Certification programs for administrators and developers go back to the days when the mainframe was young, so it's not surprising to see analogous courses and tests showing up for CRM systems now. Certification is a sign of competency in one technology or another, sure. But how important is certification, really?
In technology infrastructure products (such as network or OS), certification might well be dismissed as a fairly static “checkbox item”. But in applications that are evolving rapidly, certification needs to be an ongoing process that must be renewed at least once a year (in the case of Salesforce.com's certification program, it's three times a year). This is because not only are things changing fairly quickly in the features and use-cases, but the object model and APIs are being extended on a regular basis. Somebody who doesn’t keep their certification up is more likely to do something the hard way (by writing custom code or an external web service) even though there's a new internal capability that could get the job done essentially for free. There’s also the “blind alley” risk, where they may depend on a feature that’s been, or is about to be, deprecated.
Further, SFDC’s acquisitions mean that the product footprint is growing rapidly, and nobody can know the entire system anymore.
A classic game played by consultancies is to claim wide certifications, but have only a small portion of their consultants certified. While the firm will claim they are "vendor certified" in every conceivable subsystem, that's no guarantee that the individuals working on your project will be.
Certification is enough of a pain (20 hours or more per year of non-billable time) that it's a good indication of the commitment and focus on the consultant's part. As an individual may have several levels of certification, the test fees and unbillable hours easily amount to thousands of dollars annually. Typically, an individual consultant can afford to be certified on only one brand of CRM system. Indeed, having more than three active certifications is a bit of a red flag (read: why does this person have that much spare time?).
While it's overkill to insist that everyone on your project be certified, it is essential to have at least one certified consultant for each of the major subsystems on your project. (This can just be the architect or project lead.) You will likely pay a little more for this, but it's cheap insurance against expensive missteps with the CRM technology. That said, most CRM vendors focus their tests on the most advanced features and "full-feature" editions of their products. Consequently, if as a customer you're using anything less than the “ultimate” or “enterprise” version, the certification won’t help much — the consultant will guess wrong unless they have experience working with your stripped-down version. This principle goes double for down-rev versions of on-premises versions of cloud systems. It’s important to know what parts of the system your resource really knows, and where they are just “book smart.”
Certification programs vary considerably, so you'll need to investigate the cloud vendor's specific certification levels and their terminology. You'll find that the following generalities apply:
- “Certified administrators” are what most projects will need. It really speeds the project along to have one when you're implementing or expanding the use of CRM features. Nobody has any public statistics on this, but my guess is that less than a third of individual consultants earn this certification.
- “Certified developers” are typically the next level up, but the meaning of “developer” can be surprising. In SFDC’s dictionary, a developer doesn’t write code: they develop “declaratively” by clicking the mouse. I’ve not seen any hard data on this, but I’m guessing that maybe 10 percent of consultants have this level. (If you want to know about SFDC coding prowess, you’ll need to find someone with an advanced developer certification, and these are rare.)
- “Certified consultant” is the first level that indicates “big picture” project design capabilities, and it’s the first level that tries to test for project experience (i.e., you can’t realistically “cram” for this test). For basic SFDC projects, being a certified consultant isn’t much more valuable to a project than being a certified administrator. For significant projects, however, this is the level of certification you’re looking for in at least one team member.
- “Certified XYZ consultant" is the level for product-subsystem (e.g., marketing, ecommerce, or platform) expertise. These certifications indicate narrow focus, and are relevant only if your project is going to use that subsystem. They are rare at this point, but are a good indication of commitment to a specialization. For the next several quarters, being SFDC “Lightning certified” is particularly meaningful if your firm needs to go through a transition to Lightning.
- “Certified Technical Architect” is the highest level of certification for SFDC, and it is quite an achievement. Is it important to look for? Only if your project actually needs a full-fledged architect…which is true less often than you might think.
It’s equally important to pay attention to informal credentials, as these can provide key clues to real-world expertise. The cream of the crop is Salesforce’s MVP status, which indicates deep, long-term expertise and is held by around 100 people worldwide. Since this is so rare for “mere mortals” you’ll instead want to check the consultant’s reputation for providing answers in the SFDC (or other relevant) developer community. For SFDC, use the search in the upper right of the page to look up the person, and see how many questions and answers they have posted. Higher numbers for each are better. Similarly, discovering that someone is head of a local user group or online special interest group is a good indicator of expertise.
However, there is no level of certification that indicates business-process expertise. Further, certification processes can only test for knowledge, not skill, aptitude, or effectiveness. This can be determined only by interviews and reference checks. (See my list of screening questions for choosing a Salesforce consultant .)
Do you need your staff members certified? Technical education and certification can never hurt, and they can be a nice motivator for your own staff. Further, having a staff that's knowledgeable about the whole CRM platform can help them make smarter decisions about how to leverage the system. So, be willing to pay for their certification testing.
Even so, it's not very likely that you'll get that much extra value from having a bunch of certified employees. The reason? Most CRM customers leverage only a small portion of the overall platform and applications, and the information gained from certification programs is use-it-or-lose-it. Consequently, six weeks after certification, your staff members will have forgotten the majority of what they learned because they really remember only those areas of the system they actually work with. (Consultants suffer less from this issue, since they shuttle from project to project on a regular basis.)
When it comes to preparation and study, IMHO the best stuff is the free stuff: SFDC trailheads, self-guided workbooks, videos, and webinars can get you a lot of the way there. Your first goal is to get a free “developer org” and go through each and every item in the system’s administration menu tree, understanding the purpose and basic interaction of the hundreds of leaf nodes there. Pay particular attention to the security system’s core (profiles, roles, and sharing rules), the object model (including report types and record types), and Lightning.
Paid courses aren’t bad, but for most people they aren’t a great use of time or money. Why? Because they need to cram a lot of information into the student quickly, which means it doesn’t have much context and is easily forgotten. The use-it-or-lose-it principle applies in spades here.