on certification

How do you feel about tester certification? I’ve heard all the arguments for and against and looked at the different certifications and their requirements. Frankly, I have not been impressed. My employer doesn’t seem impressed either. I have yet to meet a single tester at Microsoft who is certified. Most don’t even know there is such a thing. They’ve all learned testing the old fashioned way: by reading all the books and papers they can get their hands on, apprenticing themselves to people at the company that are better at it than they are and critiquing the gurus and would-be gurus who spout off in person and in print.

Simple logic tells me this: Microsoft has some of the best testers I have ever met. So in my experience there is an inverse relationship between certification and testing talent. The same is true of testers at other companies I admire that I meet at conferences and meetings. The really good testers I know and meet just aren’t certified. There is the occasional counterexample, but the generalization holds. (Whether the reverse is true, I have little data with which to form an opinion.)

Let me repeat, this is my experience and experience does not equate to fact. However, the reason I am blogging about this is because I met three office managers/administrators recently who are certified. These three are not testers, but they work around software testers and they hosted a certification course and thought it would be helpful to sit in and understand what the people around them did day in and day out. They sat the courses, took the exam and got their certification.


Ok, I’ll grant they are smart, curious and hard working. But there is more to testing than that triad. They readily admit they know little about computing, even less about software. From the time I spent with them, I didn’t get the impression that they would have made good testers. Their skill is elsewhere. I doubt they would pass any class I ever taught at Florida Tech and I imagine they’d find the empire’s training a bit too much for them to digest as well. Yet they aced the certification exam without breaking a sweat.

What am I missing? Isn’t the point of a certification to certify that you can do something? Certify is a really strong word that I am uncomfortable using so lightly. When I hire a certified plumber, I expect said plumber to plumb beyond my uncertified ability. When I hire a certified electrician I expect that electrician to trivialize the problems that vexed me as an amateur. If I hired a certified tester, I would expect them to test with a similar magnitude of competence and skill. I wonder if an office manager of a plumbing company could so easily get certified to plumb.

Well I checked into it. Plumbers (at least in Seattle) are indeed certified but they don’t get that certification by taking a course and an exam (although they do both). They serve time apprenticing to a master plumber. You better believe that by the time they get that seal of approval, they can plumb till the cows come home.

I realize testing isn’t plumbing but the word certification gives me pause. It’s a strong word. Is there something more to tester certification that I am missing? Is it simply that you understand the base nomenclature of software or that you can converse with other testers and appear as one of the crowd? Or that you simply sat through a course with enough of an open mind that some of it sunk in? What value does this actually bring to the discipline? Are we any better off because we have these certifications? Are we risking certifying people who really can’t test and thereby water down the entire discipline?

I don’t think these certifications are really certifications at all. It’s just training. Calling it a certification is over selling it by a long shot. In my mind a certification means you have a seal of approval to do something beyond what an amateur/tinkerer can accomplish. Otherwise, what has the certification accomplished?

I am proud of being a tester and if I seem arrogant to be that way then so be it. What I do and what my compatriots do is beyond a single course that an office manager, no matter how smart, can just pick up.

However, if I am wrong about certification, I’d like to be enlightened. For the life of me, I don’t see the upside.