(Tech) Education Should Be Free (and Rigorous)

Free tech education is the reality being created by Quincy Larson, the founder of FreeCodeCamp. I’ve been seeing their posts on Twitter for years, but didn’t dive deeper until I heard Larson interviewed recently on Hanselminutes. The 30-minute interview was enough to convince me to add Larson’s organization to the short list of non-profits I support on a monthly basis. One of the distinctions I appreciated most in the interview was the one made between gate-keeping and rigor. Especially in the context of certifications (in an industry with an ever-growing number of them), making certifications valuable is a challenge that FreeCodeCamp solves by making them challenging to get. Having pursued a number of certifications over the course of my tech career (earning a Certified Scrum Master cert a couple of times, the AWS Certified Solution Architect Associate, and an internal certification at work for secure coding), I’ve seen some differences in how the organizations behind each certification attempt to strike that balance.

  • Certified Scrum Master. Relative to cloud certifications for AWS, Azure, or Google Cloud, CSM certification is much easier. Two days in an instructor-led training course, followed by a certification exam and you have a certification that’s good for 2 years. I don’t recall what my employers paid for the courses to get me certified each time, but these days you can spend anywhere from $500-$1100 per person for the 2-3 day class and exam. I think the minimum score to pass is 80%, and one of my classmates the last time I certified got 100% (I missed out on that by a single question). In short, less rigorous (and far less gate-keeping).
  • Certified AWS Solution Architect Associate. I spent months preparing for to take this certification exam. Just the associate-level exam itself costs $150. The self-study course and practice exams I took (both from Udemy) normally cost $210 combined, though there are plenty of other options both online and instructor-led (I expect the latter would cost significantly more per student than instructor-led training for other certifications. Achieving the minimum score to pass (usually around 70%) is far from certain, given the sheer amount of material to retain and the high level of rigor of the questions. I ended up scoring around 80% but I really had to sweat for it. Much more rigorous, but rather low on gate-keeping as well because of the relatively low cost of self-study and practice exams (and the ability to do hands-on practice with the AWS Free Tier with a personal AWS account).

The key value of rigor is that the process of preparing to take a certification exam should meaningfully apply to actually doing the work the certification is intended to represent. My experience of pursuing AWS certification is that the learning did (and does) apply to design discussions. It’s given me valuable depth of understanding necessary to push my teams to fully explore different services for building features. One of my direct reports used the knowledge gained from certification to build equivalent functionality out of AWS services approved for use inside our organization to approximate the functionality of an AWS service currently not approved for use (in order to integrate with a third-party vendor we were working with).

When I talk to people in different fields where certifications are available, I get the distinct sense that there are varying degrees of gate-keeping involved (a practice that tech companies are certainly no strangers to). My wife has said this often regarding HR certifications offered by SHRM. She’s been an HR director for over 20 years (without that certification) but hasn’t been able to pass the certification exam (despite having a master’s degree in HR management).

When considering whether or not to pursue a certification, it’s definitely a good idea to look at them from the additional perspective of whether they are gate-keeping–or providing rigor–not just if they will help you advance your career. If you can, find out from people who’ve actually earned the certification whether they feel like it helped make them better at their job. Some certifications are must-haves regardless of their rigor or utility, either because your employer requires them or because eligibility to pursue certain contracts requires them (particularly in the federal contracting space).

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