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March 26-29, 2012, Software Test Professionals Conference, New Orleans
July, 14-15, 2012 - Test Coach Camp, San Jose, California
July, 16-18, 2012 - Conference for the Association for Software Testing (CAST 2012), San Jose, California
August 2012+ - At Liberty; available. Contact me by email:

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Certification - III

I wanted to write something on certification for April Fool's Day but Scott Ambler beat me to it.

(Shakes Fist at Scott!)

Actually, for something serious: In theory, I am not opposed to a skills-based certification. For example, I understand that for the Cisco Router test, they plunk you down in a networked operations center with a broken router - somewhere - and ask you to find and fix it. Now, what you do - your troubleshooting process - is a huge part of your evaluation.

Sadly, the majority of certification I see are Body-of-Knowledge and definition based. If you know the definition of fault vs. defect, of Oracle, of Test Case, and so on, you can earn the cert. That has some value, as you can meet someone else and use a sort of "short hand" and understand each other well.

What it doesn't tell is if you can actually test software.

The Agile Alliance has a similar public position on certification; that a "good" certification would be skills-based. (Read the AA position paper here.)

Sadly, I know of no such certification in the waters I swim in; instead, it seems that, for the most part, opportunists(*) define the simplest possible level of test, one that only tests the very lowest levels of Bloom's Hierarchy. Personally, I find the answer to "What is the right thing to do in this question" is usually to say "it depends, what about?" and ask a number of follow-up questions - that defies the format of the multiple-choice test.

I understand that the exam lawyers take for the bar has several pages of background information for each question and that the exam for a financial planner is similar - and instead of multiple-guess, those tests are graded as essays.

But even that wouldn't answer for certain the question "Can this person test (our) software well?"

Having a cert that did that would provide one major benefit to employers; it would allow them to outsource discernment. "Oh, he is a certified agile-tester, he must be good, we can hire him and skip the interview process."

Is that really what we want?

No, I suspect that I am in the same camp as Tom DeMarco, and, to paraphrase him, I really do believe that poor old Microsoft and poor old Google and poor old Yahoo will have to continue doing what they have always done: Decide for themselves what they want to see in technologists, and design interview systems with the intent of figuring out a yes or no. And the other programmers - the independents, the Micro ISV owners, the start-up founders - well, those guys mostly work for themselves, so a certification simply does not matter.

If you want to demonstrate that you are learning and growing professionally, and are uncomfortable writing and speaking, and for some reason don't want to make open source contributions (say you are a tester) - I suppose certification-as-a-merit-badge is one thing you can do. For example, I think this is a good, healthy way to view the Scrum Master Credential - let's just keep our perceptions of it balanced.

A serious post on April 1st. Who woulda thunk.

(*) - And, I am sorry to say, a few others of an entirely different, good character.


AbbotOfUnreason said...

It's frustrating. I'm no fan of certs, but every workshop I do someone will beg for a certificate. Usually the motivation seems to be proving to a boss it was valuable. Of course the vest way to prove the value to your boss is by using your new skills, but the desire is still there.

In those situations, we make pretty attendance certificates.

Lisa said...

Great post. Your statement about "if you want to demonstrate that you are learning and growing professionally..." really has got me thinking! What are other ways we can demonstrate that, other than writing and speaking? (Testers can contribute to open source projects, they need testing too, but apart from that.) Let's work on ideas!

Mike Bria said...

Hi Matt --

Just posted about all this on InfoQ ( Didn't see this in time to include. Maybe you can add a comment referring people here?

Anyway, I agree with Lisa, interesting idea there. I've always kind of thought about how OpenSource can be more XP *team* like, ala with testers and all. Interested to see where this goes.