Do Cloud Certifications Pay Off? It Depends on Whom You Ask

Cloud expertise is in short supply. Everyone wants to get to the cloud, but hiring experts with the skills to efficiently get you there is difficult, because competition is stiff.

In the market for talent, there are two factors at play: certifications and experience. Those with both are the most in demand. But either one can add significantly to a solutions architect’s market value. While certifications are attractive, however, practical experience trumps “test knowledge” in the eyes of most hiring managers. In other words, certifications are good, but a proven track record is better.

Not all certifications are created equal, of course. According to information training firm Global Knowledge, cloud certifications for Amazon Web Services (AWS) typically command greater value in the cloud talent marketplace t than rival certs, such as ISACA’s Certified Information Security Manager and Certified in Risk and Information Systems Control, both offered by ISACA; Certified Information Systems Security Professional. Amazon offers five different certifications, three introductory and two more advanced.

“Certifications are highly valued at Rackspace and in the technology industry at large, as they help solidify a skill set,” said Lee Meyer, senior manager for talent development enablement at Rackspace, a leading provider of managed cloud services, offering AWS, Microsoft, and OpenStack platforms.

Likewise at government specialists, such as General Dynamics Information Technology.

In the federal government sector, however, cloud certifications are far from required. The Defense Department spells out specific certification requirements in cybersecurity, and the Department of Homeland Security provides a range of free cyber training for federal employees and veterans. But neither agency spells out requirements for certificates in cloud solutions.

Consider the General Services Administration’s Office of Government-wide Policy: The office is the federal government’s managing partner in the Data Center Optimization Initiative (DCOI), which seeks to help agencies reduce from more than 10,000 data centers to a more efficient number, often through the use of cloud technologies.

“OGP is collaborating with GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service (FAS) and FedRAMP to make information available on cloud service providers, as well as collaborating with the National Institute of Standards and Technology and FAS to provide agencies with guidance on how to comply with mandates for transitioning to cloud services,” said Dominic Sale, deputy associate administrator of the GSA Office of Government-wide Policy. FedRAMP is the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program, a GSA-led effort to implement government-wide security controls for cloud computing.

As part of this, Sale’s office is investigating best practices in selecting cloud services to store data online vs. on-premise solutions, but it does not require that staff members hold cloud certifications to do that work, cloud solutions, according to an agency spokesperson.

The same is true at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), a non-governmental organization authorized by Congress to help regulate financial transactions. FINRA handles massive data sets of multiple petabytes each and volumes can change threefold or more from one day to the next. To manage all that data, FINRA recently adopted an AWS-based cloud solution to capture, analyze and store nearly all of a daily influx of 75 billion records. The move saved an estimated $20 million annually over the previous on-premise system.

Yet FINRA does not require its IT staff to maintain cloud certifications, said spokesperson Ray Pellecchia. “Generally we tend not focus on certifications – regardless of whether it’s cloud or one of the particular platforms – but instead focus on demonstrated experience and broader problem-solving skills,” he said.

Cloud services are still new, however, so finding experienced managers is challenging. Certifications can help employees – and prospective employees – to develop and demonstrate knowledge and expertise. In the cyber world, certifications are mandated, but experienced practitioners insist that practical experience beats by-the-book certifications all the time.

In cloud, the jury is still out. While similar sentiments arise, experienced people are so hard to find that certifications may be the only way to rapidly make up that lack of first-hand knowledge. Indeed, the certifications themselves are still new, having all been developed since 2011. AWS launched its certification program in 2013.

The analyst firm IDC predicts cloud services will grow at a compound annual growth rate around 20 percent through 2020. So competition for experienced – and certified – employees will remain intense for years to come. Certs for AWS – the leader in the infrastructure-as-a-service market – are now the most-valued among any IT certification, according to Global Knowledge and Forbes.com.

Passing the AWS test is no easy feat.

“You sit there for four hours and do these pretty intense multiple choice [tests],” said Mark Ryland, chief solutions architect for AWS Worldwide Public Sector. “The professional exams are definitely challenging. It really tests your mettle.” Ryland holds all five AWS certifications.

Each AWS certification costs $150 or so; pricing is similar for cloud certifications from Microsoft, Rackspace and others. Study materials, course instruction and time away from the office can push the total cost into the thousands.

Publisher John Wiley & Sons Senior Acquisitions Editor Kenyon Brown said “Wiley has plans to publish Study Guides for all the AWS certifications.” The publishing house announced in August it was teaming with AWS to publish the first in a series of official AWS certification study guides.

Competition among employers – and between individual cloud experts – could change the landscape as the cloud employment market develops. Already, there appears to be something of an arms race going on. If professionals continue to make it a point to acquire and maintain all possible certifications, then introductory-level certs soon may not be enough to have an impact on pay. Instead, they become an entry level job requirement.

It’s also not clear where those skills will ultimately reside. Federal agencies could focus on higher-level management skills and look to systems integrators and IT support vendors to provide certified cloud experts as needed. Rackspace’s Lee noted that a certification is already something for which the company’s customers ask.

“Certifications may be a part of their Compliance requirements, Service Level Agreement requirements or even part of their business proposition to their [internal and external] customers,” Lee said.

Yet despite that demand, certification doesn’t eliminate the need for experience. At both FINRA and GSA, experience is a highly valued, if not explicit requirement.

System integrators who support public sector organizations make similar points. For example, Scott Rutler, General Dynamics Information Technology’s senior director in charge of AWS partnership efforts, says: “Certifications increase our credibility with customers. They help assure customers that best practices are being applied.”

Yet while some government customers are even starting to require cloud certifications for key positions, “coursework and test knowledge only gets you so far,” Rutler said. “In the end, there’s no substitute for real-world experience.”

1 Comment

  1. Ty

    I agree that there isn’t a substitute for real world experience, but there also isn’t a substitute for someone who knows the basics and is knowledgeable about best practices either; especially if an organization doesn’t already have cloud experts in-house. Organizations that have a low level of cloud maturity should look at this new breed of professionals as an opportunity to grow together and to move cautiously on small projects to develop this expertise. The certifications validate that knowledge, but if no one is willing to hire a person that has taken the time to learn a new technology, why even consider the new technology in the first place? We all had to crawl before we walked.

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