Skip the certification; self-host instead

Self hosting in the AWS and Azure clouds is the best way to develop skills that employers value
Self-hosting in Azure and AWS builds desirable skills

Recently, two different technical threads converged for me. Based on that, I offer in this post what may be controversial career recommendations. Read on to see if you agree.

First, I just rebuilt this WordPress blog in a new Azure burstable VM (it’s a B2als v2 VM, in case you’re interested). This blog has been running on Azure since 2018 and the underlying Ubuntu server acquired so much decay that it was time to upgrade and replace it. I mean…six years! Everyone knows that over time laptops all the way up to VMs acquire “cruft” — the detritus of many updates and changes that can make the devices run poorly.

Second, I’ve recently starting following the hobbyists on the Reddit SelfHosted subreddit who are into building and running applications for themselves. Some do it for fun; others for control. I’m firmly in the latter camp. This blog and other personal apps are too important to me to allow anyone else to manage the environments in which they run.

But there’s a deeper reason self-hosting is important for cloud IT professionals. It’s the best way to gain practical experience. This post isn’t the first time I’ve promoted self-hosting. In 2016, when this site ran in AWS, I pointed out some of the skills you can acquire by self-hosting WordPress in the AWS cloud.

Since that post, the challenge of warding off the endless bots and takeover attempts this blog experiences every millisecond 24x7x365 has kept me sharp in security technologies and practices that are crucial in the enterprise. It’s a small blog…but that doesn’t mean it can’t be as secure as a production internet website for a global multinational. (Tip: check your site with OWASP ZAP for a good baseline of where your site’s or app’s vulnerabilities lie.)

Here’s where it gets controversial: self-hosting delivers more real-world experience to cloud practitioners than any certification course ever can. IOW, skip the certification route and get your hands dirty as a hobbyist, at least to start.

It’s the real-world experience you acquire working with the same fundamental resources in the cloud that enterprises use and from the mistakes you make that an astute employer will reward you for.

Clearly, you can’t say to a client, “I’m qualified because I self-host my blog.” But you can say, “Recently, I had to recover an entire VM because of a disk error. I know from experience how to help you to prepare for the inevitable event when an Azure or AWS issue prevents you from accessing your production volumes.” Or, when client asks for your opinion on the latest changes in a cloud resource type, you can be familiar with those changes. Another example: when a client asks what your approach to securing high-volume web sites is, because you worked with WAF policies for Azure websites you’ll sound (and be) authentic.

Employers’ and clients’ BS meters are always on “sensitive” when interviewing candidates. Good clients and employers know when you have the “arrows in your back” from real experience and when you are only book smart.

Because hobby tech is, broadly, just a scaled-down version of enterprise tech, there are few technical concepts for which you cannot get valuable, real-world experience for short, and sometimes even no, money. So far, there’s never been a time when insight I gained as a hobbyist didn’t end up being valuable to the me when working with a client.

So, save yourself the effort of certification. Remember, certification courses are artificial, both in the content they test for and in the actual “credentials” they confer.

There’re no official certification authorities for skills in AWS or Azure other than the vendors themselves. Certifications exist largely to allow Microsoft and AWS to pitch enterprises the idea that there are legions of available capable, trained professionals so the providers can sell more cloud services. You just become part of the vendors’ sales machine, helping fulfill their need to sell more. They do that by convincing you that certifications are valuable. In reality, the certifications you labor to achieve accrue to the benefit of the vendors — not really to you.

Responding largely to vendor marketing, clients and employers who pre-req certifications are less than ideal places to work because they value something that’s essentially valueless. The best clients and employers can tell for themselves if you have what they need technically.

I am often asked, “How do I become an IT architect?” The answer is simple: do the work for yourself first. And you’ll have boatloads of fun doing it.



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