On Certification, or Something Like It


Jon Hagar writes that testers need to thoroughly understand what certification is all about. As a profession, we need to understand what these pieces of paper mean, the promises they can keep, what they may lead to, and some reasonable expectations for them.

When I started developing and testing software in the late 1970s, there were two kinds of technical staff: “hardware people” and “software people.” Perhaps we had a few other labels like hardware engineer, programmer, and software engineer, but in practice, there were only two kinds.

In my first job in computer programming and while I was still in school, I was a junior business analyst, systems person, programmer, data analyst, and tester. I did it all (under strict supervision and mentoring). We did not have titles and divisions, such as someone being referred to as a “tester.”

In my second “programming” job and after completing a degree, not quite two years later, I think I might have been called software engineer, but nobody was too sure what that was, and my main task was performing structural testing of code. I learned testing (and programming) from the first generation of software people. Most of us had college degrees, but not everyone had formally gone to school, and our degrees were in things like math and physics. We programmed. We tested. We learned. We read the few books on the subject (e.g., Elements of Style, Programming in FORTAN, and the Art of Software Testing). We did not worry about titles or labels—much.

In the thirty-plus years since, the industry has evolved. It is not clear to me if this evolution is entirely a good thing, but it probably contains a mix of both pluses and minuses. Overall, things have improved to some degree.

Enter Testing
The first generation of testers has retired; some are still alive. Those of us who became the second generation have aged and started thinking about how we can improve the pluses of our industry. We have worked to place more education into colleges and in our professions. Items like the IEEE SwEBOK (software engineering book of knowledge) appeared with defined terms for software testing. College programs in software engineering were developed, and during the 1990s and 2000s, hundreds of college classes on software testing became available.

Additionally, IEEE and ISO standards were created in software, systems, and testing, although companies used such standards with mixed results. The industry went from worrying about just creating software to producing “good enough” software. The standards that were developed recognize the value of testing.

Conferences in software testing appeared, some of which live on today, and education in software testing became readily available. We even have established associations, such as the Association of Software Testing (AST).

At the same time as these across-the-board improvements in information about testing, there has been a second track: an explosion in certificates, certification, and even college degrees with a focus on testing. I find that explosion surprising and, perhaps, a bit puzzling.

I have to ask “Does knowledge from a skill list (from a book or standard), degree, certificate, or certification mean that you are a good tester?”  “Does a well-practiced test skill mean that you are a good employee?”

Unfortunately, the answer to both of these questions are “no.” This has led to confusion and debate in the test industry with people expecting great things just because a person has one of these “pieces of paper.” A practiced skill should not be confused with a piece of paper. Pieces of paper come in a variety of forms, as defined here:

There is a debate, even a passionate argument, about these “pieces of paper” in software testing.

Does having any of these mean you have a skill? Pretty much anyone in any industry would answer “no,” since most of these are focused on knowledge. You must practice with knowledge to have skill. You must learn and grow. What these pieces of paper mean to me are that you have an interest and have shown some ability to learn. This is true in almost every profession and activity. For example, you can read books on snow skiing. You can pass tests of knowledge about skiing. But until you try to practice skiing, by doing it, you have no skiing skill. In fact, for most people skiing practice takes years or a life time to get to be a good (aka, expert) skier.

As a profession, we need to understand what these pieces of paper mean, the promises they can keep, what they may lead to, and what are some reasonable expectations for them. Each of these pieces of paper has a plus side and a minus side. For example, a degree means that you can learn to someone else’s expectations of knowledge, but on the minus side many people with degrees (some Ph.D. students that I’ve known) think they have skill and know it all.

A similar situation exists for people that get certifications or certificates. Further, each piece of paper may have the benefit of exposing the student to knowledge and learning. However, the bad side is this: once people think they know something, they often become close-minded, which is bad.

What to Do
As an industry, we should define the knowledge base, skills, styles, etc., as a move forward. These should be done by the different philosophies (aka, schools) of testing. These will become the basis for people to learn, practice, and develop. It is not good to call people “zombie” testers, say that a standard is “toxic,” or critique degree programs unless you have a solid alternative, can demonstrate with experimental information and data when these statements are true, and engage in meaningful dialog about improvement in the industry.

Next, just because a person has a certification, a certificate or degree, does not mean that I expect much from that person. For example, a person with a degree in massage therapy can help some minor medical ailments, but I am not going to expect of this person nor bash them because they cannot do brain surgery. I would not expect my son the medical student (with many degrees behind him) to be a brain surgeon either.

Each philosophy group in testing needs to work on a knowledge and skill list, a path of progression, specific development paths, as well as practice activities to get software testers to progress. As a hiring manager, I have used the pieces of paper as a quick filter on reading resumes. Once I found people I liked, I would talk to them and see where they were in their practice of software testing and where they wanted to go. If they had passion for the practice of testing and some skill, I’d hire them. If they told me they knew it all and what I was doing was somehow “wrong,” I usually did not hire them—but might have in some rare cases. If they did not want to practice and only wanted a job, I definitely did not hire them. For many companies and hiring managers, degrees, certificates, and certifications play a role in getting a job; so many testers may want to get such pieces of paper to aid themselves in finding gainful employment. However, I encourage you should not to read added value into a simple piece of paper, especially since testing is a professional practice to be worked on for many years.

My goal today was not to settle the discussion, but to stoke it while setting some expectations for civil discourse. Remember, our profession is maturing, but it is not mature. Let’s keep talking.

User Comments

Timothy Western's picture

I'm a little confused.  The bulk of your argument seems to be that we need to place things like certifications in a valid context, and to not infer things from them that they do not actually prove. IE Skill in practice.  Yet then you say you use those same pieces of paper as a quick filter when reading resumes?  

So why are you advocating a change, yet admit you basically do look for those pieces of paper as seemingly indiciative of 'importance'? Or did I misunderstand something in what you were describing?

December 9, 2013 - 4:05pm
Matthew Heusser's picture

Hey Tim -

I /hope/ that what Jon meant is that he had some sort of professional development filter in place. So, for example, someone that was blogging, speaking at conferences, or in some other way demonstrated self-education would also remain in the pile ...

December 9, 2013 - 8:56pm
Timothy Western's picture



That's why I asked.  He's talking about changing how credentials are viewed, but then suggests he sometimes uses the filter of those 'pieces of paper' to size up resumes.  Its clear that's not the only thing he looks at, and that's good. My concern though, is that some will read that and say oh, so I can remove all those who don't have the scraps of paper in the first cut, which may possibly remove some very talented and skilled candidates from consideration.  (and then you hear the grumbles about how noone seems to be qualified after that was done).


I didn't want to put words in the Author's mouth, but that's how that last paragraph read to me, which is why I requested clarification.  Because it seems to me, if one automatically fast tracks resumes for one piece of criteria namely a certification (which he's arguing are viewed incorrectly), then that seems to just add credence to why people should get the scraps of paper, in order to get past the 'speed bump' of the first cut resume filter. 

That's my assessment anyways.  The author can correct me on this if I misunderstood his point of course.

December 10, 2013 - 8:42am
Mike Talks's picture

Interesting - oh how we read things in.  I myself read that piece as Jon (like myself) would look for "pieces of paper" in a CV.  I do look for "you've had an education", "you've done some training" - but then brings them in to "find the passion", something which is hard sometimes to get from a CV.

I think it's fair to say it's not draconian to say few of us would just shortlist for interview someone who had no education, and hadn't done anything in testing for a job.  Not unless they put something in their CV to "dazzle me" enough that they had an interest.

December 10, 2013 - 7:40pm
Jon Hagar's picture

Mike,  I think we basically look at this the same way (see my post to Tim).  

It is hard to find "passion" in a CV, but I guess that is what the one on one interview is for.  

I was trying to point out that I think a lot of people on both sides of the  "certification debate" read more into a certification that I do or that I think anyone should. 

December 30, 2013 - 6:10pm
Jon Hagar's picture

Tim,  Sorry I was offline in the weeks before Xmass.  

It is hard to be clear in 1200 words or less.   How Matt explains it is basically what I had in mind. 

I am asking for people not to read more into any piece of paper (certification, degrees, whatever) that what it takes to get that piece of paper.  Some pieces of paper are harder to get than others, but just having a piece of paper does not mean you have skill or can practice any subject.  This is true in medical, law, test and many professions. 

But what I see is people having grand expectation.  I have a degree, so you should pay me more.  This person has a certification, there for they must be a "good" tester and then when they are not a good tester, well that must mean the certification is bad.  How I viewed a degree (say a BS) was that a person could learn and be trained to some other persons expectations of what it takes to complete a series of classes.  In the case of the current test certifications, what they mean to me is the person has learned enough to answer 100 questions (or more) of a body of knowledge.  In the Bloom taxonomy, this is level 1 of a very limited set of material.   This is pretty minimal, and as such I minimal expectations.  I was pointing out people should not think a piece of paper means much more than Bloom's level 1.

But, at the same time, I was trying  to recognize that people (myself in the past) do use pieces of paper as a filter.  We are seeing this in many companies where the HR people want a quick way to "sort" resumes.  And while I too have done this, I must remind myself that I know many people without a piece of paper who are great testers.  Thus I know many good testers who reject pieces of paper and others who recognize they may help them get a job.  The first group will tend to say "well I don't want to work in place where HR filters based on pieces of paper".  This may be  an option for them, but I know of other testers who say "I need a job to feed myself, and if a piece of paper gets me past the filter, so be it".  

Is one of these two groups wrong?  I do not think so.  Each group has a valid motivation and point. This situation exists because there is no real "degree" program in colleges for software testing and at best, if a school follows the SwEBOK, a person with a software degree will get a few hours of test knowledge (one class room exam which might be equal to some of the current certs).  The test certification were created to fill an educational hole.

Hope this helps.


December 30, 2013 - 6:06pm
roy ruchman's picture

This statement seems disingenous: "...an explosion in certificates, certification, and even college degrees with a focus on testing. I find that explosion surprising and, perhaps, a bit puzzling."  Unless one is unfamiliar with modern business culture, how could one be puzzled by the need for training in a relatively new, and certainly developing area of knowledge, and those business opportunities being realized?

Second, the entire premise of this article is naive.  For example, it's common sense that having an education degree does not guarantee that a person is a "good" teacher.  In the IT industry, as we all know, it's common place to apply a practical component to the job interview process (i.e., a practical exam), to use special interviewing techniques (i.e., behaviour interviewing), along with a probationary employment period to ensure the candidate has the necessary skill to be successful in the job.  How is this any different than for software testers and testing certifications and other training and credentials?

An enlighted manager will always incorporate a wide variety of measures in the job candidate evaluation and interview processes.  This includes the last work-related book the candidate has read, their volunteer history, their work history, etc.

January 27, 2015 - 11:00am
Jon Hagar's picture


"Unless one is unfamiliar with modern business culture, how could one be puzzled by the need for training in a relatively new, and certainly developing area of knowledge, and those business opportunities being realized?"

What I find surprising is, that there are people who reject the concept of certifications/certificates and others do not see the need for better training at the college level.  You  basically point this out, but if you look at documents such as SwEBOK it identifies very little and only basic historic information on software testing while the education standard seems to not be open to more recent thinking. Also there are people and companies in the industry that either under or over play ideas such as certification/certs.  


Next "How is this any different than for software testers and testing certifications and other training and credentials?".  You are right, it is not that different and there should be more common sense.  This is what I am calling for.  However I travel/teach in testing a lot (nationally and internationally), and I find many testers and even companies that seem to think differently. I hear/see testers say "I have a certification therefore I deserve more money" (no probation).  I know of companies that will only staff with certifications and expect them to be well skill (skill are different than knowledge), but then finds the resulting tests produce less than good results (errors being released into the field).  At the same time, I see other companies that reject candidates just because they have a certification.  A problem that happens is that "common sense" is not that common (universal).

Finally I agree with you last statement on "enlight managers", but there are companies and managers that are not enlighted.  I was hoping to shed some light. 


January 28, 2015 - 9:30am

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