My private way of spending downtime (read: unemployment) due to recession is passing certifications. And, no, it doesn't help on the job. Well, not much. And it doesn't help on the interview (it is actually counter-productive a bit, as it tends to make an average technical interviewer suspicious and jealous).
The reason I do it is simple: it helps to get past the recruiters if you don't have some keyword in your CV. No amount of saying "this is not that important", "this skill with product XXX is something I have with product YYY", etc., etc. usually gets one very far: the HR people are very formal, and can't help to be. So, when one discovers that the absence of real experience with something is really getting in the way, the only way to get to that technical interview where the real knowledge could be demonstrated is by having the sacramental word on the CV -- as a "certified XXX professional", or whatever the clever marketing name for the certificate in question is. The competition these days is much tougher and one actually starts to compete as a CV on the recruiter's desk, where the key-words do matter.
This is how I have recently taken two certifications, so as to offset my lack of real-life experience with Web Logic and Oracle (I had most of it with Websphere and DB2, but who cares):
Oracle Database: SQL Certified Expert (1z0-047)
The exam was fairly hard and would actually prove knowledge of SQL; the sad part is that very little of it is specific for Oracle
Oracle Weblogic 10g Server Developer Expert (1z0-109)
This one is much easier and covers a lot of ground with very shallow questions. Requires a lot of preparation due to the sheer mass of material covered, but is not that hard. The questions are a bit outdated, too: I feared that anything I could find would be outdated, and had read a lot on the new stuff (e.g. EJB 3.0). Could have saved myself the trouble and prepared using the questions and answers for the older versions instead: the exam looks like having hardly changed from the days of WL 9.0 or even 8.0.
Let's see how far this gets me with my job search now...
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