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A question I’ve seen a lot on java programming forums is “Should I get a certification?” Like every other programming question ever, the answer is “it depends.” Don’t worry, I’m going to explain what it depends on and how you can figure out whether or not it makes sense for you to get a certification.

First of all, I want to admit up front that I’m skeptical about programmer certifications. I’ve seen excellent programmers with certifications and I’ve seen far from excellent programmers with certifications, so I don’t believe having a cert tells me very much about whether you can code. That said, it’s not going to hurt you to have a certification on your resume, so if you have access to funding for retraining or anything, go for it!

What I believe most people really want to know when they ask if they should get a certification is “Will it help me get a job?” The answer depends on what companies in your area want, but fortunately, that’s really easy to figure out. Research! Hey, I didn’t say it was going to be fun :) What companies want is not some big secret, it’s going to be directly in the job descriptions they post. The trick here is not to look at two or three postings from companies you’re already interested in and call it a day. You’ll get a much more complete picture of the qualifications that companies in your area want if you look at a wide range of jobs both at your current level and above it – you’re not planning to be a junior forever, are you?

Another way you can research is by going to user groups and meetups and asking around. People who already work in the industry are going to be able to tell you things that aren’t in job descriptions, like “the last person company x hired who didn’t have a certification was the boss’s niece” or “company y’s job description mentioned certifications were a nice to have but they were actually perfectly happy with my example code”

Speaking of interviews, they can be a reason to get a certification even if local companies don’t specifically ask for them. If having a certification would make you feel more confident  and you can get one for a reasonable price, go for it. The more prepared you feel going into an interview the better you’ll do answering questions, which a cert can help with even if you never get asked about it directly.

Whether you should get a certification also depends on what kinds of credentials you already have. If you have a programming related degree or diploma, I wouldn’t worry about getting certified unless local companies really want certified employees. If you’re trying to switch careers, a cert could really help and is likely to be a lot cheaper than going back to college or university.

It’s a little bit of a tangent, but something certs can legitimately be really helpful with is telling you what to learn. It’s totally overwhelming to do a couple of tutorials online and learn just enough to freak out about how much more you have to learn. Certifications can narrow that down by giving you a nice tidy list of stuff you should know. Fortunately, you don’t have to actually get the cert for that, you can just read the list of topics the exam covers and learn them on your own. Then you can prove you know them by building something that uses those concepts and/or writing about them. As a bonus, nothing convinces an interviewer you can code like showing them your code.

Should you get a certification? Will it help you get a job? You can find out yourself by reading job postings and going to user groups and asking around.