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More than two years ago, I volunteered as a beta tester for the Sun Microsystems Certified Enterprise Architect for J2EE (Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition) Technology exam. I looked at the planned syllabus and saw the value in the certification, so I decided to go for it. Four months and a lot of hard work later, I received my certificate and badge in the mail, almost as if I had joined a very select fan club! Was it worth it? In a word, yes. My straightforward goal was certification, but I was pleasantly surprised that the certification process opened my eyes to ideas and approaches I simply hadn't had time to investigate in the hustle and bustle of my day job. I continue to engage with Sun on the exam's content and structure and am currently an examiner for the test. In this article, I share my experiences and also pick the brain of Mark Cade, lead developer of Sun's J2EE architect exam. If you want to become a Sun-certified J2EE architect, read on.
Simply put, any certification is only as good as the awarding body. In our case, the awarding body is Sun, the company behind J2EE. That makes the certification cast iron in my book. Many other certifications are available from various Java vendors, but Sun wants to certify and approve architects for the J2EE platform, not for application server X, Y, or Z.
In general, however, the value of certification—whether from a university or a company—is often debated in our industry. I don't need a certificate to become a practicing software engineer either in the US or in Europe, unlike most other professions. Great, say some. Our unique hacker culture is changing the way the world works. We live or die by our coding skills, not by some dried-up institution's opinion of us. Boo, say others. Fly-by-night coders produce nonstandard code and undocumented, inflexible systems that are often not robust enough.
Both camps have valid arguments. But my opinion is clear: I see the value in industry-sponsored certifications. And all other things being equal, I rate a certified J2EE architect more highly than an uncertified architect. There are far more weak uncertified architects than weak Sun-certified architects.
Let's be blunt: The J2EE architect certification exam is a very good way to differentiate your resume. Candidates who continually ensure they are up to speed on the latest technologies and hold pivotal certifications in their chosen technologies are well-motivated people who add value to their companies, both as individuals and as team players. As Sun's Cade says, "Certification allows you to get your foot in the door. For example, if recruiters look at two candidates for an architect position, and one has the certification and the other does not, who do you think they are going to consider first?"
It can actually be fun working towards certification. Have you ever wanted to investigate a particular section of Unified Modeling Language (UML) or the Enterprise JavaBeans (EJB) specification, or wanted to refresh on a design pattern you haven't used in a while? I used my certification revision time to make myself a better architect. For example, Part 2 let me evaluate UML modeling tools I had been itching to try, while Part 1 gave me the opportunity to bone up on enterprise integration aspects I hadn't used before, like screen scraping and legacy integration. J2EE certification definitely isn't easy—it's hard work. But if you like being a J2EE architect, you will enjoy the certification process. There is a real feeling of achievement when you successfully pass the exam.