Certification: driven to distraction


Certification has been a contentious topic amongst testers for many years and there are some excellent blogs and articles on this subject. It is a well worn carpet but I’m going to grind some dirt into it too….

On the day I passed my driving test I was given my final (and possibly most important) lesson by my instructor, Pete. I left Southmead Driving Test Centre in Bristol, grinning from ear to ear and offering high fives to passers-by. I climbed into the Ford Fiesta which had been the scene of my triumph – Pete asked me to get into the passenger seat. I imagined that this was because my state of euphoria meant that I would be a danger to other road users, but as it turned out I was about to learn how much of a danger they could be to me.

Pete said something that grabbed my attention:

“I’ve taught you how to pass your driving test. Now I’m going to teach you how to drive.”

He set off and sped through the streets of Bristol. His hands no longer took the familiar ‘ten to two’ position on the steering wheel; instead he nudged the car round bends with one hand, whilst adjusting the car stereo with the other. The engine revved and the brakes squealed. Ford Fiestas were not built to be driven this way and I’m not ashamed to say I was slightly concerned, particularly as we rounded a tight hairpin bend on the way through the woods near my home.

As we pulled up outside my house he said “Well done, and don’t try to drive like that.”

In 2007, I was asked to take the ISEB Foundation Certificate in Software Testing. My employer was keen that everyone involved in testing within the organisation take the course.

I felt reluctant. I had been testing for almost twelve years and had reached a stage in my career where I felt pretty comfortable about my knowledge and experience. I was a Test Manager, relatively new to management but with some good experience of testing.

I had been involved in recruitment and interviews for a few years and I was aware of the trend for testers to give prominence to certification on their CVs. Instinctively I felt uncomfortable about this. I’m not opposed to certification as a matter of principle. I recognise that in many professions it is valuable, sometimes necessary. I feel that it needs to be earned and I appreciate that many people in other occupations put in years of hard work and learning to achieve certification. Perhaps I felt uncomfortable because the testing certification seemed easily attainable compared with other professions or perhaps I just didn’t like the idea of somebody else telling me whether I was a tester or not.

I felt that I had a reasonable grounding in testing terminology and techniques. I knew that I was capable of focusing my efforts on testing in the right areas most of the time and I knew I was capable of finding bugs, sometimes really juicy ones. I had started to build up knowledge of the skills required for managing testing activities and most importantly to me, for managing people.

And here’s the thing; I had done all of this through experience over a reasonably long period of time. I had practised things, I had made mistakes and I had learned from them. Last week I wrote about 70:20:10 and the way testers learn. I don’t believe there is a substitute for learning through experience. The way that many IT certification courses are marketed says a great deal to me about their value. Providers compete on cost and on the duration (the shorter the better of course).

What is more, based on my experience, the training is designed to get through an examination. Nothing more, nothing less. In researching some of the companies currently providing training for this certificate I came across one with the following description:

“This course will train you in everything you need to know to pass the exam for the ISEB Foundation Certificate in Software Testing.”

Not to learn, develop your expertise or increase your knowledge. Just to pass the exam.

And so it was with my ISEB Foundation training. I was transported back to my driving exam and the final lesson from Pete.

On the first day, when the training moved onto areas of interest to me I enthusiastically asked questions or attempted to share my experiences. Each time I was politely shut down with “We don’t have time to go into detail” or “There’s a lot to get through”. The trainer’s imperative was to get through a syllabus in a short space of time (I think the training lasted three days with one day for revision and the exam). We did get through a lot on those three days but it was all shallow. After the first morning I gave up asking questions and accepted my fate.

I passed the exam but didn’t high five anyone when I got the result. What I really wanted was for someone to say to me,

“Well done, just don’t test like that.”

One thought on “Certification: driven to distraction

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