at job seekers with U.S. government security clearances.
By way of explanation, this typically means former U.S. servicewomen and -men, who obtained their clearances while in some branch of the military. Alternatively, there are sometimes longtime Department of Defense contractors, whose employers work on their behalf to shepherd them through the rigorous and often years-long process of obtaining such clearances.
I have a lot of respect for these people, especially for the ones who have served our country on the front lines. I want to be crystal clear that my rant against the story I'm about to describe (and deride) is by no means meant to reflect badly on those folks in any way, shape or form. Now buckle up and somebody give me a blindfold, because here we go!
The Title Says: 'Top 5 IT Certifications That Will Get You Paid'
The clearancejobs.com story comes from VMware expert Greg Stuart and makes no bones about its orientation. The tail end of his lead sentence reads " ... in order to stand out and get paid, IT certifications are what you need." The beginning of that sentence also observes that "hands-on experience goes a long way in showing that you have the chops to do the job you are applying for."
Mr. Stuart's premise seems to be that, while hands-on experience is important, IT certification is what makes a telling and vital difference when it comes to getting hired into a high-paying IT position. He then goes on to list his picks for the top five such credentials, along with a brief description of each credential and an assertion as to the "average salary" that comes with it.
Here's his Top 5 table, abstracted from the story, and presented by ascending order of purported pay (or pay range, as in one case):
Sponsor / Credential / Average Salary
Microsoft / Azure Administrator Associate / $125,993
(ISC)2 / CISSP / $141,452
Amazon / AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Associate / $149,446
VMware / VCP or VCAP / $130,000 to $150,000
Google / Google Certified Professional: Cloud Architect / $175,761
Where did Mr. Stuart get his salary data? How did he calculate his "average" figures? He doesn't say. As somebody who's compiled a lot of this kind of data for hundreds of stories, I can tell you how we do it, and offer my hopes that Mr. Stuart took a similar approach. Step 1 is to visit four or five of the leading job posting sites — lately, that means LinkedIn, Indeed, SimplyHired and GlassDoor.
Step 2 is to scrape all the positions posted that mention a specific cert, extract salary data, and use that to calculate an average. See, for example, my team's February 2020 story, Best InfoSec and Cybersecurity Certifications 2020, or the companion piece that explains our methodology in detail: How We Pick the Best Certifications.
Every Job App Tells a Story
Alas, certifications are only a part of the overall story that a person's job application (and the information obtained during the interview process) tells about them. My knee-jerk reaction to stories like Mr. Stuart's is to gently remind readers tempted to chase down a credential that appears in such a listing that a certification does not define the individual.
Rather, the question to ask is: "How would this certification fit your current job history, technical interests, and prior and current experience?" I'm not quibbling with the choices Mr. Stuart has made, or really with the numbers he reports. Indeed, all of his choices are valid and the salaries and pay ranges he reports look like they're in the right ballpark to me.
But the implication is clear: By obtaining one of these certs, you too can make the kind of money that appears as the average salary listed with it. Is that a valid implication? The frustrating but generally applicable answer is almost always some form of, "Maybe yes, maybe no."
Salary is a function of location, educational background, prior experience, and "local" market conditions — an amusing concept all by itself in our ever-more-work-from-home-oriented employment sphere, but that's a topic for another story.
People in major metro areas whose work experience, certification portfolios, and technical interests tell the right story will probably earn even more than the number reported in Mr. Stuart's average salary estimates. People in less densely populated parts of the country (or, more to the point, whose employers operate in such locations) will definitely earn less.
Salary is, in fact, a highly nuanced number that reflects a great many factors. One reason for the high numbers for the items shown in Mr. Stuart's table right now is a function of supply and demand: There are more employers looking for people who hold such credentials than there are credentialed professionals available to meet the demand.
Both cloud and security (mostly cloud) expertise are in extreme demand right now. I just wrote in a Technical Brief for HPE yesterday that "70 percent of companies surveyed report that they are hampered in meeting their business and technology goals by a shortage of cloud experts to fill open positions."
Working from that premise, it's not hard to understand why the Azure, Amazon, Google, and VMware elements made Mr. Stuart's list.
On the Other Hand ...
But mere certification — and I apologize for putting those two terms together so wantonly, but there's hopefully some method in my madness — is not by itself enough to get a person hired for positions that pay more than $10,000 a month (and sometimes, a fair amount more than that). It takes time to get hired into such high-paying positions, even in a seller's market.
Moreover, those who enter the intake path for such positions are going to be carefully scrutinized to make sure that they not only talk the talk, but can walk the walk. A big part of such scrutinization is making sure their prior experience is directly relevant and meaningful to the job at hand.
Why is this? With big salaries on the line, companies tend to fill those positions slowly and carefully, because of the downside of making a hiring mistake. Simply put: It can be devastatingly expensive to make the wrong hire, because it often takes a year or more for such people to become fully productive in a new position at this level.
As Mr. Stuart himself acknowledges "real-world experience" counts a lot. I agree with that, and I also cautiously agree with his premise that "adding certain certifications to your resume will enhance your chances of landing a dream job or even boosting your salary" (emphasis mine).
But gosh, the overall picture of a person's career history and trajectory still matter a lot. If you're going to pursue a certification, they take time, cost money, and usually require serious and considerable effort to earn.
I can't stress this enough: If you're going to make that level of investment in yourself by chasing a certification, then you need to be quite sure that it fits in well with your prior work and educational history, plays off your experience, and takes you someplace you'd like to stay for a while — in addition to maybe bumping up your take-home pay.
I've said this before, and I'll say it again: the thrill of a bigger paycheck fades pretty quickly, as your outflows expand to match your inflows. But the ability to wake up in the morning and actually look forward to going to work is something that will sustain and nourish your mind and spirit over the years, as well as enhance your bank account. Choose wisely, grashoppers!