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Software tool and quality certifications: Valuable or useless?

There are a bunch of software quality certifications and more popping up all the time. Some of the classics are those offered by ASQ (American Society for Quality), IIST (International Institute for Software Testing), ISTQB/ASTQB (International / American Software Testing Quality Board) and QAI (Quality Assurance Institute. ) Then there are certifications that are being offered for learning particular tools. These certifications are put out by organizations such as HP, IBM and Microsoft, to name a few.  There are also Scrum Master and Scrum Product Owner certifications for the agile crowd.  With so many different certifications to choose from, which are the most valuable for QA professionals? Or are any of them valuable? It seems as though many people feel they are useless.

I asked agile practitioner Mark Levison in a recent podcast what he thought about certifications. Mark felt it was best to stay away from certifications that encouraged a “throw-it-over-the-wall” mentality or those certifications that recommended expensive tools.  He also didn’t feel certification was necessary for agile testers or developers and thought the same skills could be picked up from reading.

I, myself, have recently gotten a Scrum Master certification so I’m quite interested in this controversy. Personally, I think any kind of industry training or professional development is beneficial. I learned a lot from the class and think that people that are new to Scrum would benefit from attending.  However, I agree that the “certification” label does not mean much.  The test is very straight-forward and if you fail, you can simply take it again. Basically, this particular certification just proves I took a two-day class. It doesn’t prove whether or not I’d be able to apply the skills I learned. I don’t put listings for all of the university classes I’ve taken on my resume and those are much more comprehensive than the Scrum class. Wny should a two-day class carry enough weight on a resume to make-or-break whether you will make it past HR’s first filter?

This lack of substantial proof of skill seems to be the basic issue for those that argue against certification.  Does that make certifications useless? A recent press release by ASQTB showed that 89% of software testers surveyed felt they were more valuable to their organization after ISQTB certification. That makes sense to me. If you take a class, one would hope you would gain some knowledge and become more valuable to your organization. I don’t think anyone would argue with that. And if I were taking a survey asking if taking a class made me more valuable to an organization, I would absolutely answer ‘yes.’ This doesn’t really quantify how much more valuable to an organization one is after getting certified.  However, a “certification” loses some of the ability to impress, if it’s attained simply from passing a test.

But what else can be done? There are a couple of networks that are available to help those wanting to gain additional agile skills.  One of these is called the Agile Skills Project. Using a wiki, this group has been using agile methodologies to define an Agile Skills Inventory, identifying skills necessary to work in an agile environment as well as offering suggestions about how to get those skills. Another group that offers a network, particularly for those interested in distributed agile, is the network I facilitate, Beyond Certification. The network, powered by Ning, allows those interested in this topic to discuss and share idea for gaining agile skills.

In general, I think taking classes and then taking exams to test your knowledge is one way to learn.  Getting certified in a particular skill proves that you took the intiative to take a class or study a body of knowledge and pass a test. Though I don’t this passing a test should be a primary factor in gaining employment, it does show that you have enough interest in a topic to want to learn. After you’ve gotten certified, work towards getting experience.  If you’re not able to do this from a workplace, then check into local user group meetings. Check the search engines and find a software test and QA community to join. Volunteer to join a Scrum Team for a non-profit or as a hobby.  There are always opportunities to learn.

So, no, I don’t think quality certifications are useless. It’s a first step. Just don’t stop there. Apply the knowledge and keep on learning.

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One thing most of the certification bodies you mention require is job experience and re-certification on a regular basis. For example, the ASQ Certified Software Quality Engineer requires 8 years of experience, with 3 of them in a decision making role (not necessarily management). Certifications in-and-of-themselves may not be very important if your current employer is happy with your current skills. However, having a well established and recognized certification could be a key factor when you have to look for that next job.
I think that certifications remember to us that knowledge in IT is very important. In fact, IT professionals often seem to think that experience is the main ingredient of their work: it is true but knowledge can improve the recipe a lot! I think employers know it.