Having noted that the upcoming SIGIST conference (11th March) will include a panel debate on the future of certification, I thought I would extract the sub-section of that first blog post which relates to certification and its associated controversy since it probably got lost within what was a ridiculously long submission (just north of 5000 words).
This extract doesn't address the future of certification as the SIGIST debate aims to, is aimed squarely at newcomers and was produced with a sole focus on the Foundation level. Nevertheless I hope it will be interesting and/or useful to someone, somewhere, sometime.
Update 13.02.14 - After posting this blog I received (and have accepted) an invitation to be on the aforementioned panel at the next SIGIST.
6) Get the ISTQB / ISEB Foundation certificate in software testing but proceed with caution
It would be nice to be able to just say "Get this. It will help. Hiring managers are bound to look on it favourably. End of story". Sadly it's not quite that simple and perhaps this topic warrants a separate blog post in the future because certification has become one of the most contentious topics within the software testing domain.
Amusingly, some critics of the Foundation certification were heavily involved in its inception and have made money from selling the associated courses. It seems that a number of people are concerned about perpetuating the notion that a 3 day course ending in an exam automatically makes you a good tester. I have never heard anyone try to make that assertion and I think many people have needlessly got themselves wound up over this. Some people see their lack of certification as a virtue (which it may well be and certainly some of the best test specialists I know aren't certified) and others have removed it from their CV. Some hiring managers claim that they automatically bin CVs showing certification on the basis that they tend to come from the worst candidates. Such a prejudicial approach strikes me as being out-of-step with the whole concept of testing what has been put in front of you. Even more ironically, many of these critics will tell you that they are pragmatists who are committed advocates of the context-driven school of testing which translates as "do whatever is appropriate to the prevailing local circumstances". This is a philosophy that I share and it is exactly what drove me to tick the Foundation certificate box in 2002 having previously considered it to be unnecessary. My context, the UK testing job market, was (and is) asking for it, for good or for ill. By 2002 the Foundation certification had become known to recruitment agents who had started to quote it as 'essential' much more often than not, either unilaterally as a means to filter applicants and enable them to compete, as they do, on specificity, or at the behest of the hiring manager. Indeed many recruitment agents passed the exam themselves which, with all due respect to them, is part of what led to a reduction in the qualification's currency among practitioners and managers.
I think it is fair to say that the Foundation grew into a bit of a monster in a way and to an extent that hadn't originally been envisaged and it has certainly been a money spinner for some. However I think the way recruiters necessarily work (e.g. relying on keyword searches to make the filtering manageable on a database that may have tens or hundreds of thousands of CVs) was probably the biggest causal factor and if the broader test management community - which is arguably the primary 'customer' of the Foundation certification - was that bothered, it could and would have directed recruiters accordingly. That clearly hasn't happened across the piece and I would argue that's probably because the test management community has much bigger fish to fry and/or is sufficiently discerning as to appreciate the limits of certification.
I struggle to feel anything other than indifference towards the whole certification debate and would suggest that, at least as far as the Foundation is concerned, it's not so much that it's a positive to have it, but more that it's a negative to not have it because, no matter how many thought leaders on the speaking circuit and in the blogosphere argue against it, the agents posting on sites like Jobserve invariably stipulate it and if you don't have it you will be locked out of many opportunities purely on the basis of agents using keyword searches. Don't kid yourself that an agent will be reading your CV in detail and taking a balanced view on what you're offering, at least in the first round of CV filtering. That said I don't think that my conclusion changes even if there is no agent involved.
At the end of the day I think the safest option is to focus on giving the broader market what it thinks it wants; not what you think it wants and certainly not what you think it should want, however intelligent and well-meaning your analysis may be.
This is all very interesting (maybe) but what does it mean to you if you're a prospective entrant to the testing space? Basically it means that:
- On balance, you should get the certificate (in my humble opinion).
- Selling your attainment of the Foundation certificate as an unambiguously positive thing is now enough of an interview risk to necessitate a nuanced communication approach (because there are people out there, mentioning no names, that seem to take delight in metaphorically kicking people, many of them youngsters, who are just trying to do what they can to get started and see the Foundation certification as part of that).
I would advise the following (in no particular order):
- To save money, you should consider self-studying for the exam and paying for a private entry. This has the added benefit of being a better story to tell, especially as it allows you to say that you took the time to genuinely learn about the subject rather than cramming everything into a commercial 3 day course. Using a Computer Based Training (CBT) course, as I did in 2002, is a cost-effective middle-ground between the two ends of the spectrum.
- Buy as many mock papers as you can and sit them under exam conditions as part of your preparation.
- If and when you pass the exam, include it in your CV (to cover keyword searches by recruiters) but try to make sure your CV layout doesn't give it particular or undue prominence that may betray an enthusiasm, be it real or perceived, that could be seized on by someone who is anti-certification.
- Be ready to acknowledge and discuss the controversy surrounding the whole topic (as outlined above).
- Consider options for finding out, ahead of the interview, where the hiring manager sits within the debate - perhaps using Google or insights from the agent if one is involved.
- It's probably safest to argue that your certification is a pragmatic response to market-led demand and keyword searches by recruiters rather than something you particularly advocate in principle. This closes down the angle of attack and will assuage the concerns of at least some people in the anti-certification camp.
- Unless it's completely clear which side of the argument the hiring manager is on, be cautious about getting drawn into discussions about what certification(s) you are targeting next; if you reel off a long list that may work against you.
Having to write about how to deflect attacks on the efforts you have made to earn a widely-stipulated qualification is a sorry state of affairs but that's the way things have gone and there is scope to lose out on opportunities over it so it's best to be prepared.
That's my 2p's worth but what do you think? Please feel free to comment below.