New programming certs: Gold stars or false currency?

Abundant new options for learning programming have given rise to a new wave of 'microcertifications' for programming skills. How much are they worth?

Are it certifications worth it?

It’s mid-2015, and it doesn’t seem any easier to find skilled developers to hire than it did last year or the year before.

Many attempts have been made to lay the blame for this. The most obvious target is the educational system. As InfoWorld’s Andrew Oliver noted in his classic 2012 post, “Is a computer science degree worth the paper it’s printed on?,” a BSCS does little more than indicate a candidate’s “general interest in the field,” since most university graduates can’t code and don’t know theory.

As Andrew himself admitted back then, he was exaggerating a bit. Some universities do much better than others at preparing students for a career as a developer. Yet he made a crucial point: Many great developers never earned a degree, opting instead to learn on their own from books and the Internet -- and that such self-motivation is vital to success.

That leaves hiring managers in a bit of a bind. Sure, job experience, references, and code samples, along with the results of screening tests, are all more important than credentials of any kind. But young developers -- who tend to be the most productive in the latest languages and techniques -- often lack much of a track record. And no employer has the bandwidth to give a battery of tests to every applicant.

As a result, a growing number of third parties are stepping up to provide “microcertifications” for developers. We’re all familiar with the time-honored IT certs established by vendors, such as Microsoft Certified System Administrator or Cisco Certified Network Administrator. By contrast, developer microcertifications tend to be awarded by independent third parties who run coding bootcamps, online training programs, third-party testing, or some combination of the three.

At the least, bootcamps provide credentials in the form of proof of graduation. Thanks to unprecedented demand for developers, it’s boomtime for bootcamps, where in a matter of (typically) two or three months and for a few thousands of dollars students gain skills in a particular language along with help in job placement. Bootcamps vary wildly in cost and quality -- so employers need a sense of the bootcamp’s reputation in order to judge the value of their instruction.

One bootcamp, General Assembly, announced last fall that it would be developing a formal credential program in partnership with a consortium of companies including GE, PayPal, and Elance. Credentials will be awarded on the successful completion of a series of standardized tests, which will be available to all, not just those who have completed General Assembly’s bootcamp.

Microcertifications have also popped up in pure online training plays such as Udacity, which launched its nanodegree initiative last year. Currently, Udacity offers six nanodegree programs: Front-End Web Developer, Android Developer, Data Analyst, iOS Developer, Full-Stack Developer, and Introduction to Programming. An impressive coalition is helping to move the initiative forward, with AT&T, Google, Cloudera, GitHub, Salesforce, AutoDesk, and others taking the lead.

Mozilla has developed a generalized, open source platform for microcertifications called Open Badges. So far, it appears that only a handful of online code schools are issuing microcredentials in the form of badges, but more may follow.

Last but not least are the online training firms that target enterprises, such as PluralSight or Lynda (the latter was recently acquired by LinkedIn). These companies offer a huge catalog of courses for a flat, per-employee subscription fee. PluralSight recently acquired the skills assessment startup Smarterer, which uses a “crowdsourcing and a proprietary dynamic assessment engine that can validate anyone's skill in as few as 10 questions and 120 seconds.”

Whether it’s a nanodgree, a badge, or an assessment engine, these new schemes beg a few questions. If you need a Python programmer, it’s nice to see that a candidate has some sort of microcertification or has attended a reputable bootcamp, but it's hard to see the utility beyond shaking out the first round of candidates.

Ultimately, hiring managers need to give developers tests that reflect unique combination of skills they will need for a particular job. Third-party testing platforms such as those offered by Codility and ExpertRating can help ease the testing process, but they need to be tailored to the job at hand. Microcertifications or 10-question skills assessments are no replacement for deeper testing.

Another thing to watch for is that hurry-up programmer training has a tendency to breeze through basic computer science concepts developers need to understand. Also, because we’re in boomtime, I can’t help but think it’s a great time for scammers to launch fly-by-night bootcamps that take people’s money in exchange for the kind of low-grade instruction made infamous by fraudulent for-profit universities. Both employers and students should beware.

Then, of course, are the attributes beyond coding skills. In a recent InfoWorld developer survey, 48 percent of respondents said communication/collaboration was the most important skill for success, while only 37 percent said they felt confident in this area. Communications abilities are hugely important for any job, but particularly for developers who increasingly are called upon to communicate with business stakeholders.

There will never be enough developers, although the explosion of new online resources -- from Code Academy to Coursera to PluralSight -- is a welcome development that will produce more candidates to choose from. But software development is a creative field. What you really want are people who can leap ahead, create new stuff, and help move the organization forward.

I'm not sure whether any certification, micro or otherwise, can ultimately make it that much easier to find the right developer for the job.