Container orchestration with Kubernetes is one of the most in-demand skills in technology today, but it is also hard, with many IT professionals deciding to pursue certifications to prove their chops. But are these certifications worth the time and money?
The answer to that question will of course depend on the individual and their unique goals, but what is certain is that certifications can be a useful way to open doors to a new career path.
“Demand and salaries for highly-skilled and qualified tech talent are fiercer than ever, and certifications present a clear pathway for IT professionals to further their careers,” Dave Walters, CTO at tech hiring specialist Hired, told InfoWorld.
As competition for cloud-native talent remains fierce, “recruiters are increasingly prioritizing skills over pedigree,” Walters said. “Candidates with strong certifications can not only validate their IT skills, strengthen their résumés, and set themselves apart from other top talent, but [certifications] are a good indicator to recruiters and employers of someone’s dedication to continuous learning and development.”
What are the Kubernetes certifications?
First launched in 2017, there are three primary Kubernetes certifications under the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) and Linux Foundation banners. A fourth, an associate level certification for beginners, is currently in development. The three established certificates are:
- Certified Kubernetes Application Developer (CKAD), which aims to certify that an engineer can design, build, configure, and expose cloud-native applications for Kubernetes.
- Certified Kubernetes Administrator (CKA), which aims to certify users who can perform the basic responsibilities of a Kubernetes administrator, including the installation, configuration, and management of production-grade Kubernetes clusters.
- Certified Kubernetes Security Specialist (CKS), an advanced certification that requires a CKA certification first. It aims to certify the skills required to secure container-based applications and Kubernetes platforms during the build, deployment, and runtime phases.
“For the CNCF, the aim for these three certifications is to be truly vendor-neutral and multicloud, based off of community input,” CNCF CTO Chris Aniszczyk told InfoWorld.
The exams, like Kubernetes itself, are difficult, with a cumulative pass rate hovering around the 30% to 40% mark. They can be taken through the CNCF or Linux Foundation via an online, proctored, hands-on test, where candidates are asked to perform a set of administrative tasks in two hours using a command line running Kubernetes.
The Linux Foundation typically bundles these certifications with courses for about $575. The exam alone costs $375, with one free retake allowed. The curriculum is adjusted with every major new release of Kubernetes, which is now three times a year.
4 reasons for getting a Kubernetes certification
1. A Kubernetes certification can help you land a new role
As with any professional qualification, a Kubernetes certification is most often pursued as a means to professional development, whether that is landing your first role in tech or pivoting into a cloud-native role.
“When we talk to employers, we want to make sure they find this stuff useful when hiring or pivoting a team to Kubernetes,” Aniszczyk said.
“Landing a role in tech can be a chicken-and-egg problem. You need relevant expertise to get roles, but you need a role to get the relevant expertise. Certifications can break the cycle and lift people out of a rut when they don’t have expertise yet. This is a very common story—and for those people, certification is absolutely worth it,” Alex Chan, software developer at the Wellcome Collection, wrote in a blog post about AWS certifications specifically.
In other words, a certification may help you get your foot in the door, but evidence of some experience working with Kubernetes will likely be required to get past the interview stage with most employers.
2. A Kubernetes certification will help you get into devops
Kubernetes skills are the most in demand for modern operational roles, such as devops and site reliability engineering (SRE) jobs. These are also the roles where the money is. In the United States, 95% of devops practitioners made more than $75,000 a year in salary in 2020, up from 93% in 2019. In Europe and the UK, where salaries are lower across the board, 71% of devops practitioners made more than $50,000 a year in 2020, up from 67% in 2019, according to the 2020 Puppet Devops Salary Report.
For sysadmins looking to move into a devops or SRE role, some evidence of hands-on experience working with Kubernetes is often a requirement, but a certification is just another way to show off your proficiency in and commitment to cloud-native development techniques.
3. You’ll learn some things
It may sound simple, but embarking on a certification is a pretty sure-fire way to ensure you learn the basics around Kubernetes.
“It is important to take that learning journey,” Saiyam Pathak, who has written a book on how to pass the CKS exams, told InfoWorld. That journey starts “from what Kubernetes is [and goes] to the objects and key elements up the stack. It is the baseline for when you start working at an organization managing Kubernetes clusters as an administrator. You can’t skip it, you can’t guess your way through the exam, so you have to struggle through that learning journey.”
Even if your organization doesn’t value these certifications specifically, they are solid evidence that you went through that learning journey. “The reason I did the exams was mostly to have the self-certification that I actually know the things I should have learned during that course,” said fully certified devops engineer Tobias Nehrlich.
There are alternative routes to learning these skills, many of which are also free, but for many people, committing to a certification is the best way to ensure they get through the whole process. “It’s more about how I learn. I have a lot of things I want to learn and often will get attracted to the next thing. If you have set a goal and you pay for it, or apply for a scholarship, you are more likely to achieve that goal,” said CKAD-certified data engineer Chin Hwee Ong.
4. Your company values certification
A lot of the time, getting certifications is just part of a normal corporate learning path, with companies paying for the courses and allowing time off for preparation and exams. These certifications let managers show their bosses that they are keeping their team sharp and help employees stay up to date with modern techniques.
“I have so many certificates and work at a company that really values certificates,” said Walid Shaari, a fully certified platform engineer at energy firm Aramco. “It adds value to management to show you have spent time to pursue technical expertise and are staying up to date.”
Reasons against a Kubernetes certification
1. A Kubernetes certification probably won’t land you a job
For engineers with experience using these technologies on a day-to-day basis, a certification probably isn’t as valuable as evidence of that experience. However, for experienced engineers looking to shift their career direction—say, from on-premises development to cloud, or from virtual machines to containers—a certification could be a handy first step toward that goal. “If you are coming from a background with no experience in Kubernetes, I can see the value there,” devops engineer Nehrlich said.
Fully certified cloud consultant Borko Djurkovic sees cloud certifications from the likes of AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud as highly valuable in his line of work, especially when it comes to working with public-sector clients, while the Kubernetes certifications aren’t at that stage of maturity yet. “I haven’t seen any roles that require these certifications, so they are more a nice-to-have,” he told InfoWorld.
“They are not often a hard requirement and, unless you have relevant experience to show you can do this work, the certification doesn’t validate anything,” Djurkovic said. “My suggestion would be to learn the technology, and the certification is a nice way to validate that for yourself.”
2. A Kubernetes certification probably won’t net you more money
Similarly, no one InfoWorld spoke to said that Kubernetes certifications had helped them negotiate for a higher salary or a better job. So, if you are looking to boost your earnings, a Kubernetes certification is probably not the answer.
“I don’t get more money at my job; I don’t want to go somewhere else where I have to show a certification. It is more for me to prove to myself that I have learned the things,” Nehrlich said.
3. A Kubernetes certification won’t help you be a better software developer
It’s important to note that these certifications, even the one with “developer” in the title, don’t actually involve much coding. “The CKAD doesn’t involve developing anything; it is testing your ability to deploy a microservices-based application,” platform engineer Shaari said.
If you are pursuing a career as a software developer, getting a Kubernetes certification could certainly help you round out your knowledge of where those applications typically reside in a modern, Kubernetes-based environment, but they probably aren’t going to help you develop better software or push forward your career in a pure coding role.
4. You could lose focus on what really matters
It is important to remember that certifications aren’t necessarily a means to an end, but rather a handy way to learn a new technology and skills. “It is more about gaining the skills than the job prospects,” data engineer Ong said. “I am trying to add tools to my toolbox, and Kubernetes is a key tool in my toolbox as a data engineer.”
Shaari said, “I like certifications, because you learn things you might not need in your job that you could use. However, it is easy to become addicted and forget that the objective is not the certification but gaining the skills and knowledge the organization is looking for.”