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The power of Oracle certification

Wondering whether or not to get certified? This tip discusses the costs and benefits of getting Oracle certification and how certification factors into your Oracle DBA career.

This is part three of a three-part series for the DBA job seeker.

In my first article of this series, "Acing the DBA job interview: Getting Back to Basics," I focused on providing details about how to secure a good job as a DBA. In my second article, "DBA 102: Beyond the basics," I focused on how to succeed in the quickly changing DBA market. The objective of this final article is to concentrate on the benefits of IT and, more specifically, Oracle DBA certifications.

Step aside … I am certified!

Just two days after I proudly framed and hung my first Oracle OCP certification on my cubicle wall, one of my colleagues hung a Dilbert cartoon right next to it. The Dilbert went something like this.

In the first frame Dilbert is having trouble with his computer. A superhero in tights with a Capital C on his chest tells Dilbert "Step away from the server, I am certified!" In the next frame, our superhero sits down in front of the computer, Dilbert now watching over his shoulder, and says "I SUMMON THE VAST POWER OF CERTIFICATION!" In the last frame, the superhero realizes he doesn't know what to do and admits, "This is embarrassing -- that's all I remember from the classes."

The certification debate

Whether or not to get certified has been a widely debated topic for as long as I can remember. On one side of the fence are those that see great value in certification, that claim that there is no better way to measure a candidate's technical ability. On the other side of the fence are those that see absolutely no value in certifications, that argue that a piece of paper earned by memorizing and taking a multiple-choice test does not prove or replace the value of true experience and real-world knowledge.

As for me, you could say that I am sitting directly on the fence, as I believe both arguments are somewhat valid. In this article, I will discuss the certification process and examine some of the arguments for and against certifications.

The certification process

First and foremost, you need to fully understand the process of getting certification before you can truly measure its value.

Let's first take a look at the certification process for Oracle DBAs. The Oracle certification process has certainly come a long way since I earned my first Oracle certification. Years ago (I hate to admit just how many years) all anyone had to do to get 7.3 certified was take and pass a single multiple-choice test. I took mine for free at an IOUG conference in Philadelphia. For my efforts I received a certificate, a pin and a cool logo that claimed me as an "Oracle Certified Professional," or OCP for short. I later upgraded that certification to 8i OCP by taking yet another single upgrade test. This is the last DBA certification I will likely possess for a couple of reasons. For one, my role as DBA has changed as I entered into management, and for another, Oracle has made the process a lot more difficult.

For all intents and purposes, the days of the single-test OCP certification are over. The process to become OCP has become a lot more involved and a lot more difficult to attain. Starting with Oracle 8i, to fully qualify for an OCP certification you had to pass a series of five tests. Soon after this, Oracle decided to require you to also take one of its instructor-led DBA courses for certification. While there is arguably some benefit to ensuring that students take a class, let's keep this in business perspective. The requirement was nothing but a marketing ploy to get people into the classrooms, and it did not bode well for those that wanted to earn certification and were not financially sponsored to do so through their companies.

Starting with Oracle 9i, the options for certification have changed yet again, and Oracle has placed even more emphasis on its own classes (good for Oracle):

  • OCA -- Oracle Certified Associate. Requires passing two tests and no training courses.
  • OCP -- Oracle Certified Professional. Requires OCA, one instructor-led course, one exam and one hands-on course.
  • OCM -- Oracle Certified Master. Requires OCP, two advanced courses, a two-day hands-on exam and one additional hands-on course. While this is probably the best measure of ability, it is a very cost-prohibitive option.

While the OCA seems to be a viable option for the average DBA, those who wish to pursue certification on their own, without company sponsorship, will find it financially next to impossible to earn an OCP (two courses) or OCM (five total courses).

Justifying Oracle certification

Perception surrounding the true value of certifications really depends on who you ask. Those with certifications will usually argue that they are important; those without them will most likely turn up their noses at them. What most IT folks do agree upon is this: certifications do hold some amount of value, but they can never replace the relevance of good experience. No matter what position you take, you should realize that certifications must be important to somebody, since the certification industry continues to thrive and grow.

The justification that people will use to get certified is normally related to their own expectations for return on investment. In turn, expectations will ultimately determine the value of certification for each individual. If you are getting certified for the wrong reasons, you are destined to be disappointed with the end results. With that said, let's examine some of the reasons people get certified.

"Certification will help me get a job."

Having certification may help you get an interview, but it will not necessarily help you get a job. Recruiters look for two things in DBAs: core DBMS knowledge and hands-on experience. To measure knowledge, some companies and/or agencies will use certifications to pre-qualify candidate resumes, accepting those that have it and rejecting those that don't. Others will drill candidates on technical questions in a face-to-face interview, whether or not they have a certification.

I typically recommend certification for anybody trying to enter the DBA field, as it will often help get you past HR (human resources) and the recruiters and get a foot in the door for an interview. If you are an aspiring DBA with little experience and searching for that first DBA job, OCA certification OCA is definitely a good first step. I have been recruiting DBAs for 15 years now, and while I do not look for certification as a prerequisite for any position, I have to admit that, all other things being equal, it will give you a slight edge over somebody without it.

While nothing can replace the hands-on experience, problem solving and soft skills needed to be a DBA, being certified is a good way to prove that you understand the basic concepts of Oracle, are willing to go the extra mile to learn, and that you take your career seriously.

"Certification will get me promoted."

If you are getting certified in hopes of instant financial gratification, forget it. Getting certified only proves that you know the textbook concepts or perhaps even that you are merely a good test-taker. Some of my very best DBAs were not certified, and some of them couldn't pass a test if their life depended on it! While I always supported certifications, I would never consider a certification a reason to hand out a promotion. Being in the DBA business for more than 20 years now, I know more than anybody that a certification can never replace the value of good experience, nor can it measure one's ability to apply knowledge in the real world.

The reality is that there are some companies that put more emphasis on certifications. Some may use incentives to promote certification, and some may even require it. If you are providing services to a customer (like consulting or remote DBA services), then that customer might be more comfortable knowing that you are certified in the technologies you are supporting.

"Certification makes me better than you!"

This is hands down the worst idea one could entertain and is probably the biggest reason for the argument against certification. I once knew a DBA who proudly flaunted her Oracle Masters certificate around to her peers. At the time, the Oracle Master was nothing but proof that you attended so many classes and did not even involve passing any tests. Since this particular individual had little experience and no clue how to manage databases in the real world, her flaunting did not earn her favor with her peers and eventually led to her demise in the organization.

Do not be pompous about being certified and never think that you are better than somebody else just because you hold a paper certificate. Certificates are nice to have, but they do not equate to a measure of your ability or level of importance in an organization.

"Certification gives me personal satisfaction!"

This is perhaps the best reason to get certified. If you get a sense of accomplishment and confidence from getting certified and are looking to refresh your knowledge or to stay on top of the latest technologies, then by all means do it. The important thing is to do it for the right reasons. I have to admit that I kept that first OCP certificate hanging in my cubicle for quite some time, not to rub it in any of my colleagues' faces, but rather to remind myself that I earned it and was proud of my accomplishment. I knew that I had the experience and capability to apply my knowledge, so I didn't really mind the aforementioned Dilbert cartoon that was displayed directly under it.

The future of certifications

Many believe that certifications are and will remain nothing but resume filler. The reality is that, like it or not, certifications do and will continue to play an important role in the IT industry. One key factor in measuring the true value of a certification is in understanding the process used to get them. The more difficult something is to attain, the more meaningful it will ultimately be. If getting certified is as easy as studying crib sheets and passing a multiple-choice test, then it definitely loses some of its intended value.

Passing a multiple-choice test will never be a good indicator of one's ability to function in a complex IT (DBA) function. Certifications need to be more focused on hands-on capabilities and real-world applications, not textbook concepts and syntax memorization. For this reason, I personally call upon the industry to wake up and make the certification process a true measure of knowledge and capability. Using the driver's license process as an example, make the process twofold: 1) Test candidate knowledge of the basic and textbook concepts and 2) require a hands-on test to ensure the ability to apply that knowledge.

I truly believe that the certification industry will continue to evolve and hopefully put more emphasis on practical, hands-on application instead of test taking or even class attendance. RedHat and others have already introduced hands-on testing and I am sure others will follow suit. Consequently, the relevance of certifications for IT and technical positions should also increase. Corporate America's focus on compliancy (Sarbanes Oxley, HIPPA, ITIL, etc.) will also likely play a key role in the value placed on certifications and consequent growth of this industry.

Final thoughts

If you have no experience and want to break into a difficult IT field like database administration, get a certification and prove that you at least care enough about this career choice to learn it, study and pass a test. If you already have experience, take a certification test and force yourself to learn something new and stay current with the latest technologies. And finally, if you find yourself in a recruiting role, never use certifications as a sole measure of a candidate's abilities, but rather as an indicator of their desire and capability to learn. Instead, find out how they applied their knowledge to solve problems.

No matter what your role in IT, it is critical for you to keep an eye on the industry trends and the processes used for certification, as these two factors will ultimately determine the future value of certifications.

About the author

Michael Hillenbrand directs and manages the AES Select Outsourcing group at Access Enterprise Solutions. As director, Michael is responsible for defining processes and procedures, assisting with sales and marketing efforts, defining and governing service levels, and ensuring continued quality and success for AES Select customers.

Michael began his career as a DBA with US Steel then moved on to manage the corporate Oracle DBA team at Alcoa. For the last 10 years Michael has been leading remote support efforts. Having been in a leadership role throughout most of his 20+ year career, Michael has hired and managed over 50 DBAs and supported well over 100 clients. Michael's specialties include best practices (ITIL Foundations Certified), quality improvement and daily operations. Michael also has a strong background in database support, including Oracle (OCP Certified), SQL Server and DB2.

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I like that you looked at certification from a lot of different angles. I got my OCA a couple years ago. Been looking to switch jobs, and am finding that some jobs wants you to have different certifications. If I can get my company to pay, I figure I might as well load up. Just want to make sure having the certifications does not negatively impact me with the people who count in the job interviews.