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Certification - Is It Worth The Paper It’s Written On?

The phone rings at our HQ and on the line is someone wanting to discuss software testing courses. If it’s for the ISTQB Foundation Course and the delegate is not employed in the IT Industry , they cut to the chase and ask ‘Will I get a job if I do this course?'

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At this point, I have to let them down gently by asking about their motivation whilst enlightening them that ‘software testing’ is not an easy or simple job, and there is more to it than just ‘checking something works’. If they are still on the line (sometimes they hang up when they discover it’s not an easy employment option), I then answer the ‘job question’ with a resounding ‘no’ advising them to be wary of anyone offering a course which guarantees a job in testing simply as the result of attending a course. I also point out that if they are interested in a career in testing then training and formal certification will certainly help. 

How does this type of training and certification help?

Well, just to deal with the employability aspects, I have spoken to HR Learning and Development (HR L&D) Staff in many organisations and they actually require and arrange for the certification for staff (as do test managers). Organisations value the training and the formal certification of staff.

For those new to testing or transferring into testing from another part of the business, HR L&D normally arrange attendance on an ISTQB Foundation Certificate training programme. Some organisations even go so far as to stipulate an ISTQB Advanced Test Manager certificate as an ‘Essential Qualification’ for Test Manager and Test Director positions.  So whilst a piece of paper won’t get anyone a job, lack of certification can certainly limit tester mobility when changing companies! That excellent CV you have carefully produced may end up on the ‘reject pile’ before reaching the hiring manager. Within an organisation the lack of a Foundation Certificate may also limit tester career progression.

Building confidence as a Tester

A key benefit of certification is the learning that takes place in a training session. This learning can build confidence, for example, some testers (unless they formerly were developers) may be reluctant to engage a development team in a technical discussion.  Module 2 of the Foundation Course gives a good grounding in Software Lifecycle Models and the relationships, relevance, types and role of testing. Any tester who has grasped these concepts should be able to confidently hold their own when discussing testing aspects with any development team. 

Becoming an expert in Quality

These days, particularly in Agile environments, the role of the tester is much more collaborative and proactive than before. Although Quality is everyone’s responsibility whether writing Requirements, Coding or Testing, Testers are the de facto Quality ‘experts’ in the team. Wearing this hat they can provide leadership on the testing aspects. This leadership can range from providing an overall Test Strategy for the team to assisting in providing direction in the Project Retrospectives / Reviews and also assisting developers on aspects of unit testing. A large chunk of the Foundation Course focusses on a wealth of techniques (e.g. White Box, Black Box, Experience Based, BVA, EP, State Transition Testing, and Decision Table Testing) which enable testers to maximise the value of their test cases.  This learning can be transferred to others so they too can get the maximum return on the test cases they write. 

Flying the flag for Test Management

Whether you are a test manager or not, the session on Test Management (Module 5) can provide a lot of answers to common problems in a cycle of testing from planning to estimating how much testing is required. Just the concept of a ‘management document’ (aka The Test Plan) where everything from Scope to Resources is defined in advance and agreed, bodes well for a healthier ‘Test Project’ where testing is completed on time and to an agreed standard. Delegates are sometimes surprised when I talk about the need to define ‘entry criteria’ and to include in this (if necessary) ‘testable software’. This is to ensure testing is not undermined by the variability of the builds provided.  Sometimes simply asking delegates to give their view on what testable software might be gets them really thinking (‘software where there is evidence of unit testing’ prior to delivery of the build’ is an example) 

 A common language

One of the most attractive elements of the ISTQB Foundation Course, is the fact that it provides a ‘standard’ which can be applied across any testing group. The ISTQB Glossary provides for standard definitions in a jargon ridden industry. The course describes methods, process and approaches which are applicable anywhere (and for any type of software application from web sites to embedded systems) plus references to many other international standards (ISO and IEEE).

For a new testing team this standardisation is a great enabler in achieving consistency of process and terminology and new hires who have the certification should not have a problem fitting in with any organisation following the Fundamental Test Process. For an existing test team, standardisation (provided it is not used slavishly) can provide a structure and direction to aim towards.

Applying your learning

Is there a down side to the training? Well, maybe, this depends on your perspective. The ISTQB Foundation course covers a lot of material in the time available and is fairly intensive but it is comprehensive and broken up with exercises. The key is to take all the initial learning (needed for the exam) but only apply what is relevant in your organisation. Because of the intensity of the course, I always recommend that delegates do not take courses back to back if possible.

Onwards & Upwards

The Foundation Level Agile Extension and the iSQI CMAP (Mobile Apps Foundation) courses are excellent courses to take after the initial ISTQB Software Testing Foundation. This training and certification (Agile and CMAP) builds on what is covered in the Foundation Course, not upwards but laterally into a deeper knowledge of testing in an Agile and a mobile world respectively.

So, to answer the question ‘Certification, is it worth the paper it’s printed on?’ The answer is ‘no it’s not, it is worth far more’; formal training and certification are essential whether you are just starting out or well into your testing career and this applies at the individual tester level and also test organisation level.

By Steve Helsby, Senior Trainer & Consultant

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