We Don’t Need No Education

Oct 09, 2020

Google reports that they will now accept relevant certifications as loosely equivalent to a four year degree.[1] They primarily frame this initiative as a means to increase inclusion. Since my profession would benefit from greater levels of participation, their intentions are noted and appreciated; however, the bigger story is that a lighthouse employer now accepts relevant certifications as loosely equivalent to a four year degree. Another brick in the wall between your current reality and full potential has fallen.[2]

I work with team members that possess a broad spectrum of educational attainment. Is a degree helpful? Absolutely - but more to build a broad base of skill required to navigate in a complex world. Generally, it does not indicate a level of technical proficiency. I have worked with Nx developers with degrees in business, math, literature, music and even geology. If a computer science degree was the best way to build technical skill, entry into the space from vastly differing vectors would not be common.

Many luminaries have persuasively argued that degrees are of marginal benefit as a practitioner of the technical crafts. Thought leaders such as Peter Thiel and Paul Graham have been devastatingly critical of higher education and many of their blows land right on the chin of the expensive colleges.[3] Increasingly a degree is a signaling mechanism not evidence of a useful set of skills.[4]

Over the years, I have collected a fistful of certifications and formal degrees. Recently, I completed a few Amazon AWS certifications and can report that this process was more rigorous than past certification programs. No longer is it sufficient to digest and regurgitate a gaggle of technical terms and concepts. The higher level AWS certifications consist of scenario based questions that test both acquired knowledge and complex problem solving skills. They essentially ask the test taker to demonstrate they can do the job . . . by well . . . doing the job for a couple of hours. Obviously, this makes good sense, but by requiring the student to also solve difficult and nuanced problems, they test something broader and highly relevant: general cognitive ability. There are elements of the exam that are similar to college entrance standardized tests. The test evaluates both acquired knowledge and the aptitude to solve knotty problems. When both of these elements are present, the individual is certainly qualified. As qualified as an applicant with a four-year degree? In most cases, yes.

I also expect that the certification process will become an increasingly mainstream means of entering a technology field and maintaining a sharp edge. There is a pack of strong fast-moving technology companies and each firm is looking to be the lead dog. Most of tech has winner-take-all dynamics where if you are not the lead dog, the view never changes. A large cadre of people proficient with a particular ecosystem is a necessary condition for market dominance. Why not open the aperture on the field of available candidates and offer qualified people a legitimate alternative path to demonstrated competence? AWS, Microsoft and Google have the resources and motivation for continued success as a college alternative.

At Ravn, we use a set of our proprietary technical tests to evaluate our candidates. Although we believe degrees and certification have merit, our focus is squarely on the ability of the candidate to demonstrate real world skill that can be employed by high performance teams. The artifacts of prior accomplishment are considered as a part of a wholistic examination of a potential team member but our focus is on how much wood can the applicant chuck.[5]

  1. https://twitter.com/Kent_Walker/status/1282677443652976642?ref_src=twsrc^tfw|twcamp^tweetembed|twterm^1282677443652976642|twgr^share_3&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.inc.com%2Fjustin-bariso%2Fgoogle-plan-disrupt-college-degree-university-higher-education-certificate-project-management-data-analyst.html ↩︎

  2. We don't need no education
    We don't need no thought control
    No dark sarcasm in the classroom
    Teachers leave those kids alone
    Hey teachers, leave those kids alone
    All in all you're just another brick in the wall
    -Pink Floyd

  3. http://www.paulgraham.com/college.html ↩︎

  4. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/07/peter-thiel-elite-education-night-club/397544/ ↩︎

  5. How much wood could a woodchuck chuck
    If a woodchuck could chuck wood?
    As much wood as a woodchuck could chuck,
    If a woodchuck could chuck wood.
    -Mother Goose

David Haynes

Partner @ Ravn