Software Quality Insights

Oct 16 2008   3:40PM GMT

The value of certification

Colin Smith Colin Smith Profile: Colin Smith


Certification — this controversial topic continues to pop up and be discussed in columns and blogs.

James Bach, long an opponent of certification, recently had an interesting experience with a representative of ASTQB (American Software Testing Qualifications Board). He asked her about what it takes to receive a testing certification from her organization and the benefits of certification. The dialog, which James provides in his blog, is hysterical and illustrates the ignorance people in that organization have about testers and testing. Here’s a sample:

James: Do you need any experience to get certified?

Lois: No, you just have to pass the exam.

James: What are the benefits of certification?

Lois: JB.

James: JB?

Lois: Just Because. There are almost 90,000 certified testers. It’s fast becoming the norm. In some countries you can’t get a job unless you have our certification.

Project managers have had similar complaints about certifications for their profession. Bas de Baar wrote about his experiences in his column “Finding work as a PM: Value of certification debatable.” He says experience counts for far more than what a person is able to remember from a book, and he finds it unfair that job applicants aren’t given a second look if they don’t have the certification.

In Kevin Beaver’s recent column “Does certification really matter?” Kevin agrees that it’s wrong to simply memorize a book in order to get certified. Certification should mean more than that. Certified professionals should be able to “execute in real-world scenarios,” he says.

And while getting certified is a marketing tactic, it’s often necessary to move ahead in your career, Kevin says. You can disagree all you want, but employers look for those certifications when making hiring decisions.

If certifications are necessary, then the certification bodies need to make sure the tests cover actual experience. And make sure what is being taught in certification training sessions is at the appropriate level.

Some other thoughts: If company and personal budgets get tighter in light of the economic problems we’re dealing with, will certification and training get pushed to the back burner? Will fewer certified people mean employers will have to look more carefully at job applicants? Will certifications have more value because they’ll be given to people who are really committed to their profession?

4  Comments on this Post

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  • Millieac
    Certification is like having a degree- it says that you have been exposed to a body of knowledge and that you demonstrated understanding. When I became certified as a business analyst, I had to document five years of experience. I understand that project management certification is the same. I agree that it doesn't guarantee that you will be able to apply the information, but it does say that you have been exposed and are expected to understand the concepts in a particular work assingment. Often people who gain experience in just one company will not be able to apply it in another. They have to understand the concepts behind what they are doing. I found the process of completing the application for admission to the test, documenting experiences, gaining letters of recommendation and studying for the test helped to soldify my experience as an analyst and increased my knowedge beyond my daily work. It also helped me approach my daily work with a new perspective. Having experience doesn't necessarily mean that the work was done well. However, that being said, I would certainly look at experience, but in choosing between people with experience, I would lean to a certification. It indicates that person went to the trouble, had the commitment and respect for his profession and made an effort to keep his/ her skills up to date.
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  • Shanepark
    I agree that experience is more important but having the certification at least gives me a starting point to understand what you should know from a theory perspective. Would you think about hiring a new developer if they didn't at least have a degree in computer science (or equivalent) with some form of relevant experience? When hiring staff you generally review their resume to confirm that they have completed some type of formalised study. There experience then supports how well they have been able to apply the theoretical based learning to practical situations. Interestingly, I have seen people who have had numerous degrees, masters and PHd's who were completely incapable of applying it in the real world! It is becoming increasingly difficult to verify the contents of a candidates resume! Certification or formalised study allows me to verify that what is stated is real as I can check with the issuing authority, but to verify "practical" skills and competencies is a little more challenging. For software testers, we have actually created a "practical" focused assessment that all potential candidates take. The assessment provides them with parts of various level requirements documents and asks the candidate to both review the requirements documents, capturing what they believe is wrong or needs clarification. We then ask them to outline tests that they believe would need to be run to verify the requirements. Exploratory tests are also covered. With testing becoming more technically orientated as a result of agile approaches we are now asking questions around technical competencies such as SQL, XML and programming! Fundamentally, I view certification in exactly the same light as a programmers computer science degree. It tells me he/she should understand the theory, it doesn't tell me how good he/she is at applying it in a practical world!
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  • Donmillion
    The ASTQB is the American representative body for the International Software Testing Qualifications Board (ISTQB). I have spent the past 17 years oscillating between doing testing, and running training courses in testing, but currently, I’m spending most of my time providing ISTQB certification training. Here’s how I see things. ISTQB's aims for the certification program are praiseworthy (raising professional profile; providing a career path; normalising understanding ...), but there are severe barriers to their attainment. One of the biggest is that the form of testing they most strongly advocate -- formal, process-oriented, strongly documented, and with test design and construction [i]preceding[/i] product design and construction -- is not the way testing is done in most organisations, where the predominant mode is relatively chaotic testing that begins only after the software has been written. I make no judgement here about which style of testing is most valuable. I want instead to address what the ISTQB Foundation Syllabus is really about. The most important thing to understand about Foundation-level certification is that it's just that: a foundation. It's like erecting a tower block for businesses to occupy and work in. You start by clearing the ground, then digging a hole, lining and buttressing it for robustness, and putting in lots of connection to things that you'll hook the actual building up to later on (gas, water, electricity, sewage, communications ...). But the businesses don't work in the foundations; they have to wait for the rest of the building to go up. Foundation-level certification [i]doesn’t teach you how to test[/i], nor is it intended to. "The rest of the building" is the ISTQB Advanced Syllabus (or ISEB Practitioner Syllabus). Rather than teaching you "how to test", the Foundation level is intended to remove a huge mass of misconceptions about what testing is and how it works, and replace them with healthier ideas and a common vocabulary for expressing or discussing them. Armed with those, a Foundation-certified tester should be able to proceed to the higher levels of certification, which [I]are[/I] intended to teach you "how to do the job". Unfortunately, “the industry” in general has failed to understand this, and HR people and employment agencies in particular think that 2.5 days in a classroom with a piece of paper at the end of it must prove something about a person’s capabilities. I guess it does, at that, but not what they seem to think. The second thing to realise about the Foundation is that it's not even a "testers" course. The target audience includes testers, sure, but it also includes "test managers ... software developers ... project managers, quality managers, software development managers, business analysts, IT directors and management consultants". These people are important because they create the context in which "testing happens", but seldom understand "what testing is" or how it works. Consequently, the contexts they create often actively hamper the tester's work. Unfortunately, the certification is seen as a "testers' certification", and it's rare for people who are not "testers" to attend the training -- in fact, it's common for test managers to get their staff trained in practices that cannot be transported into their working environments because the test managers don't attend the training themselves. The upshot of this is that, in the countries for which I have experience (the UK, New Zealand, and Australia), most testers with Foundation certification go back to a workplace in which they are unable to practice much of what they have learnt, and quickly forget their training. From my observation, this is one of the principal reasons why testers generally find the advanced levels of certification so difficult: the examinations assume that candidates have remembered every detail of the Foundation level, as well as the advanced level, whereas the candidates have had no reason whatsoever to do so over the intervening months or years. I don’t despair of this situation; having lots of criticisms of the ISTQB (and ISEB) Syllabuses and the associated Glossary, I’m working from the inside to try to improve things. However, the ISTQB is a large (worldwide) organisation that’s built up a lot of momentum, and its key members are volunteers with full-time jobs elsewhere, so improvement will be slow. But it will come.
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  • MichelleDavidson
    Donmillion, Thank you for your insider's view of the International Software Testing Qualifications Board (ISTQB). You bring up two good points -- the fact that employers don't understand what foundation certification is and that the ISTQB needs improvement. I commend you on doing what you can to help. -- Michelle Davidson
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