“We don’t need no education…”

“… we don’t need no thought control.” Today I heard this song during a sports course from CD, and was reminded about a piece I read last week, and my reaction on it. Before I start let me mention that I don’t intend to offend you if you have put work into the ISTQB (or any other test certification) syllabus, or if you are teaching it. I truly believe that your intentions were quite reasonable at the time when you started to work on it. That said, if your kids are watching over your should right now, send them to bed, or playing while you read the following.

The background on this blog entry is the eBook from the Software Testing Club that was published around Christmas and is called A tester is for life, not just for christmas. There are several answers from testers all around the globe to a set of questions. One of these questions deals with Testing Certification Schemes. Here is the answer I gave at the time:

Certification is the devil in disguise. Just like the medieval triumvirate of army, church, and government formed an evil axis, Certification-Institutes, certification course sellers, and HR-departments create machinery which blinds executives from proper action, meaningful leadership, and advancement in the craft.

I fully support this statement, even several months after answering the question.

Now, during the past week, Simon Morley put up another issue of the Carnival of Testers, where he referenced a blog series by Dorothy Graham on the origin of the ISTQB certification, where she cites parts of my answer, and motivates her work for the ISTQB syllabus. When I read her three part series, I noticed that my statements surely need some more explanations. And I would also like to add some pieces regarding her reaction.

The devil in disguise

The origin of this phrase for me was a collection of audio CDs from the German Heavy Metal band Running Wild. The albums “Pile of Skulls”, “Black Hand Inn”, and “Masquerade” deal with the medieval world where the church, kings and queens, and the military formed a triumvirate. This triumvirate caused lots of victims for the notion of power.

The three albums end in “The Masquerade” with the following dialogue between a “Redcoat” and three masqueraded persons:
Redcoat: Are you willing to raise our empire of hate and evil onto the whole world and to deliver man and every living creature onto our hands?
The Three: Yes, master!
Redcoat: Are you willing to tell man lies about world’s past, how he was made and to suppress the truth for all times?
The Three: Yes, master!
Redcoat: Are you willing to deliver your souls onto our hands to become powerful, famous, and rich?
The Three: Yes, master!
Redcoat: Ho Ho Ho! So it shall be done!

It might seem a bit unfair to say something about medieval popes, kings, and queens. Similarly it might appear to be unfair to say the same about the HR departments, certification institutes, and course sellers. On the other hand, that last question raises thoughts, maybe.

On the other hand, if you take a look onto the F.A.Q. of the ISTQB, it states that the ISTQB is a non-profit organization. They are just defining guidelines for training courses. But as someone outside the ISTQB I wonder where do they get funding from, and who takes care about the non-profit part of their organization. I can’t see where they spend money on, where money is going into that organization, and whether they don’t put something form the money of the training course aside. For me, having dealt more than 10 years in a non-profit sports club, this looks suspicious, but maybe their fundings are just open for members. Maybe.

The arguments

This now leads to the points that Dorothy Graham raised as a historical motivation behind the course syllabus. From the ebook there were also arguments for certification. Dorothy states the following:

  • certifications are a good starting point
  • certifications provide knowledge of basic terminology
  • certifications help get a first job
  • certifications demonstrate that you are serious enough about testing to take an exam

Let’s have a look at each of these in turn.

Certifications are a good starting point

Certifications are built on a syllabus. They provide testers with a body of knowledge that is mandatory to all classes taught under this label. So, they may get you started. Sure.

But then I consider my course in software testing. Back, when I got out of university, I found my first job as a software tester. So far I had not heard about software testing, was rather oblivious to it. There was a course in university where this word was mentioned, specifically during the Software Engineering class when mentioning the V-Model, once, in one lesson. Even if there had been a course, thinking back to my university days, I wouldn’t have attended it for I found it to be boring.

Still, I started in April, at the end of April I had learned enough about the particular testing problem at the company to do some adaptations to the course how they tested software at that point. At the end of the second or third month, I remember that I sat in a status meeting, telling my colleagues that I finished my piece of work, when they gave me another topic to look into. This continued until I found myself a software testing group leader one and a half years later. Up until then I never attended any course on software testing, and still was productive – I think.

To date, I do not have any testing certification, and I am proud of this.

Sure, certifications can be a good starting point, but the ones that you would like to be working for you are surely not reliant on it.

Certifications provide knowledge of basic terminology

Certifications are built on a body of knowledge, so that everyone getting out of the class know what their colleagues are talking about, and vice versa. I love this scam the most from the ISTQB pros.

Recently I held a course at a client. The course was filled with about 13 of their testers. The testers came from two different departments. As part of my course I introduced the testing quadrants dimensions – business-facing vs. technology-facing and team support vs. product critique. Since they asked for a common language, I asked the participants to brainstorm together testing methods and techniques which they already did onto cards. Then I asked them to pin them to the board where I had drawn the quadrants on.

Both departments had sent their testers to training courses, and even all of them were certified under ISTQB. Still, they had cards pinned down to the quadrants named “Integrationtest” in two different places. When I asked about this ambiguity, they answered that the more technology-facing integration test probably is the integration test of some code modules, while the more business-facing is probably the one for several executables talking to each other. Hooray for the common knowledge.

Now, Integrationtest is not the only ambiguous term I found while doing classes. Others include “Regressiontest”, “Explorative Test”, and of course “functional test”. So, while the certification schemes put a lot of effort into creating a common term for things testers do, “Integration test” is still “integration test” to some person (at some time). Putting this in another way: The Oxford English Dictionary also collects common terms for English words. Still there are eight different definitions of the word “standard” as Michael Bolton once taught me. Having common used terms does not make them unambiguous in itself.

While reading up Dorothy’s write-up it occurred to me that this was one of the historical reasons to create this certification at all. Looking back on the course from last week, they didn’t seem to have accomplished it. Keeping in mind the Relative Rule (X is X to some person), it occurs to me that the goal of creating a common language is the wrong goal in first place. What we should be seeking is a common understanding. Language may help with this, but language alone is not enough. For something as complex as software testing we have to talk and discuss about what we do, in order to reach that common understanding. Words alone are not sufficient at all.

Certifications help get a first job

I strongly offend this position. Certfication may appear to have helped with it, but it could be that there was a different self-esteem after taking the certification course. Maybe the tester had more self-esteem during the interview than before, that got him onto his or her first job. So it was not certification in itself that helped with the self-esteem, but the reaction to passing the certification test that did.

Certifications demonstrate that you are serious enough about testing to take an exam

Certifications demonstrate that you have put your body into some class. Sure. Maybe there is a questionnaire which have to answer after the course to the cert. But was it the class you are serious about, or rather your seriousness about testing that did? Who paid the rather expensive costs for the class? Was it the person herself? Or was it the company she worked for at that time? Are these questions asked during a job interview?

Back in 2009, I submitted a talk on Agile practices in a traditional environment to the Agile Testing Days. While I was preparing my talk, I noticed that I could attend one of the tutorials. I asked my employer whether he would pay for it, but he refused to do so. So I paid my own expenses for the ATDD course from Elisabeth Hendrickson.

Consider a job interviewer who was sent to a certification program and passed the test, and one who took his own expenses for an uncertified course. Which one of the two showed more dedication to testing?

Against testing as a second-class activity

In part 2 of Dorothy’s blog series the main argument for the creation of the course syllabus was to overcome the second-class citizenship of testers in organizations. Back in the 1990s she writes testers were a necessary evil in most organizations, if testing was done at all.

Reflecting on maybe twenty years of testing certification, it appears to me that this didn’t change. I have seen companies in the past five years which treated testers as second-class citizens. I have seen companies working on software used in hospital that did not have a single tester in their company at all. And I have seen testing being done by programmers and business experts.

Based upon what I have seen, I acknowledge that the initial reasons to create a testing certification program were honorable, but it appears to me that the certification program did not deliver anything at all about.

So, I’m asking, but what does deliver a first-class citizenship to testers? I have no data on this, but I sincerely believe that integrity, support for customers, programmers, and project managers helps in large extents to deliver this. A while ago, Matt Heusser had an awesome blog entry on this: How to be a first-class citizen as tester. To cite from that piece:

if you want to be a first-class citizen, one way to do it is by focusing on demonstrating value and competence.

Pointing to my cert does not demonstrate any value or competence, but rather that you are guilty of killing a tree.

Certification does not assess testers

Now, let me get to the final piece of my argument. Certifications do not assess testers for their skills. Answering a multiple-choice test does not make them any competent in applying all the theory they have learned. But my point goes way beyond this single point.

With their body of knowledge the syllabus creates the ground for the third obstacle to innovation that Jerry Weinberg mentions in Becoming a technical leader. The first and the second great obstacles to innovation are according to Weinberg self-blindness – I can’t see that I’m wrong – and no-problem syndrome – I don’t admit that I’m wrong. The third obstacle is the belief in a single possible solution, and that science has this answer handy for us.

Yes, the body of knowledge creates a thought-limiting notion. Testers working after the syllabus are working in a mind-set that anything outside the syllabus is impossible. I had just one of them in my class last week. I met another at a local user group meeting in Germany, both pray to the same single solution belief. The belief was that anything not in the requirements document is not a requirement. This is just plain wrong. I could educate the tester last week, but failed to do so at the user group meeting.

A software product is developed in order to solve a problem for some particular person. When you build a software to track your working hours per clients in a consultancy then you are probably solving the problem of getting all the hours from all your colleagues together in one place. Or you are solving the problem of billing all of your clients. Or… Now, if any of these problems is not solved, then the person that has the problem – your boss, your clients, your company – is unlikely to state that his problem is solved whether the problem is stated in the requirements document or not.

It appears to me that certifications currently create ground for the single-solution fallacy in software testing. Especially the notion that everything that is a requirement is put up in a requirements document. Now, go back to your documents, read it line by line and count the times that you could add “… and the software shall not make the house explode” to any of the sentences.

Recap

Let me recap my points. Certifications may appear to help you get a first job, but ask yourself if self-esteem was the real enabler in this, or rather the paper. Certifications are not a good starting point, since the syllabus may turn out a thought-limiting – or though control. Rather consider what could help you, and seek a course adapted to your needs. Seriousness for testing and knowledge of testing is better shown by showing skill and self-education on the job. Second-class citizenship is not solved by a piece of dead wood, but rather by showing your capabilities, and helping your team understand your challenges. Finally, certification does not show any skills in the tester, or whether she may apply it.

Last, the German DLRG also has a certification. The German DLRG is the institution for rescue swimmers in Germany. They provide baywatch services as well as services within indoor and outdoor swimming pools.
If you achieve to get their gold certification, you are allowed to take on work on your own. After two years this certification is downgraded to a silver certification which lasts all your life long. Any rescue swimmer employing organization in Germany understands the need to assess the skill of their rescue swimmers. Do you have a life-long valid testing certification? Do you need to show your skills?

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10 thoughts on ““We don’t need no education…””

  1. I wrote my take on the certification discussion a while ago, here.

    I asked Dorothy Graham some questions on her blog – you can judge for yourself whether she answered them or not. ;)

    These days I’m devoting my time and energy to my own directed learning paths and education.

  2. I identify myself with this: “Certifications demonstrate that you are serious enough about testing to take an exam”
    I was stubborn enough to take the exam myself, but I said: I want to take it with only my knowledge and not reading that samples, because I have good experience.
    Wrong approach!
    This is how I lost 300 euros in Viena! :)
    And they failed me for one question also to make it nice and pointing out that I can retake the exam.
    Unfortunately the exam can be passed by anyone willing to be a monkey and just learn without reasoning. I had too much experience to just insert that confused info.
    Since then I think I evolved a lot, start blogging, be present online, exchange ideas and it is great!
    Such a relief from the pressure of wrong approach!
    At that time I also felt unsure and wanted to have more credibility by having the certification. I think now companies don’t care. Serious companies that care, don’t ask this. And companies that don’t care and will treat it like a second hand job, might require it.
    Also be aware that the request for a certification is just the entry to a bull**** job!

  3. In principle ISTQB/ISEB is a not a bad thing you feel good and energised that you have achieved something but it is not a stepping stone for a job as it claimed to be. It is a good way of collecting source material about testing from a single place but a very expensive one. It does not teach you how to do testing but how to guess the right answers. We all go on training courses and companies insist on them but those courses have no stigma attached about certification although certificates are handed out at the end of the training for attendance. If you have not learnt anything from the training and applied at your work place then those pieces of paper are worthless. I have 50+ such certificates collected over 25 years but some of them are no good to me anymore because I do not work with those technologies I was trained in.
    Your current work is the most important thing for you and you learn how to do your job better through your own efforts of learning and from your peers as well as following other people’s work and no amount of external training can teach you those skills. As James Bach put it ‘what you need to do is practice and study testing, talk about it, and talk with other people about it’. It is like situation comedy which works in the environment it is acted for people it is tuned to otherwise it will be out of place. You learn from the behaviour of the software/people when you are put in that situation. There is another analogy I sometimes use that is assembling a flat pack. You can follow the instructions on the card which for me never worked or explore the parts and find for yourself how they would fit together; you eventually get there and on the way learn something that build your confidence. Same thing with testing, you have the option of observing other people do it and follow their instructions or make your own in roads through learning and if you get stuck or want confirmation how well you performed then go back to your peers by all means. Learning very much depends on your environment and ISTQB training room is not an ideal environment to gain much from. If you are prepared to pay the price of getting certification then do it but at least don’t brag about it. I have no such certification although I have been a BCS member for 25+ years and these certification schemes are run by BCS. I am sure if I sit for the exam without going through expensive training I will pass.

  4. Hi Markus,

    Interesting blog post and some very considered arguments against certification.

    Here in the UK I can completely understand why someone would sit the certification to get a job. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to get a job interview without a certification. This could be the employer wanting to see certs because they like their staff to have them, or it could be that it makes it easier for the recruiter. Or a bit of both and maybe other flavour combinations in between.

    So I believe that certifications have become an easy way to measure assumed competency. A quick rule of thumb for all applicants. Yes or No based on certication. This is a fundamental change we need to make in the UK (and world no-doubt).

    I remember sitting my foundation exam. It was taught by a trained trainer who used to be a project manager. He had never worked with testers and knew nothing about testing. I asked a couple of questions about testing challenges but got no sensible answers. I sat the multiple choice and passed. And I recited the common language also. Back in the business world I instantly dropped the common language of ISEB and returned to using the common language of our business domain (where there were obvious overlaps but also marked differences). There was no way I would be able to change the common language of an 800 strong business just because ISEB suggested X instead of Y. As a business we knew what Y meant. Changing it to X would have been a nightmare.

    I wrote a blog post a few years back about the state of certifications and the three camps of testing. I re-read it and it’s still relevant. I suspect in 10 years time it will still be relevant, just like this post here of yours…….that is of course unless we start making some drastic and mind altering changes in our industry………….

    Rob..

    1. Hi Rob,

      I’m happy that it appears to be easier to find a job in Germany without a certification.

      One motivation for me to write about this is that certification providers though seem to dominate the testing world. When visiting conferences it seems natural to hold a certificate, and if you don’t have one, you’re one of the bad guys, a cowboy tester. This is certainly not the case, and I wouldn’t want to work for a company with such an entry criteria. Asked the other way round: What would they sell you once everyone was certified?

      Keep up the good work.

      1. Hi Markus, and Rob

        It’s really sad that certifications play such a big role in the hiring process in the UK. I’m of the same opinion as you guys that certified does not mean qualified.

        Almost the first thing I told my manager when we were interviewing each other, she about hiring me or not and me about me wanting to work for her and the company or not, was that I do not have a degree or any certifications since leaving high school. I did study Informatics and Psychology, amongst other things, at Lund University but and I did two essays for bachelors degrees but I did not get even one complete degree.
        It hasn’t hurt me one bit. When going back into the workplace after my university years I was hired by a small company that was more interested in samples of my work, samples of code I’d written, and my interest in learning about their business and contributing to that.

        Since then the thing that mainly has interested my employers has been my past work, my experiences and my attitude towards learning, improving and delivering.

        I have however complied with my managers wishes and do have an ITIL v.3 foundations certificate even though it did hurt my self image as a rebel when the paper arrived in the mail. I keep it hidden at the bottom of a drawer in my desk at home :)

  5. Markus, I enjoyed your comment in the STC book, and this explanatory/provocative post too.

    When I look at the CVs submitted to me for jobs. I don’t look at the candidate’s certifications, I look at what they do to demonstrate their interest in, and continued learning about testing.

    The following things have enabled a conversion from CV, to interview, to job: blogs, presentations at conferences, testing forum posts, thesis on testing etc. etc. There are so many ways of demonstrating an interest in testing, and a pursuit of knowledge. Even small efforts make a big difference to pull someone into the ‘out of the ordinary’ camp.

    I fully recommend the above as cheap and highly gratifying approaches to increasing your knowledge.

    Certification has helped no-one get a job with me.

    Sadly it did help me get jobs when I was a contractor. Far too many jobs in the UK ask for certification. But no-one ever asked for proof, so I guess I could have just lied. Another Lesson learned in Software Testing.

    And thanks for the link to Running Wild. I had not heard of them before. Good old fashioned metal. Currently listening to, and enjoying, “The Rivalry”.

    Eusebiu Blindu – I love the imagery in “This is how I lost 300 euros in Viena!”

  6. Hello Markus,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and vision about certification. You made a very strong entry; quoting the lines from Pink Floyd from “Another brick in the Wall” With that you already got me…. Perhaps that is explaining the situation quite well. Is certification another brick in our wall? Or better, another picture on our wall? Somehow bricks seems to create some solid trust to our buildings. In my opinion, we need bricks for building and we also need space to place our windows in that same wall. To brighten our vision. To visualize our context. To look forward.
    I believe you explained very good you opinion about test certification and Dorothy reacted quite well on the initial words using three parts for it. Reading her posting it seemed to me that their idea was building windows in a wall to explain testing, and help people to build their vision about testing. Guide them to enter the world of testing were the initial syllabus was not intended to be a milestone it perhaps was a document to help tester to continue learning. Therefore we need education.
    I agree with you that in a certain moment of time, the goal was no longer educating. The focus and energy was more or less focused on expressing the word that that was the right thing to do, a bit further on, it was the only right thing to do. And you need certifications for it. I believe somehow here it went wrong. The certification was no longer for the tester, it was for the commercial guys to select testers and those who make money out of it. (I never saw a tester make money from a certificate, they do it based on their value.)
    In this case if we have to learn it this way, then the value is equal to no education at all. Not education as some institutes calls it. If a certificate is only valuable as a picture on the wall, there or much more nicer images you can use to color the walls. In this case, the certificate on the wall is forced to hang on the best spot, there were you want to have the window. You are no longer able to look forward and see other things which are happening outside that room of testing conform the certification scheme. It is minimizing visions.
    Certifications might help in a certain way for certain people. At least people should help them not to hang those in front of the window. And others should help making new spots for possible windows to extend that vision. I think you made this new spot for a new window.
    Do we need education? Yes, only this can be done in several ways like testing dojos etc. Do we need we don’t need no thought control? Yes we need though control over ourselves; no control forced by others. Do we need Another brick in the Wall? On some spaces we do, we also need room for windows and also just open space.
    Thanks Markus, great posting!!!

  7. Hi Markus,

    Great post. For me the things I learned on the cert courses have been very valuable but only as starting points to my own journey of self-education.

    It saddens me that we are still in a position in the UK where the majority of recruiters place so much emphasis on certification schemes. I am pleased, though, that there are people like Alan Richardson out there who value what testers actually do over a series of exam answers. It is also encouraging to see the number of dedicated craftspeople contributing to the Software Testing Club: helping others while educating themselves.

    Thanks,

    Stephen

  8. Hi Markus,

    I also want to thank you for linking Pink Floyd’s “wall” to this subject.

    We do need education, but no thought control. I personally hope to stay uncertified, but to continue my education in many other ways, developing my software testing craftmanship! ;-)

    Cheers,
    Anders

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