As I think about the question of whether data professionals should pursue data mining or other certifications, my thoughts first head back in time.
In the old days, if you went to get a proper Computer Science degree, you'd have to take a course called "Theory of Computation." This was a generally pretty useless course involving tons of discrete math and lots of odd theory. To save the pain, I'll boil the class down to this takeaway: "Given a complete specification of the input, computers are black boxes that take that input and produce output according to some mathematical equation." The output is always nothing more than some function of the input. (I hope you're thinking "Well duh!" -- if you're not, let's discuss it in the comments.)
Colloquially, we used to call that class "Job Security 101" (partly to make it less painful). It's important to know what types of things computers can in theory do well -- because it's pretty likely that if they can do them in theory, they'll eventually do them in reality. Applied to data analytics, this is suddenly a discussion all about certifications.
To get a certification, you must pass a test. The test will ask you questions of the form: “Here is a question, what is the right response?” The question is the input, and the astute will see the parallel -- this is exactly what a computer does best. Inherent in these sorts of tests is a fundamental problem: They’re tests that a computer can solve (in theory).
At the pace of modern computing technology progression, are you sure that’s the business you want to get into? How long do you think you can compete? If a computer can do it in theory, then it'll soon replace you. Is trying to stay ahead of that curve the sort of rat race you want to be in for the rest of your career? This is not a plan for success, I say. Don’t build the foundation of your career on these stones -- especially if your career is in the increasingly important area of data analytics. If, in theory, a computer could ace an online data-mining exam, then consider making sure this isn’t your foundation.
Have you ever observed that a certification in 1998 isn’t quite the same as the same certification in 2008? While I sounded theoretical above, I’m really talking about hard practicalities. Computer advances really are the reason that certifications get outdated. This isn’t just theory talk here. What you certify for this year will be outdated next year because the computer will be doing more of your job.
To paraphrase Albert Einstein: Education is what’s left over when you’ve forgotten everything you’ve been taught. I am absolutely supportive of getting more education -- do it. But make sure that’s what you’re getting, as opposed to being required to give the right answer to a given set of inputs.
And consider two additional points.
In some professions, it’s not what you know, but who you know. I've experienced this personally -- every job I’ve ever gotten has been through someone I know. But my own experience also has been that success has come from being able to think on my feet, read people, communicate well, come up with creative solutions, and deal well in situations where there are no “great” solutions. These are the skills that make success in a job, but they are not tested in these certification exams. Sociologist William Bruce Cameron apparently once said, “not everything that’s countable counts, and not everything that counts is countable” -- and in my experience, most of what makes for success in a job is in the “uncountable” category.
And one last quote: “There comes a time in life when you need to stop sharpening your arrows and start shooting with them” (rumored to have been uttered by an old Indian, but the Internet doesn’t find this citation). When I participated in hiring committees at Google, lots of certifications was generally considered a negative signal. Usually this came from a feeling a mal-prioritized time -- is there nothing better the job candidate could have done with his or her time? Why not accomplish something? You learn so much more by actually getting dirty doing things than you do studying for a test -- show us where you got dirty and what you learned and what you contributed.
And I think that really is the bottom line: Go and do something valuable instead of studying for a certification exam. What you’ll learn is, believe it or not, the solution to the job security problem.
Share your thoughts in the comments!
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