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CS degrees vs. cloud certifications: Compare the pros and cons

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 sufficient?

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 and 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.

"A computer science degree will allow you a broad understanding of technology as a whole, while certifications will allow you to specialize in an area of your choosing," said Charles Andrews, certified information systems security professional at Guardian Computer, an IT support and service company.

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 take a look at the pros and cons of pursuing a computer science degree vs. certification in IT.

Select quotes from IT experts about CS degrees vs. certifications
Select quotes from IT experts about CS degrees vs. certifications

IT certifications

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

"Fifteen or twenty years ago, having an SCJP 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.

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.

Adam Kranitz, founding member of the Multi-Cloud Leadership Alliance, sees certifications as the new IT career currency. Software skills were already in high demand but, after the startup boom and entrepreneurial enthusiasm fueled by instant infrastructure, cloud-powered services took over the industry and demand outstripped supply for qualified software engineers.

"If you're an up-and-coming software engineer … it's now a better option to already have the IT certifications that companies are asking for rather than thinking that just your degree will land you a top technology position," Kranitz said.

Pros of certification

Certification demonstrates initiative. For example, Mark Crump, senior director for cloud training for Jellyfish, a digital marketing company, decided to pursue a career in IT in the late 90's 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 CS degree to get on, and that could not be more true now with all the online learning resources available," Crump said.

Shannon Wilks, account manager at RKWO, a web development company, said she hires talent with computer science degrees or certifications, but she leans toward people that have earned online certifications.

"Self-taught people are far better than those which are simply grad students," Wilks said. She finds self-taught people show more initiative and are more independent when it comes to managing workload.

Online certifications also demonstrate competence in fast-moving fields, like cybersecurity, said Pam Nigro, vice president IT and security officer at Home Access Health Corporation, and board director of the Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA).

The ISACA's "State of Cybersecurity 2020" reported that only 27% of respondents believed recent graduates from cybersecurity programs were well-prepared. When asked about the factors they consider when determining if a cybersecurity candidate is qualified, they rank the top three qualifications as hands-on cybersecurity experience, credentials and hands-on training.

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.

And online certifications won't demonstrate that you can put these skills to practical use, Guardian's Andrews said. 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.

IT certifications vs. degrees

Full computer science degree

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

"A bachelor's in computer science can be an excellent primer for further studies and will open you to a wide variety of knowledge sets that can make you a competitive candidate and flexible employee," Andrews 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, said Alicia Frame, lead product manager and data scientist at Neo4j, a graph database provider. 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.

Mike Gruen, chief information security officer and vice president of engineering at Cybrary, an online cybersecurity career development platform, pursued a bachelor's degree in computer science because he preferred the structure and depth of the topics, as well as the access to people and resources that university education provided.

"I don't often use what I learned directly, but without that type of learning environment to match my learning style, I'm not sure I'd have as strong a foundation or the sharpened problem-solving and critical-thinking skills that enable me to be effective," Gruen said.

A degree at a college or university tends to be more about setting a foundational knowledge through growing research and problem-solving skills, Gruen said. Therefore, 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.

Computer science degree cons

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

"While a degree can be an important mark on your resume for many reasons, the field of computer science experiences rapid and frequent changes, which a four-year degree program may not be able to keep up with or properly prepare you for," Andrews said.

The IT industry evolves much faster than most university curriculums. This is especially true concerning cloud-related concepts, which degree programs may not even cover in detail. Degree granting programs have limited ability to modify their curriculum due to rigorous accreditation processes. In fact, a CS 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 like 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.

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