Tuesday 18 May 2010

Tester Certification - my take...

Recently, there's been a bit of a commotion, kerfuffle, a minor hullaballoo - Well, when I say recently, it's been going on a little while - ebb and flow, coming and going, just like a pleasant memory, bad smell, nightmare, whatever - take your pick!

I started this post over a year ago - but after a post from James Bach, here, I was prompted to finish this post. So, here's my take.

Yes, that was my feeling towards certification before I encountered the ISTQB.... I'd heard of it, even been asked about it in interviews - I didn't have it and saw no reason for one. It hadn't affected my employability (as far as I know.)

It was about 2 years ago when my shop embarked on a programme of certification - I don't know the reasoning behind it - it was policy and I had more important things to think about. So folk started getting booked on an ISTQB foundation level course with an exam at the end.

The syllabus seemed interesting at first glance - another take on items and approaches I'd already worked with - I'm always open to new avenues of learning. Maybe a standardized terminology so that all could understand terms - whether new tester or old in the tooth. That's gotta be good, right? That was a hope/wish for me after a skim of the syllabus.

The actual course was interesting enough - but it was clear that it was geared to passing a multiple choice exam.

There were aspects of the course that didn't quite sit right for me - definitions and terminology - I'd been a tester for a good while at this point and now I was being told to unthink some ideas - even though I could argue the case for using my definition - that wasn't the point.

The point was to pass a multiple choice exam - then you could think how you wanted.

Hmm, ok, paradise lost! Is the idea of standard terminology is just boiling down to an exam?

The idea of standard terminology maybe wasn't such a utopia - with a relatively easy exam these terms as well as the certificate would just be bandied around - just another keyword/buzzword to put on a CV.

To me that doesn't do a tester any good to only use standard terminology. If they think that testing is about using the right terminology instead of thinking what they're talking about - and even expressing it in alternate ways - then they're missing the point. That's sad!

The tester has to be able to use the local terminology and definitions if needed.

I've worked against a certain amount of "test management"-speak in the past. I think it's great that testers can get up and articulate their ideas to both their peers and managers. For this I think a certain amount of terminology can get in the way. And that's a shame!

When I talk to non-testers (managers) I go to some lengths to emphasize the difference between testing and good testing - and for me good testing starts with yourself - expressing your ideas and making yourself heard and understood - sometimes putting ideas in simple language. And that's important!

Yes, that was my feeling after the coure.

There's still a fair bit of ambivalence for me. I haven't benefitted from the certification.

I used to think the course could be a useful intro for a new tester. Now, I think there are better ways - routes for self-learning, self-practice and mentoring. These are much more effective - and ultimately gratifying.

I don't want to reside in a swell of buzzwords - I think it's time to talk about what you value as a tester.

Got any good or bad experiences of certification?


  1. So interesting to read the opinion of someone who actually took the certification. I have just stayed away from it, but in a way that makes me less qualified to state an opinion. I'm looking for ways to motivate testers to learn, but I don't think certification is a good one.

  2. I've had a lot of bad experiences with people that did not have certifications. If a high percentage of people had certs, I am sure that I would have a lot of bad experiences with people who had them. I think it comes down to most people not being cream of the crop. Having stars on our bellies is not the answer to whether we are highly competent.

  3. @Lisa,

    Yes, lots of great ways to get testers to learn - more challenging than learning by rote, but more rewarding.

    The fascinating thing is that it doesn't have to be constrained to a certain domain or tied to a certain set of terminology.


    Yes, good or bad experiences with certs doesn't count for or against the certification.

    The interesting thing is to find ways to motivate those testers - really quite difficult. Assuming the tester wants to be a tester (or even wants to be a good tester) then there's usually a key to unlock their talents. Wouldn't it be boring if everyone on the team was the same :)

  4. Thanks Simon - this is a really interesting argument. That testers should be able to explain their work to non-testers is something I'd taken as an obvious good thing. Putting that together with the traditional argument of "it gives us all the same vocabulary" is something that just had never occurred to me before.

    Whether you are pro or anti certification, I think that is a powerful argument for not considering the cert courses as an adequate preparation for a novice tester. I also work in a team where it's standard for everyone to get sent on the ISEB, and I've been trying to advocate using the AST's BBST courses for this very reason - that the BBST Foundation that the AST runs forces you to sit down and EXPLAIN what you're doing and why, thus developing your communication skills as a tester in a way that a multiple choice exam just can't hope to match.

    I'm procrastinating right now in fact, in the middle of completing an assignment question, because I'm actually pretty stumped and it's forcing me to... shock horror... think.

  5. I took the ISTQB Foundation Level course last year and since the certification I'm a much better tester! Well, no, not really.

    I never expected the course to tell me the only truth about testing, but I thought that "Hey, maybe I'll learn a few things. If not, at least I got out of the office for a few days, meeting new people".

    Sure, I did learn a few things but the most interesting part of the whole course was to learn what ISTQB has to say about testing, where they stand. I like to read about all approaches/techniques/methodologies out there since I believe I can learn from all of them.

    If I had to choose just one approach? Well, it wouldn't be ISTQB.

  6. @Anna,

    Thanks for the comment. Advocating & researching alternative forms of learning - such as the BBST courses - makes you a great asset to the team! Good luck with that.

    @Test with a Temper,

    Thanks for the comment. Going into anything open-minded is exactly the right attitude - part of being a tester! I routinely read articles that might be controversial/poor - just to formulate my own take - part of being a tester for me!

  7. Hi Simon,

    Great post. Certification programmes can sometimes be useful in terms of the techniques they teach you but only because it is in the context of having to know the stuff for the exam.

    I have taken the ISEB exams up to the new style Practitioner certificates in Test Management and Test Analysis and I can honestly say that they have helped me in my testing - but only in the sense that they piqued my curiousity about the subject matter. I then went off and read a lot more about the topics and started practicing what I learned.

    At the end of the day the certificate does not make me either a good tester nor a bad tester. How I apply myself to the craft is what makes the difference.

    I had an e-mail conversation with James Bach last night which was helpful in this regard. We must not confuse 'certification' with what we learn.

    Just my thoughts...


  8. @Stephen,

    Thanks for the comments! Totally right, if it serves as a catalyst for furture learning then that's great.

    The danger is the some non-testers (and maybe even some testers) interpret the label for something it's not. That's falling into the buzzword trap or coma.

    That's why when I said that I could show my testing balls I was careful to point out that I wasn't replacing one label with another.

  9. The foundation exams for ISTQB/ISEB are worthless in my opinion. They're too basic and the multiple choice format precludes any analysis and explanation. The education for the exams are fine so long as it's treated as a very basic introduction to a particular approach to testing, but using the exam as a basis for certification looks ridiculous.

    I'm not familiar with the intermediate exams, but I do have the ISEB Practitioner Certificate, which I passed a few years ago before the intermediate qualifications were introduced. In those days you went straight from the foundation to the practitioner level, which was a big leap. The exam was much more rigorous. You had to write essays explaining what you would do and why.

    That was fine, but there's still the problem that this represents just one approach to testing, and I believe it's an approach that's becoming harder to sustain and justify. Nevertheless, many organisations do work that way, and it's important for testers at those places to understand what is expected of them. That doesn't relieve them of the right and responsibility to challenge existing, traditional practices.

    I'm glad I've got the ISEB Practitioner qualification, but if I wouldn't recommend it, and I wouldn't do it again if I were starting out. There are more valuable things you can learn with limited time and money.

    The main benefit I've got from the qualification is that it gives me credibility when I criticise it, especially when I criticise reliance on it as a form of certification.

    When I'm speaking to people I see a shift in their attitude when I say that I am certified, but I have these serious concerns about certification and that underlying approach to testing. If I did not have the qualification people might think, "well he would say that because he's not certified". As it is, people can see that I'm being dispassionate rather than self-interested, which is always useful for a consultant!

    I'm not really an opponent of the qualifications per se, but I hate the way that recruiters rely on them. They don't understand the business, and use certification as an alternative to a proper evaluation of candidates. Certified? Tick. Not certified? Reject.

    To that extent it is a moral issue, in that it excludes good people who have a different approach to testing. It's also a practical, business issue. Selection on that basis doesn't make sense.

    So. for the advanced qualifications I don't have a problem so long as it's recognised that they provide an education in a particular approach. "Certification", however, isn't right.

  10. @James

    Thanks for the comments.

    I think the word "certification" is too powerful for what it may be used to represent - and I'm with you that recruiters (who maybe don't know any better) use that as a filter - yes, there are moral issues there.

    It's the tick-box syndrome - I'd be interested to know what recruiters think that information is telling them.

  11. Hi Simon,
    I took the ISEB Foundation Certificate in 2000. I think it was a 2 day course followed by a multiple choice exam.

    I memorized the termilogy the night before and took the exam. I think I kind of realized that trying things out myself (loads of self learning...technology/testing stuff etc) seeing what worked for me at the time and gaining experience in different contexts was more important to me and I kind of persued that route. However one positive from doing the ISEB Foundation course and exam was that it made my realize that there were definate career paths in software testing!

    Also since then I've realized that there are alternatives to certificaton...like disussing stuff with the test community, 'real world learning', bounce buddying, The Association of Software Testing etc

    Oh no...does that make me half licensed?


  12. @Peter

    Thanks for the comments!
    I think understanding and evaluating alternatives is important and crucial.

    Whether you think you're a better, worse or not-worse tester afterwards - the important thing is to appreciate the value of one piece of learning in the context of all your test-related learning.

  13. I just saw a job advert that said the Foundation Level ISEB qualification was a 'must have' and the Intermediate qualification was a 'desired'. Nothing about Practitioner level.

    My interpretation of this - the employer doesn't know what they want, they just *think* they do. "Yes, I think this position demands someone that's sat *two* multiple choice examinations!"

    James Christie hit the nail on the head when he said there is never a single approach and testers shouldn't be brainwashed into thinking there is.

    The jobs that are worth applying for shouldn't have ISEB qualifications as requirements. If you're a competent tester then your track record should speak for itself.

  14. I think we'rre putting way too much emphasis on the word "certification". Being certified is basically just a way of stating that you have some understanding of a single school of thought or body of knowledge. It is not, nor is it a replacement for real hands-on experience. The arguments presented can be applied to any academic situation. Is my college degree invalid because I didn't attend Harvard or Princeton? Am I any more qualified that a non-degreed person with 10 years of experience?

    Is there some value to certification? Sure. Is any one certification program best or better than the others? No way! Go into any certification program with an open mind. It's another tool in your toolbox. You can never have too many tools.

    Be a sponge. Absorb all you can. Use what works. Just keep all of your tools sharp. You never know when that tool you will need or when you will need it.