When I moved to Canada back in 2006, I faced the grand challenge of entering the job market with little understanding of the local job environments and a lack of Canadian job experience. Even though I worked over ten years as a programmer and tester, I practically had to start my career over, competing for beginner positions.
Because I had no acquaintances, searching for a job through referrals and networking wasn’t possible. The only way was to apply to job postings, so I started searching for ways to strengthen my resume. One of the first options I thought of was certifications.
Certifications in software testing are based on a theoretical quiz. You don’t practically demonstrate your skills; you answer a vast number of multiple-choice questions. Some of them are very academic, and some are not even that relevant to the testing field.
Testing is questioning, so I felt that it’s reasonable to question such certifications.
I started asking for opinions on the subject. Some of the arguments I heard from fellow job seekers were, “Certification in a resume helps you to stand out from other applicants,” and “They give new grads and anyone else newly entering the testing field something to show on their resume.”
I still had concerns. Sure, if very few people had certification, then it would be a way to stand out. But I thought businesses that sell testing certification usually aim to certify everyone. Having the same line in your resume as thousands of others didn’t seem to me like a practical way to stand out.
As I learned later, the hiring managers took notice of my resume due to accomplishments like participation in professional conferences and articles on my blog and in other publications. The worldwide testing community is strong nowadays, but even back then there were mature testing organizations, local groups, and online events, as well as publishing organizations dedicated to testing.
Another argument I heard was that certifications teach terminology. That felt convincing, and to a degree it was true. Some testing terms are quite common in the industry, so I thought it’s important to know them. But still, memorizing the name of a testing technique doesn’t mean you’ve mastered it or can even exercise it practically.
To my great surprise, I later found out that the terminology also wasn’t that common. For example, in one large financial institution with a big QA department, they used the term “negative testing” in a peculiar way. “Negative testing” meant “testing to find out if something didn’t break,” which in other places is typically called “regression testing.”
While I was still pondering about getting a certification, I received invitations for interviews and soon got my first job in testing. From my first days it became obvious to me that I wouldn’t need any memorized definitions. I needed to exercise my testing skills. The demand was for further development of testing skills and technical skills such as coding scripts and handling tools.
I chose a contractor path, so getting a job became an annual or sometimes even semiannual challenge. As my career progressed, I once again was presented an opinion about certifications, this time from recruiters: “We use certificates as a filter when we have many candidates.”
That sounded interesting, so I probed further. Staffing agencies have their own challenges. They get to keep the difference between what a client pays and what the contractor gets, so they are not always looking for the best candidate. Some agencies present a barely qualified candidate who is still capable of doing the job but can be satisfied with a lesser payment. That explanation struck me as they use certification as a sign of mediocrity for filling underpaid positions. To me, it made such certifications even less attractive.
In the meantime, I further invested in my education in testing. I signed up for an online course on black box testing that turned out to be very challenging. I had a difficult four weeks of digesting articles and writing my own essays, hands-on testing practice, having discussions with fellow students, and defending my own work. Getting my passing grade felt very rewarding. I felt that this is how real certification should be: a difficult process based on skills development and practical evaluation, preferably done in a group of dedicated individuals.
Later that year I also took a software testing course that was an intense three days packed with exercises and challenges. My major takeaways were the skill of adapting testing techniques for a context, and being able to construct my own testing techniques that best fit a purpose. This greatly helped me in my career, both in functional testing and automation. Later, this skill also helped me to master the new and challenging domain of accessibility testing.
The third time the question of certification came up for me was when I got to the other side of the interviewing table. When we were looking for a new hire, the suggestion was made that, because the applicants were all certified, we could shorten or skip the technical part of the interview. That left me puzzled. The technical part was an exercise, a representation of the same testing tasks that a candidate would be asked to do if hired. It had nothing to do with terminology. As we later figured out, the person who suggested that was misinformed about what testing certification represents. They imagined it was similar to a driving test where people are accredited for their skills.
Finally, I want to mention a special case of encountering a need for testing certification. In my career I had a few contracts for government vendors and agencies. Certain projects had an imposed requirement to have certified staff.
On the vendor side, such a requirement was treated like a tax—just something you have to do. All testers who were permanent employees received a minimal required certification at the employer’s expense, then the work proceeded as usual.
On the government side, it became just another regulation among hundreds of policies that didn’t seem to affect the working process.
From my own experience, it seems like presently existing certifications in testing in general are not mandatory for getting a job. There are particular cases when having a certificate might be an advantage, but not due to knowledge or skills gained—this is my greatest concern. I’m not against good certifications but I disapprove of misleading people or forcing them to pay an “employment tax.”
In my professional opinion, a certification only matters if obtaining it is a long and difficult process based on skills development and practical evaluation. I’m satisfied with a certification coming from my work history and contributions to the professional community.