Un-joining* the Elite

Posted: October 2, 2014 in Testing Skills & Education
Tags: , , ,

Note: this is entirely my personal opinion on the matter, and not intended as subtle (or overt) condemnation for those who hold and value certification. I certainly hope it isn’t taken as grand-standing, but an attempt to put forward some of my views on a thorny matter.

Let’s Test Oz 2014 was a cornucopic whirlwind of testing that I’ll be digesting for months, but there were two triggers that got me pondering certification and my views on it, a subject I’ve tried to avoid in the past. The first was a lunch time discussion on the first day that had me thinking well after the lights had been switched off and the attendees had gone their respective ways.

We were talking about certification – a timeless favourite of the context-driven testing community. And when I say talked, it was more the question “Are you certified?” with polite attempts on my part to deflect. I was unsure of motive, and have the habit of trying to bide time until more information comes to hand.

As it happened, more information did come to light. An un-certification, or rather, de-certification** movement was potentially taking first steps. I had sat on the fence with certification for some time (at least publicly), so I was interested in taking part. It was mildly disappointing to hear that this troublesome trouble-maker was not going to cause any trouble on this subject, at least for the time being.

A quick tangent to express my views on software testing certification is in order. Simply put, certifications appear to be largely profit-making initiatives, albeit well-marketed ones. Insofar as the businesses that offer certifications being genuine in their efforts to inform or educate go, that’s another matter for another day. Personally, I can’t say that the ISTQB course I did as an enthusiastic but somewhat under-informed beginner was completely useless, as I did learn a few rudimentaries (e.g. boundary testing and other basics). It’s unfortunate that I spent a couple of thousand to discover those skills in this way, when a few hours with Google Search and a little application could have yielded similar, if perhaps not quite equal results.

Those scraps of learning proved to be of some practical value, in that they were useful beyond the life of the course and subsequent exam. And on that, I’m careful to separate training from certification. Training to improve skills or knowledge can be valuable. Any tester worth their weight in salt, gold or other semi-precious commodity should study their craft diligently. However, training with the express purpose of acquiring certification seems little more than an academic exercise, fulfilment of an imperative from on high or a cynical or naïve move to enhance career prospects.

Still, I hesitated and procrastinated. Those previously mentioned career prospects of mine would take a hit if I struck that certificate off my resume. And while a lot of the places that list ISTQB in their job criteria wouldn’t be places I’d be seeking work with, you never know when you’re in a situation where you just need to pay the bills. Philosophically I was ready to move, pragmatically I was reluctant. But when I began to look back on jobs I’ve had and testing I’ve performed, it dawned on me that a certification (or its absence) probably wouldn’t curtail future job opportunities. If anything did, it would be a lack of certain skills, an ability to articulate my testing or one of any other 101 reasons.

The second trigger for these deliberations was the not-particularly-random mention of an ISTQB ad that called upon testers to “join the elite”. I haven’t seen that specific ad, but have spotted the terms “ISTQB” and “elite” in connection in a couple of places. The pass rates for the certifications seem to belie such a lofty standard – 74% is not what I would label “elite”. Even the Advanced Test Analyst seems to have a pass rate that approximates the flip of a coin. Passing a multiple-choice exam doesn’t seem like an effective way of demonstrating your elite-ness, either, though it may explain why the pass rates are so high. From a personal perspective, such a limited method of evaluation compromises the entire point of certification – that is, to certify someone’s skills. When it’s possible a non-tester or complete novice, either by luck or a little logic, could guess their way to a certificate, the value of such an achievement seems dubious.

The concept of “de-certification” holds appeal. Simply removing the qualification from a resume allows the assumption that you never had it in the first place. By explicitly stating you’re de-certified, it provides an excellent opportunity to have a conversation on the topic. That kind of dialogue – why you got it in the first place, what you think of it, and why you’ve de-certified – is an important one in these dark days of ISO 29119.

So, a certification that wasn’t particularly prized ironically gains new value. In the mean-time, I’ll continue to train and work on improving my skills, content not to collect shiny bits of paper (though now that I think about it, the actual certificate wasn’t shiny at all… insult to injury, indeed). I’ll do a lot of this work personally, but perhaps I’ll take a course or two that aims to teach new skills. And if I do have a sudden and strong desire to join an elite, I might take a closer look at this.

* The following note still holds, I just preferred the sound of “un-joining” over “de-joining”
** The prefix de- better emphasises removal or negation over un-, which more simply connotes “not”

  1. Kim Engel says:

    Good for you Dean.
    “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

    I couldn’t entirely help myself by the way..

    On the benefits of taking ISTQB certification, a colleague pointed out this page:
    It trades on tester’s fear of not having the certification, rather than any benefits associated with learning the content of the training material.

    On the motivation to become de-certified:
    Rex Black @RBCS was quoted in an article on ISO 29119 recently, seperating the 300,000 ISTQB certified testers from those “context-driven guys”. I read into this an implication that if you’re certified then Rex would like the public to believe that you test a certain way, and agree with his views on testing practices.

    To continue your trend of ending on a lighter note, I found this comic posted by Cem Kaner on twitter:

  2. […] Un-joining* the Elite Written by: Dean Mackenzie […]

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