Certification = Mastery?

I received an interesting email a while ago about certifications. It was from someone overseas who recently decided to enter the software field and wanted to find work as a software tester in the United States. They emailed me for advice. The following is an excerpt of that email (I will supply the actual email on request, but am protecting the author of the email in this post.) I made one change to the quote: I removed a company name.
"...I decided the first thing i would do was to educate myself better about computers . I did an ICDL (international computer driiving license) course . This taught me about word,excel,access etc.

After that I decided to do the British computer society ISEB software testing certification foundation level . Although it is recommended (as i am sure you know) that you have some practical experience before attempting this course however I did my own self study . I did not do any formal course .
Having studied for about 2 months I took the exam with an independent company called [removed] and scored 83% out of 100 ."

I replied to the email the best I could, wished the author luck, and thought nothing of it until a recent article in Software Test and Performance magazine titled Certified and Savvy. This might actually not have offended me if it didn't make certifications out to be much more then they actually are, playing on my fears to sell their product. If you want a certification, fine. More power to you. But don't make it something it's not.

For example, three quotes:
"ISTQB-certified testers know how to do these things and more because they've mastered the topics laid out in one or more of the ISTQB syllabi."

"For the test professional, programmer, manager, and other examinee, an ISTQB certificate demonstrates mastery of the best practices and key concepts in the field. [...] In addition, by distinguishing yourself from the mass of lesser-qualified test practitioners, holding one or more ISTQB certificates can create opportunities in a competitive, outsourced and increasingly commoditized job market."

"At each level, the ISTQB asserts that people claiming to be test professionals should have a particular amount of practical, hands-on experience as well as knowledge and ability to apply particular key ideas."

Read the email quote above again. The person who sent me this email had just learned how to use a computer. With no work experience at all, very little computer experience, and with as little as two months of self study, they were able to obtain a certification that claims "ISTQB certificate demonstrates mastery of the best practices and key concepts in the field." In case you don't remember the definition of mastery I looked it up; according to Merriam-Webster, mastery means: "possession or display of great skill or technique" or "skill or knowledge that makes one master of a subject"

With two months of study, absolutely no experience, and a basic training class on Microsoft Office, you too can be a master.

Remember that certifications help you "...distinguishing yourself from the mass of lesser-qualified test practitioners, holding one or more ISTQB certificates can create opportunities in a competitive, outsourced and increasingly commoditized job market." Being non-certified does not make you "lesser-qualified." I'm not certified (other than my undergraduate degree). Many other testers I know who write about testing and speak at testing conferences are not certified. Are they less qualified then someone with a certification? I don't think so.

Isn't certification exactly what makes our market more commoditized? What does it tell a manager that someone with no experience and two months of study can become a "master" software tester? Don't forget that email above came from someone overseas. That person is above the "lesser-qualified" masses according to the ISTQB. Perhaps it's exactly that marketing that leads to outsourcing to begin with. If skill and experience aren't an actual qualification for certification, then why not send the work overseas to the software testing "masters" who just learned Microsoft Office?

I've heard several good reasons, from testers that I consider my friends, for getting certified. If it's right for you, that's fine. In fact, I'm working towards three certifications right now myself. I soon hope to become BCRIT certified (Bach Certified Rapid Tester) as well as obtain an MBA. One is a skills-based testing certification, completely subjective and based on James Bach's opinion of what makes a good Rapid Tester, requiring days of observed testing one-on-one with James Bach where he questions, comments on, and critiques my testing non-stop. The other is a 48 semester credit hour certification from a university where I spend hours in a classroom working with numerous professors solving problems, taking tests, writing papers, and discussing context. How exactly does a single multiple choice test stack up against either of those?

I'm also involved in a community working towards open certification for testers. We will be a multiple choice exam as well, but we won't claim to be anything we aren't. We will proudly tell you we are just a multiple choice exam. And we will be open and free, available for employers to administer on demand, and we will have (hopefully) a full set of comments on each question/answer combination so you can see how people in the industry disagree on different problems. We would hate for anyone to think that there is consensus in software testing - there isn't (just read Lessons Learned in Software Testing for examples). Email me (mike@michaeldkelly.com) if you are interested in helping.

Don't sell your certification as something it's not. If it has a place in the marketplace, tell me what it is and leave it at that. If it makes sense for me, I'll get one. If it's a multiple choice test, then odds are it won't hold much value for me as a practitioner unless I can use it as a hiring manager to see what potential candidates know. If however, it requires a skills-based evaluation from a specific person whom I respect as a tester (and there are people involved in ISTQB and other certifications who I do respect as testers) who offers me specific feedback about my testing and honestly evaluates my work in terms of the context of the problem; then I'm all in. If you know of any other certifications with a requirement that someone actually watches me test real software, on a computer, while evaluating my coverage of the product, my ability to perform risk assessment, my testing techniques, and my ability to evaluate the context, then let me know about it. It's a certification that I feel will probably help me grow as a tester.


Past Comments



>>>>>active CSTE certificants


just an update, though the numbers are not quite comparable with ISTQB:

Here is the actual list with: currently active CSTE certificants


this would make about 5000 active CSTE certificants
(active roster as of 02 November 2006)
I just calculate 40*122 - if someone counts all, tell me :-)

Please consider:
CSTE lists in the pdf only active members.
But members can still continue to indicate that they have passed the exam - though their certification "has expired". But ISTQB Certified Tester never expires and so the figure will always increase.

as it says in the original PDF:
This roster contains all currently active CSTE certificants as of the above date. Individuals with valid certifications that have not maintained their records (e.g. mail returned due to bad address or addressee unknown) are not listed here. These individuals need to submit a Change of Records form to Software Certifications with their updated contact information in order to reactivate their listing in this roster.



>>>>>ISTQB Certified Testers


I agree with your posts.
Especially with:
"I don't think any of us believe that certifications are BAD, in and of themselves. What is BAD is when someone thinks that a certification makes them more than they are." And unfortunately the market hypes this all and people just go for it.

To illustrate the issue more, I put here some figures about ISTQB certified testers for discussion:

- worldwide: since 2004 until now the number of ISTQB Certified Testers has doubled: from 20000 to 40000 - this is a very fast increase, so I guess ISTQB wants to flood the market ?

- about 80% of the people taking the exam, pass the exam: so either the candidates are all pretty good or the multiple-choice exam is too easy to achieve :-)
I took also the Foundation Level exam after self-studying, so I can tell, that already after 30 minutes people left the class (but I do not know, if they passed) and also e.g. for one specific answer in the exam, there was on the blackboard of the classroom an answer left, because before there was a training provider present. Also like I posted here, people were able to cheat: http://groups.google.com/group/comp.software.testing/browse_thread/thread/657010a8a4f4b5ca?

But nevertheless I do have the opinion, that giving at least some theory to people is better than "grant" people the access to the testing-field without any knowledge. Of course everybod ymust judge for her-/himself, what the certification is worth (or not).

- a comparison for Germany, India and USA: just imagine, when China starts to certify, this will go perhaps into millions (also in $) -> there is already a Chinese ISTQB Testing Board founded

So, there will be (unfortunately) much more of this ISTQB certifications - besides other certifications - around, which everybody can get pretty easy.

I am eager on hearing in the future some more news about BCRIT and Open Certification of Software Testers.



>>>>>I'm about 90% with ya.

As I've written in another post, I am a proponent of the CSTE for new testers, the biggest reason being the introduction to general concepts and the idea that testing is a separate discipline at all.

When asked, I do not recommend the ISTQB for anything other than a foundation level, get some terms under your belt type of cert. The way in which it is administered bothers me, because it is so tied to the class (Pay to take the class all week, take the exam on Friday). It also has no recertification requirement. I definitely agree that those who pass these tests should not be considered in an elite category.

From what I have heard about BCRIT it sounds like the ultimate means of certification, but it also seems to be limited to personal friends of James Bach. I guess I just don't agree that an observation-based certification like BCRIT is scalable to a significant number of testers.

The opinion that I've formed over the months since CAST, and in my own writing and presentation about this, is that a baseline of terms and general practices, presented in CONTEXT is what is needed for new testers and those who would like to brush up on an overview of widely used techniqes and terms. As far as being at a "master" level, like some of the newer certs (from compaines including QAI and the ISTQB) that are coming out, I think reputation is more important.

I do agree that the most beneficial aspect of getting a certification is the learning that goes into it. This is one of the reasons I recommend the CSTE, with its requirement of continued learning. Ironically, going through BCRIT would count towards recertification for a CSTE! :)

>>>>>Right On Target

Mike -- excellant post buddy. This is a perfect example of what the huge debate at CAST this year was all about. I don't think any of us believe that certifications are BAD, in and of themselves. What is BAD is when someone thinks that a certification makes them more than they are. What is WORSE is when a hiring manager agrees with them. What is absolutely EVIL is when terrible, inexperienced, uneducated, testers who could not care less about trying to improve thier skills, knowledge, experience base OR THE QUALITY OF THIER CLIENTS SOFTWARE get the job that you, or I, or James Bach or Jon Bach or Michael Bolton or Scott Barber or any other of a dozen guys we both know wanted, just because they have a piece of paper that says they are better than any of us.

Caveat Emptor. If you are a hiring manager, and you put faith into these useless pieces of paper called certifications, you will get what you deserve.

If you are a tester, and you are looking at certifications, get them for the experience and what you will learn through the process, not for the document at the end. Years ago I got a CSTE through QAI, and consider it a very good, solid start to my career. I took the classes they recomended but did not require, then took the cert. I learned a lot, and I learned what I still needed to go and learn. I have also just finished the BCRIT with James Bach. Totally different experience, but oddly enough, I learned a lot, and I learned what I still need to go and learn.

If learning is your motivation, then go forth and get ye certified. If making baseless claims is your motivation, then please just go.

David Gilbert
Software TestingMichael Kelly