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Pros and cons of CS degrees vs. cloud certification programs

Standards for IT qualifications are changing with the rapid pace of cloud adoption. See how experts evaluate the debate between individual cloud certifications or a full degree.

There's a longstanding debate in IT: Do you need a full computer science degree for a successful career, or is a certification enough?

Computer science degrees were traditionally an important credential for aspiring developers. But the perceived value of online certification is increasing among employers in the IT market. The rise of cloud computing is driving this education shift.

The cloud, which shields users from underlying software and hardware as well as segments capabilities into distinct services, reduces the need to understand all aspects of computer systems. Meanwhile, traditional computer science programs struggle to keep pace with industry trends.

"Neither a degree nor certificates are necessary for a job in the cloud. But the success factors without them do depend on each person," said Jeff Hobbs, vice president of engineering at SUSE. He has had team members both with and without degrees and/or certifications. In each case, hiring his team reviews the resume and tailors the interview to probe for both strengths and weaknesses in an applicant.

A full degree or a collection of certifications is often enough to get a job, but many experts concur that a blend of the two is even more valuable. A degree is a good foundation, but certifications enable IT pros to keep learning and push forward.

Both paths to an IT career come with benefits and challenges. Let's evaluate the pros and cons of pursuing a computer science degree vs. a certification for cloud computing.

Compare IT degrees vs. certifications.

Is an IT certification worth it?

Certifications have been around for decades, but their connotations have dramatically changed in recent years.

"Fifteen or twenty years ago, having [a Sun Certified Java Programmer] or Cisco CCNA certification was a negative. It signaled you had bypassed a real degree in favor of answering a few multiple-choice questions," said Vivek Ravisankar, CEO and co-founder of HackerRank, a technical skills platform. "It wasn't clear you actually had the skills you needed to succeed."

The value of certifications shifted because many of them today can only be secured through real-world work and problem solving. Think of it like a driver's license: You wouldn't trust someone behind the wheel if they'd never driven a car. But once you know they have practiced in real-world situations, you are far more likely to accept their skills as real.

Certificates do provide a baseline for demonstrating understanding but not necessarily experience. Mike Loukides, vice president of emerging tech content at O'Reilly, said that what companies want to see is a track record. Has a job candidate built something in the cloud? Can the job candidate use tools such as Docker and Kubernetes?

"It's hard to develop that kind of experience, at least at enterprise scale, with a few independent projects," he said. He recommends combining certificates that document a range of training in related skills, including cloud programming, cloud security, containers and container orchestration, with as much actual experience as the candidate can demonstrate.

Now that AWS, Microsoft and Google offer cloud certifications, more employers accept that skills, not pedigree, are what matters and that a college degree cannot be a barrier to acquiring qualified talent.

Pros of certification

Certification demonstrates initiative. For example, Mark Crump, vice president of cloud training at Jellyfish, a digital marketing company, decided to pursue a career in IT in the late '90s after a failed career in music. He went to night school, booked holidays for block classes, passed vendor certifications and took less desirable jobs to get experience. Fast forward 20 years and he still does not hold a degree.

"You certainly don't need a [computer science] degree to get on, and that could not be more true now with all the online learning resources available," Crump said.

Cons of certification

Online certifications require a level of independent commitment and discipline that can be a major hurdle. Crump found that most online programs limit contact time with an expert, which makes it challenging to digest and contextualize complex topics.

Online certifications also won't demonstrate that you can put these skills to practical use. Earning a cloud computing certificate, such as the Google Certified Professional Cloud Architect, shows you have a strong base knowledge of Google Cloud tools, functions and implementations. But this certification alone does not show your troubleshooting or critical thinking skills.

As is the case with a computer science degree, these certifications do not necessarily replace working experience with these technologies.

Top IT certifications worldwide.

Is a computer science degree worth it?

A computer science degree program introduces the base concepts of various tech career and research fields, including robotics, biotechnology and more.

It's also important to consider the source of the degree. Hobbs has found that some universities focus on practical learning, some more on theoretical. But regardless of the source, a degree demonstrates persistence and a willingness to put up with the drudgery and monotony of some courses. "One thing a university degree will tell me is the candidate had the fortitude to stick through obtaining a degree."

But Hobbs is not tied to a degree in making hiring decisions. He has come across some bright candidates that could not afford university. He expects the interviewer to look at the core of a job and probe for weak areas based on the candidate's background. "We always expect to be able to review actual work in our interview process," he said.

Computer science degree pros

A computer science degree signals that you took a specific set of coursework and reached a basic level of mastery. Dedicated study over several years also helps build up a portfolio of code and projects. Universities and colleges usually provide networking and job placement services.

A degree at a college or university tends to be more about setting a foundational knowledge through growing research and problem-solving skills. If you already have a degree, then the value of going back for a computer science degree is likely unnecessary unless you have a very specific purpose.

Unless a recent computer science graduate has done independent study outside of their university program, they are unlikely to possess the skills to work in the cloud without significant training.
Clyde SeepersadSenior vice president and general manager of training and certification, The Linux Foundation

Computer science degree cons

Computer science degrees are expensive and significant time investments. On top of that, most graduates still must spend more time and money to pursue certifications for cloud computing technologies.

The IT industry evolves much faster than most university curriculums. This is especially true concerning cloud-related concepts, which degree programs might not even cover in detail. Degree granting programs have limited ability to modify their curriculum due to rigorous accreditation processes. In fact, a computer science degree program might only touch on cloud at a high level, said Clyde Seepersad, senior vice president and general manager of training and certification at The Linux Foundation.

"Unless a recent computer science graduate has done independent study outside of their university program, they are unlikely to possess the skills to work in the cloud without significant training," Seepersad said.

Organizations have adopted cloud platforms such as AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud at a blistering pace, which has led to unprecedented demand for newer roles such as cloud architects and DevOps engineers. Understandably, higher education hasn't been able to keep up, Ravisankar said.

"It's not to say that a college degree can't prepare you to work in the cloud. But it's no longer the only way to acquire the skills you need to succeed," he said.

Top computer science degree programs in the U.S.

Is technology advancing too fast for degrees and certs to catch up?

Career experts have different opinions on this question.

Stephen Simonian, global innovation recruitment leader at SUSE, believes technology changes by the day. Standard computer science degrees tend to focus on languages such as Java, C and C++ while there are many newer languages, such as Golang or Rust. The positive of individuals attending universities and learning these languages is that they will be able to understand the syntactical differences between languages a bit easier to pick up newer languages.

Hobbs adds that certificates age faster today than ever before. "In the early days, you could get certified and have that last for five years or more," he said. "Nowadays many are max three years. And in the Windows space, they have even reduced it to one year on many certifications."

Unfortunately, four-year institutions have done a poor job of balancing the needs of businesses against the need to teach a coherent, stable set of foundations.
Mike LoukidesVice president of emerging tech content, O'Reilly

At the same time, Hobbs finds that a good degree program can teach skills that encourage lifelong learning, curiosity and the desire to understand how things work. "Generally, the short associate degrees from technical colleges are just elaborate certifications, but you can still find people that are primed for continuous personal evolution from those programs," Hobbs said.

Loukides argues that technology is not advancing too fast for degrees and certification to catch up. He sees it as a different kind of problem. Colleges and universities are good at learning how to adapt to new technologies. He also sees many computer science course catalogs at four-year institutions, with good offerings for topics such as AI and deep learning, which are moving even faster than cloud.

But Loukides has also talked with faculty members at four-year institutions who are frustrated with their department's limited offerings in areas such as cloud. They've said that topics such as cloud computing are seen as vocational education that doesn't belong in their hallowed halls. "Unfortunately, four-year institutions have done a poor job of balancing the needs of businesses against the need to teach a coherent, stable set of foundations," Loukides said.

"Technology is advancing faster than ever before, but so is the training associated with technology," said Sasha Thackaberry, senior vice president of Wave at D2L, an E-learning platform. Certification programs are typically more flexible and faster at adapting to new technology developments. But degree programs are catching up in being able to revise curriculum at a faster pace, which is needed for those skills to be relevant.

However, nothing takes the place of being informed and connected. "Employees and candidates have to continually know what is going on in their field, scan the horizon and identify further learning opportunities that they need," Thackaberry said.

What stands out on an IT resume the most?

Both certifications and degrees can help, but a track record solving problems is one of the most important things on a resume. "It's almost a cliché that after your first job, your degree doesn't matter," Loukides said. Recruiters want to know what you have accomplished. Certifications pave the way toward new accomplishments, but in the end, companies want to see what you can do.

Don't settle on your listing your official roles and titles either. Hobbs said your resume should include a good description of your role and impact in each job as well as overall skills acquired. He expects to see references to a candidate's work, ideally on GitHub. He also appreciates a resume with a cover letter that explains how your background would fit with the role you are applying for. "This helps me know how well the candidate understands our role needs and [possibly] fit at our company," he said.

But in addition to that, some specific skills can stand out when applying for cloud roles. For example, Simonian said for SUSE, which does a lot of cloud work, experience in Golang, containers, Linux and open source stands out.

It's also helpful when you have experience working for competitive companies that likely work with similar technologies. "If we notice an individual has worked for a competitor, they are more likely to understand the open source and cloud native space," Simonian said.

Will an AI/ML certification make a candidate more attractive?

"In many industries, AI/ML certificates will make a candidate more attractive," Thackaberry said. However, there is still a lot that is unknown about how AI will be adopted into many types of businesses and even software companies themselves. Though certificates might not meet the critical needs, adding an AI certificate onto other credentials will help.

Loukides similarly believes that AI certifications will make a candidate more attractive. But in most cases, he does not think that this reflects the skills companies need. One of the biggest challenges facing IT will be understanding how to deploy and operate AI-driven applications in the cloud. "That will require hiring [operations] staff who understand AI and how it works [as well as] how it's different from traditional software applications," he said.

Don't make the mistake of thinking that all hires need AI certification. "Most of IT doesn't have anything to do with AI," Loukides said. Even though AI will continue to expand into every aspect of business, there will still be plenty of positions that don't require knowledge of AI.

George Lawton is a journalist based in London. Over the last 30 years, he has written more than 3,000 stories about computers, communications, knowledge management, business, health and other areas that interest him.

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