The Role of Degrees & Certification in IT Careers

There are many in the field of Information Technology that continually argue about what college degree and IT certifications mean for competency of the IT professional. This is my contribution to that never ending debate.

Purpose of Education

Let’s start with the purpose of education of any kind, learning some new concept, process or skill. At the root this is why there are degree and certification programs, passing on knowledge to the uninitiated in the field.

Logically what follows is that the degree or certification program itself is NOT required to obtain the actual knowledge that the programs impart. Self directed study can provide these same tools. This is more likely to occur in full for limited scope options like certification programs than the broad based programs associated with multi year degree programs. But it is possible to garner the same degree scope background without following a particular degree program. More common is self direct study in the degree specialty area that yield equivalent knowledge for that specialty in a non-degreed person.

But to garner the advantages of a broad based degree program requires that you DO learn not simply punch a clock or check a list biding your time with the D means done mentality. There are people who “successfully” navigate degree programs but lack the actual knowledge and skills the program is designed to impart.

But what degree programs also provide the truly successful candidates are the tools of HOW to learn in the associated disciplines. Once described by one of my professors as “organizing your ignorance” of the topic at hand. In careful attention during the degree process we learn how to organization and boundaries of the discipline. This helps us formulate the right questions and know where to pursue and how to approach the unknown answer. We also learn the tools of the trade for that discipline on finding the prior knowledge that does exist so that we don’t try to re-invent a well worn path but learn from the past. Or worse, we don’t trod a well worn path that has been roundly debunked and criticized for good reason. In short we stand on the shoulders of giants.

The Information Technology field is constantly changing at a rapid pace. So these skills in how to find prior knowledge and intelligently experiment into new areas are critical skills throughout our career. A good degree program equips us with these skills.

Benefits of Formal Degree Programs

One of the more underrated benefits of college degrees today is a full well rounded education with an introductory level knowledge across a wide array of disciplines. Modern American culture idolizes the expert and tends to dismiss the need for general knowledge. But I believe this requirement to learn the basics of “unrelated” fields is one of the strengths of earning college degrees. Exposure to sociology, psychology, biology and other non-engineering disciplines provide foundations in how the world as a whole functions. These provide valuable perspective for the tasks we are trying to implement with technology based solutions.

At the same time that we garner this broad perspective of the world of knowledge the degree program also provides focus on particular discipline. We take single courses in the broad range of topics but dive deep with at least 10 in our discipline supplemented by lab experiences. And this deep dive is well organized by professional education bodies that take into account both the scope of the particular discipline and the nature of how humans learn. These are continuously reviewed and adjusted over time. As a result, the degree programs generally will provide a much stronger foundation that any a self-study motivated learner can construct on their own.

Degree programs in computer science, engineering or math are well suited to those pursuing a career in information technology. These disciplines have obvious direct relationship to the field. They provide deep dives into the underlying principles that govern how information technology works.

But majors in business or other fields of study can also be very applicable. An approach that gets the degree major in the area where the operational vertical of your organization resides can provide invaluable insight in where to apply information technology for the greatest impact to the organization’s mission.

Another option during degree programs is to get either a minor in a second discipline or a second major. This approach allows you to have a dual focus and a broader level of specialist knowledge. Carefully choosing these two field can uniquely position you for success.

Another advantage of earning a degree is that companies often require degrees for specific roles – especially managers or supervisors. Job postings or internal promotions have this listed. While this can sometimes be removed on a case by case basis, earning the degree clears the hurdle without any effort or arguing for exceptions.

Similarly, Human Resource departments often use degrees to cull down long lists of applicants. Once public postings hit the broader world HR is inundated with large numbers of applicants where many are not qualified for the positions. Many will use college degrees as a simple first pass to cull down the long list to a more manageable size. So earning the degree allows you to get to the actual review process at all.

Benefits of Certification programs

Different from broad based and long term degree programs, industry certifications are created by authorities with focus on current actual needs in a focused area in the field. These are created by specific companies to promote the best practices on the use of their own gear. They can also be by industry organizations or user groups to cover a general discipline area in a non-vendor specific way. These will typically be either time limited to only a few years and require renewal or tied to a specific version of a product which limits the certification to the upgrade cycle of that product.

Certifications provide current skills in concentrated area and can generally be achieved with less than a year of study and practice. The exact time will vary by student skill level and test taking ability. Most certifications are measured by proctored multiple choice exams but the most advanced do have hands on labs over a full day.

A major advantage for vendor based certifications is they require reseller partners to have certified staff in order to sell particular products. As a result specific certifications at certain times can be a valuable add on for these partner companies. And practitioners with multiple vendor certifications are quite valuable to these partner companies.

Similarly in larger corporate organizations vendor certifications are sometimes used in the annual review goals for individual contributors. These are an easily measurable progress so an attractive option in these HR process areas.


Obviously degrees and certifications are not necessary or required for success in the Information Technology field. I’ve met many very advanced practitioners that don’t have either. And I started my own career without either degree or certifications.

But over time I found that putting in the effort to earn a degree in electrical engineering technology and certifications from multiple authorities was a very helpful way to organize my learning and broaden my understanding.

Both degrees and certifications also provide a helpful measure on the level of knowledge of individual contributors to HR and management. This is true often enough that we see degrees and certifications used in the hiring and promotion process so they become an advantage to you.

I have found that earning a degree and certifications has helped both my career and my ability to perform. So I continue to recommend earning them to others.

About Steve

Diploma Broadcast Electronics – Cleveland Institute of Electronics
BSEET – Point Park University

Various Certifications from

  • Juniper Networks
  • MEF: Metro Ethernet Forum
  • Microsoft
  • Nokia
  • Palo Alto Networks
  • Pulse Secure

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