on certification

How do you feel about tester certification? I’ve heard all the arguments for and against and looked at the different certifications and their requirements. Frankly, I have not been impressed. My employer doesn’t seem impressed either. I have yet to meet a single tester at Microsoft who is certified. Most don’t even know there is such a thing. They’ve all learned testing the old fashioned way: by reading all the books and papers they can get their hands on, apprenticing themselves to people at the company that are better at it than they are and critiquing the gurus and would-be gurus who spout off in person and in print. 

Simple logic tells me this: Microsoft has some of the best testers I have ever met. So in my experience there is an inverse relationship between certification and testing talent. The same is true of testers at other companies I admire that I meet at conferences and meetings. The really good testers I know and meet just aren’t certified. There is the occasional counterexample, but the generalization holds. (Whether the reverse is true, I have little data with which to form an opinion.)

Let me repeat, this is my experience and experience does not equate to fact. However, the reason I am blogging about this is because I met three office managers/administrators recently who are certified. These three are not testers, but they work around software testers and they hosted a certification course and thought it would be helpful to sit in and understand what the people around them did day in and day out. They sat the courses, took the exam and got their certification.


Ok, I’ll grant they are smart, curious and hard working. But there is more to testing than that triad. They readily admit they know little about computing, even less about software. From the time I spent with them, I didn’t get the impression that they would have made good testers. Their skill is elsewhere. I doubt they would pass any class I ever taught at Florida Tech and I imagine they’d find the empire’s training a bit too much for them to digest as well. Yet they aced the certification exam without breaking a sweat.

What am I missing? Isn’t the point of a certification to certify that you can do something? Certify is a really strong word that I am uncomfortable using so lightly. When I hire a certified plumber, I expect said plumber to plumb beyond my uncertified ability. When I hire a certified electrician I expect that electrician to trivialize the problems that vexed me as an amateur. If I hired a certified tester, I would expect them to test with a similar magnitude of competence and skill. I wonder if an office manager of a plumbing company could so easily get certified to plumb.

Well I checked into it. Plumbers (at least in Seattle) are indeed certified but they don’t get that certification by taking a course and an exam (although they do both). They serve time apprenticing to a master plumber. You better believe that by the time they get that seal of approval, they can plumb till the cows come home.

I realize testing isn’t plumbing but the word certification gives me pause. It’s a strong word. Is there something more to tester certification that I am missing? Is it simply that you understand the base nomenclature of software or that you can converse with other testers and appear as one of the crowd? Or that you simply sat through a course with enough of an open mind that some of it sunk in? What value does this actually bring to the discipline? Are we any better off because we have these certifications? Are we risking certifying people who really can’t test and thereby water down the entire discipline?

I don’t think these certifications are really certifications at all. It’s just training. Calling it a certification is over selling it by a long shot. In my mind a certification means you have a seal of approval to do something beyond what an amateur/tinkerer can accomplish. Otherwise, what has the certification accomplished?

I am proud of being a tester and if I seem arrogant to be that way then so be it. What I do and what my compatriots do is beyond a single course that an office manager, no matter how smart, can just pick up.

However, if I am wrong about certification, I’d like to be enlightened. For the life of me, I don’t see the upside.

Comments (13)

  1. DavidBH says:

    I totaly agree that a certification doesn’t mean squat if all you have to do is sit through a class and take a test.

    The question is why aren’t there more Apprenticeship programs? Laziness (we want our piece of paper now)?

  2. lnuanez says:

    Some good points are made. However, any test or qa manager that would hire someone based purely on their ability to obtain a certification is probably not even bright enough to pass said certification class. A certification shows that someone sees the value of testing. It isn’t an ‘anyone can do it’ type of activity. Does that mean that they can do it? No. No more than getting a drivers license makes someone a good driver. I agree that certification is a term that is misapplied in several areas including testing. But if by obtaining it you can cause your resume to stand out and can show your testing acumen in an interview then it has shown value. Some testers aren’t James Whittaker and have to fight and claw for a job interview. So any little advantage can help. I don’t believe someone should be penalized for having a certification.

  3. Philk says:

    The situation can get farcical – when I was trying to get a job as a tester I struggled as my resume lacked the magical letters ‘ISEB’ – until a friendly recruiter advised me to put a phrase like "studying for the ISEB exam" on it

    ( and James, maybe you should use a spell checker on your blogs, what is ‘certificiation’ ? )

  4. oremuna says:

    There are always shortcuts for getting passed in exam. That is even true for dev certification, admin certification and test certification too. Looking at certification as starting point of learning (or some mid point) but not the end makes more sense for somebody looking at a serious career in test with less to show in resume  but have lot of interest, passion in testing.

    At one point you are correct recruiters not to be blinded by just some CAPS letters in resume 🙂 whether it is testing or plumbing! But getting certified is not completely useless, there is some learning it it.  Do we need advanced certified tester 🙂

  5. Paul Darby says:

    Certification is not the key to being able to do the job, but much of the time it is the key to getting the interview.  But isn’t that really the main thing in most education?  It gives you the tools enough to get your foot in the door at which point you start to learn to do things properly.  School gives you the tools to get your foot in the door of higher education, the higher education gives you the tools to get your foot in the door of a specific proffession (in theory), but doing the job for real is where you learn to really do the job.

  6. brennang says:

    A really clever friend of mine told me to do the certifications because the prep work (which involved reading books of note) would help fill in blanks in my knowledge. He was right, I have done many MS exams and in each one I learnt valuable things about the tools of my trade that I probably wouldn’t have done had I not prepared for the exam.

  7. strazzerj says:

    "I don’t think these certifications are really certifications at all. It’s just training."

    For most of the certifications, it’s not even training.  It’s just passing an exam.

    Certification in the US hasn’t seemed to amount to much with regard to job requirements.  A while back I did a quick check of some job sites to see if anyone was requiring certification of their candidates.  Sort answer – basically none.  See http://www.sqablogs.com/jstrazzere/985/Software+QA+Certifications+-+An+Aid+To+Gaining+Employment%3F.html for more details.

    Perhaps in other parts of the world tester certification is meaningful.  As far as I can tell, here in the US it isn’t.

  8. Paul Darby says:

    In the UK, ISEB in particular is looked for these days.

  9. MSDN Archive says:

    Wow. It seems that like it or not, certification is a very hot topic. Clearly it is here to stay.

    The next discussion topic: how can we _make_ it valuable?

  10. JeffreyFredrick says:

    Of course certifications for Scrum masters is an ENTIRELY different story…  😉

  11. tarnnum_gupta says:

    but for certification, i feel that it helps to get selected for an interview….its helpful to some extent so that u can have a call from a company…rest depends on the luck

  12. Anitha says:

    Experience stated are based on people – capabilities and so people differ; attitude towards learning & performing and basic capability differ from individual to individual.

    The question here is more about the certification format rather than the concept.

    I can definitely say that the learning towards a basic certification that I took has brought in lot of exposure towards testing. It is just that how people take it. Whether you read just to clear the certification or you take it serious to learn something that is part of the career – to do something better what we currently do without even knowing what is correct or standard as per industry terms.

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