People in the business community often question the value of professional certifications. Is the cost of passing an exam worth it? Some people say yes. Some people say no. Some people qualify their position by suggesting a certification is only worthwhile if an individual lacks sufficient experience in his or her field.

As someone who owns a couple of certifications, I admit my bias toward seeing value in achieving them. With that bias in mind, allow me to explain my rationale for the value of professional certifications. I purposely use the general term "professional certifications" to include certifications for technologies, methodologies and the like because I suspect my rationale applies equally to all.

Too frequently, people focus on passing the certification exam as if the benefit is delivered and the work stops after the exam is passed. They measure the return on attaching the acronym (e.g., MCTS, MCTIP, PMP, CDMP) to their email signature. What about the value of learning something new? After spending a number of years in my field and demonstrating material to others, I still learned something new each time I prepared for a certification exam. Those things I learned enabled me to work smarter. Leveraging that new-found knowledge and sharing what I learned with others is more worthwhile than the acronym.

At which point some people claim passing the exam is not important. We can learn and share our knowledge with others without any certification. To some extent, I agree. But my curiosity only went so far compared to taking a test. I read material. I tinkered with programs. I learned some stuff. It was not until I committed to the exam that I really got serious about knowing the details required for the certification. Yes, the details began to slip from my mind as soon as I walked away from the exam proctor, but I still retain the foundational knowledge of the material covered.

Plus there is value beyond the new-found knowledge and acronym. Passing an exam adds confidence beyond just knowing the answers to the questions on the test. Passing an exam demonstrates completion and an ability to deliver. When I see a certification on a resume, I think the candidate knew enough to pass the exam. I also think the candidate completed the task. When I am staffing my project, I want team members who know their subject matter and can deliver.

Do not mistake the cost of a certification. Typically, the price of sitting for an exam is small compared to the overall cost of preparing to sit for an exam. Preparing for the exam often requires time and commitment beyond our day jobs. Make sure the certification subject matter interests you. Spending time attaining an acronym that does not interest you is a poor investment. That poor investment might compound itself if you feel compelled to leverage a certification in a field that leaves you unsatisfied. With enough effort, I could probably pass the CPA exam, but would I ever be happy as an accountant?

Of course passing a certification exam does not necessarily make you a better professional. I know people without certifications who are gifted contributors to their fields. I also know people who passed an exam then failed to use anything they seemingly learned. I believe a well-placed certification sharpens your skills and demonstrates your abilities to learn and commit. As such, a professional certification is not an end. The actual value of the certification is up to you.