Selling Towels Certification

certifications, testing, and rant
a movie still from Mulan from 1998
Mulan, 1998

DISCLAIMER: those of you who embrace “Certification” as a topic, fear not, this is a post made by a young punk, but, I fully respect you, read until the end.

After moving to Spain I’ve come to learn that Spanish have an interesting version of the Portuguese saying “In Spain no one works, they only eat tapas and have siestas”:

Any person goes to Portugal for the sole purpose of acquiring towels.

Given this Spanish statement, we can also deduce the following statement:

If one is Portuguese, then one must be, with mild scientific precision, a certified towels-salesperson.

This saying will be the starting point of this post. Yes. I knew this moment would come, and probably will resurface again in the future. I’m going to give a rant about certifications. Let’s go!

An innocent suggestion

Recently a colleague, Jenn, from a testing community, mentioned she was considering getting a software testing certification, followed with a pertinent and usual question: if anyone had a recommendation for which one (certification) to do or which one NOT to do?

I semi-innocently recommended her taking the RSTA and BBST classes, mentioning that she’d get a “certificate” at the end. My underlying thought was: if someone is going to invest money on something like a “certification”, and is asking for advice, that person might as well spend their money on something I tried for myself, and invested, and could see the benefits afterward.

But there was a dark side to my recommendation, a less innocent side.

A sort of non-harmful but a bit malicious intention: I wanted to divert that person from wasting money on the “Self-proclaimed United Nations of Testers” certification.

So I added the following at the end of my recommendation: one gets a lot of “mileage” for each bit of money spent on those classes, like RST or BBST, in both the instruments the classes give you, as well as “certificates” you can add to Linkedin or the resume upon finishing the class.

Long story short: If you want a sticker to add to your resume, I might as well recommend you a valuable training that at the end gives you the sticker you want, or tests you for the chance of getting that sticker.

I never know the intentions behind people asking for advice on acquiring certifications, but I usually assume an underlying intention: one of the main priorities is indeed getting the shiny sticker to append and display to the resume. But I also agree that there are more intentions, for example:

All of these seem valid personal intentions that one might have when wanting to get a certification.

But, on a much more practical level, I believe the underlying value proposition of the certificate itself usually falls down to:

Notice I said: “the certificate itself”, not the means of getting the certificate.

An innocent question

After my reply to this colleague, another colleague, Mike Duskis, asked me what was my experience:

If certificates provided an actual value in some process, whatever that process might be.

I laid down a few observations of my own experience, with bits of analogy. In this post, I’ll go a bit in-detail into some of them.

1. The “good training, that might offer a certificate”

Taking something like the Rapid Software Testing training completely changed my life as a tester, woke me up as a professional, and gave me tools and ideas I actively use and supercharge my testing. I’m a better tester today than I was one year ago, and I noticed I learn and grow every day at a faster rate than before taking the training.

And sure enough, there was a “certificate” at the end. It was more of an “I participated in this training” kind of paper, than a paper saying “I’m a certified tester”.

To be honest, adding that sticker or not to the resume in my case, that I know of, hasn’t really made a difference in recruitment stages I’ve been on. Typically “word of mouth” or showing that I care about the craft, that I care about learning, and that I want to evolve, indeed got me good chances of getting jobs where I wanted to have a job and not the shiny sticker.

Notice that at this point I’m talking about training, that any tester can (and should) do. I’m not talking about some means of getting a paper or a shiny sticker saying “I’m certified”.

2. “Those who are prone to greatness but yet asleep”

I’ve met, worked with, or interviewed, awesome testers, who, by the way, haven’t yet fully woken up to the powers of the “dark side”, but who indeed think of taking or have taken the dreaded “self-proclaimed united-nations of testers” certifications.

And there’s a recurring pattern with these folks: whenever I ask these same people about having taken a certification, about its value, all of them reply the same: they recognize it didn’t really give them a lot of tools, or taught them anything new that experience and studying taught them, and that maybe taught them some new lingo or vocabulary or ideas, but at end, the certificate itself didn’t really serve much of a purpose if not to have it as a sticker on the resume, increasing chances to pass some stages of screening/recruitment in some companies.

Basically, the high-value proposition of these certificates that are intended to level and market people as “experts in a field”, like for example, the “self-proclaimed UN of testers” ones, was, on a practical level for my acquaintances, just a way of getting through the initial recruiter/HR screening processes.

That was the sole high-value proposition mentioned by a not-a-small number of close colleagues of mine throughout time. For everything else the certification could offer, it was always a residual value: all of them always said something in the lines: the knowledge conveyed by going through the certification process, wasn’t for the most part that useful in any testing efforts, and they could have acquired that particular information by reading certain books or reading about certain topics in some articles or online.

3. “I have the sticker, therefore I am…”

There are people who use the “certification” sticker as a karate black belt. I have no problems with that. I respect them. I’m not very combative, in the sense that I don’t go mindlessly after people who have taken certain certifications and tell them their efforts are plain crap. Why? Because I don’t know what is the person’s actual experience in the craft. Until I do, I give them the benefit of the doubt and treat them the same I would treat someone who is certificate-less. But…

I do have a problem if this “black belt” came in an expensive cereal box, or was done by purchasing a series of DVDs on how to become a karate black belt-person. If I got this belt via these means, I would certainly not pick a fight against a colleague of mine who was a karate champion in Spain, much less anyone on the street.

And I’ve realized there are also people in this spectrum who are deep asleep in the “lies of the Jedi”. They believe taking a 1-week class in something and then afterward doing an exam, not only makes them prone to pass screening stages of recruitment, but also magically converts them into experts in the field.

To make matters worse, there are people that when in power help setup screening processes in their companies to actively look for these stickers in resumes, missing out on people who maybe have conquered more expertise through their work experience than someone fresh-of the exam room for the “Look at me, I’m an expert” certification.

This shouldn’t happen. Screening processes should give the benefit of the doubt to everyone.

As my colleague Mike, who initially asked the innocent follow-up question, mentioned: “there’s a subtle distinction between having the certification and displaying it”.

4. “Shiny sticker on resume = instant job ?”

Another point is related to one thing Mike, the colleague from the test community mentioned:

“The one thing I did notice was an inverse relationship between “self-proclaimed UN of testers” certification and people I wanted to hire.”

Mike has decades of experience and was already in the industry before the Jedi lies started roaming the industry, and I find it interesting that on a personal level, and in my young experience, I’ve also noticed this pattern.

There are indeed outliers: I’ve met a few surprises. Something like: for every 25 candidates that display the certification, 1 fell in the category of the craftsman tester who was indeed a good candidate, despite displaying the certification. The reason for this, I also think, is the market is saturated with people who, again, may not understand the “subtle distinction between having the certification and displaying it”, and hence, blindly rush to get certified instead of gaining practical experience. Likewise, I’ve interviewed people who I did (or did not) want to hire that did not have the “I’m certified” sticker, but displayed evidence of being a good (or horrible) craftsman.

5. Displaying knowledge

I also understand and tend to agree, for example, with the idea of people who are not skeptical about certifications in general, but for example, embrace it:

Certifications help you formalize your knowledge, put borders around it, and remove gaps. And they demonstrate to most of your potential employers that you’re truly serious about software engineering.

If you take the word “Software Engineering” out and replace it with other areas, I find that this proposition still holds some truth.

There’s definitely a problem in the testing industry, particularly in recruitment of testers, where there’s still confusion and a fetish with the “self-proclaimed UN of testers” certificates and other “teachings (lies) of the Jedi”. The solution for this problem, I think, needs to come from each and any of us who love testing as a craft, with and without certificates, educating and promoting non-biased recruitment processes with regards to the “certification” topic.

Wrapping up

There. I’ve ranted a bit. I feel calmer. The story of Darth Plagueis, the context-driven craftsman tester I leave for another day. I should say, it’s not a story the Jedi would tell you.

For those who are still confused about what the “self-proclaimed UN of testers” is, don’t worry, look at some cheesy Testing/Quality job descriptions, you’ll find its name.

And yes, because I was born a Portuguese, I’m a certified towels salesman. Take care, thanks for reading.