Certifications are great! Certifications are totally not BS!

Many, many, many years ago, I did a two-day workshop ISTQB Foundation. At the end of the two days, there was an exam: 30 multiple-choice questions about software testing. I passed the exam and I got the Foundation Certificate in Software Testing. Did this make me a great software tester? No way. It merely meant that I answered a set of questions correctly, in a specific place, somewhere in time. Was it a waste of money and time? No, definitely not.

We attended the workshop with several software testers and it gave us some great ideas on how to implement testing within an Agile context. Hey, we are talking 2005 here! There were no books yet about testing and Scrum. By doing the workshop, we created a common view on testing and it allowed us to use a common language. One of our testers did not pass the exam. On a side note, within four months that person left the team. Trust me, the exam was not that hard.

This certification was really about verifying basic knowledge. If you were not able to pass this exam, something was wrong. It could be dyslexia, but also a lack of knowledge regarding software testing. It was also about creating a common language: all testers understanding what a Risk Matrix is, and what equivalence partitioning is. It also created a mindset that testers should also develop themselves by doing training, reading books, etc.

I did a follow-up training then: ISTQB Practitioner. The training was eight full days in total and there was again a possibility to get a certification. The certification exam lasted for three hours and consisted of a number of open questions. Just five or seven open questions as I recall. I did the exam and manually wrote 15 pages or so just to answer these questions! No laptop, 15 pages of me and my pencil. It took a month or so before all exams were reviewed and we got the result. I passed the exam and got my Practitioner Certificate in Software Testing. I valued this certificate so much more. Passing this exam really did mean something. I believe only 70% of the attendees passed the exam. By passing the exam, you showed you were able to come up with solutions for complex testing problems, test strategies, test techniques, etc. Still, it did not guarantee for 100% that you were a great tester, but it had much more value for me than the first certificate. For example, when I had to recruit software testers, every software tester who had the ISTQB Practitioner certification was automatically invited for the first interview. I knew those software testers had a passion for software testing, were willing to invest in growing their skills, and definitely had a sound knowledge about testing.

I believe certificates are great as long as you give them the right value. A certificate with multiple choice questions that you can answer without much knowledge does show that you are willing to invest in your skills. If you pass the exam, it shows you have some basic knowledge about a topic. You can talk about the topic with somebody else, you have a common language. Nothing wrong with that. However, it doesn’t prove you can do the job!

A certificate with open questions, where you have to show the experience you possess, has a different value for me. It shows again that you are willing to invest in yourself, and often more than the average professional. It also often shows that you really applied the framework or techniques and that you were able to reflect on the outcome of your actions. Still, of course, no 100% prove you can do the job and of course it also depends on the questions.

What do you think? Certifications BS or not? Should we forget about Certifications? Just use badges linked to experiences?

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