Thursday, 7 October 2010

Thoughts about ISTQB Advanced level certification course and exam

I got a permission to enter the ISTQB Advanced level Certificate - Test Manager course and to apply for the certificate. It is a course provided by Finnish company called FC Sovelto that is used to replace the former Intermediate and Practitioner level certificate by ISEB. It's been a year since my former certificate exam of foundation level. Since then I have had plenty of opportunities to assess the pros and cons of certification.
The course provides coaching for the certification exam. The exam can be taken without the course and I'm sure plenty of people who take the exam do not go to courses especially if they're paying the whole thing themselves.

So, what can this certificate give me? What are the gains in professional level? How does my company benefit from me getting a cert? How does my future get brighter if I get the cert? What benefits can I achieve by going to the prep course? There are many questions and the answers for an exploratory extrovert tester like me aren't always the ones I'm liking to hear.

How does a company benefit from someone to certificate themselves as a test manager? My first thought is "No how" 'cause it's only a certificate - a piece of paper with a watermark on it and a fancy signature. How could a company benefit from sending an employee to a course that might be paid by the company (and it cost a whopping lot!) and it may cause the company to check the salary of the certificated person? They're all expenses to the company! On the other hand is it worthy to encourage people to pay for their own certification? That way there is no direct expenses to the company.

So how does the certification show in companies that have them? In reality (or at least in my reality) the certification of an employee is a great benefit in a company as a whole. The certificate in itself is a great achievement. In competition situation the company can have a trump card and say "we have a fully certificated test team and test management" by which they can sell better quality (this means they must reach the set bar). This is also important to the image of the company because there is someone in the ranks who know the standards and principles of the industry (though artificial they may be). Some client can even have the certification as a requirement for the deal to be closed. I.e. Microsoft certificates are mandatory on some projects for some clients, so why can't a testing cert be (somewhere in future).

The other angle is pure craft. How can the skills and knowledge of an individual affect on a corporate level? When company acquires more knowledge and skill it increases the "skill capital" or the "skill pool". The know-how not present in company must be attained from other sources like contractors, or the job the skill was required for was carried through with present know-how with might have resulted in low quality or undesirable resuts. Certificate training support the acquisition of the skills and the certificate is a document to prove that the requirement for those skills are met. (Some may argue that the certificate is nothing but a proof of capabilities to learn litany of test vocabulary. They can have their opinion if they can make a good argument about it.) Does it provide skill it the course only aims to pass the exam? How can you be sure that the course provides the skill not a lithany? These kind of thing are worth to take into consideration when deciding whether to attain the course or not.

Third point of view is both corporate and personal. Like every testing event the course is a great opportunity to make contacts. The word about your company gets spread around and the person attaining the course gets to meet other test spirited people from other companies and domains. This can lead into cooperation and contracting that can prove valuable for both companies. But most of all the testers can exchange thoughts and view about testing and test related stuff.

In conclusion on the corporate side, there are three things in certification (and the course) that can benefit a company: the image, the craft and the connections.

There are bad things in certification as in all good things. The image of the company may begin to transform into a rigid and standard-obeying corporation in some professional scenes and may hinder the acquisition of these kind of clients. More over the cert may lead into a rigid process model that trim out all exploratory spirit and drive people to an inflexible frame where there are no room for innovation or personal thought. These may not be accurate in any way but they are assumptions what may happen is a land slide is triggered. The testing processes can be agile and light (I’m not going to explain what is "agile" or "light") even though they are based in standardized processes.

On a personal level certification is harder assess in pros and cons. The con might be the box-thinking and veering towards a specific mind set. Certification might cause the tester to take pre-chewed (standardized) procedures and techniques as his own and forget all other. On the other hand not being certificated might mean you have to reinvent the wheel. My opinion is that the ISTQB certification should be considered as in "learning" the certification rather than "owning" the certification. Can one maintain freshness in ones thoughts while obeying the standards? Can one be separated from the limitations and restrictions brought by the certificate (are there any?) and all the while know the testing terms and standards on a certification level? Is the "main stream" a bad thing? Is the "counter stream" a good thing?

So what benefits does a certification give you? What disadvantage may it bring? The forthright benefit on personal level is the increase in personal skill in case you take part on the course and you do not already have the skills. If you know "everything" before the course and the exam the raise in skill is not relevant basis to acquire the cert. Disadvantages may also include the expenses the course and cert may cause especially if one does not pass the exam the first time.

How does the certification benefit ones career? How does it strengthen/weaken the position in company? The certification brings certain stability to one's position in company. It indicates that a person knows certain things and he has a document to prove it. If it is the industry standard (in one point of view) certification then its value is much increased. I won't describe any alternative certifications in testing industry 'cause I know so little about them, but what I’ve heard there are some certifications that are not ISTQB-related. Nevertheless the certification strengthens the position in company. The weakening of ones position is relevant only in cases where the certified person does not meet the standards of the certification in every day work. This means that the bar is higher than for the uncertified person. Certification also benefits the career in long term as a personal marketing tool. It may be the ticket to places where uncertified tester can not go (although who would want to go there? *wink*). in job interview the certification is a certain way to prove you have the skills and knowledge necessary. I won't go in detail into the pros and cons of certification in job interview but lets just say that its a double-edged-razor - certified may get labelled as box-thinking tester while uncertified are thought to be more fresh thinking. And just like in corporate side the contacts are the bread and butter of testing events. This benefits both the current situation and the future in form of scouting new job opportunities etc.

So, how do I get the most out of the certificate course and from the certificate itself (given that I pass the exam)? I strive to create as many a connection as possible in the event and to bring up the name of my company in every possible turn. I try to challenge the testers and to get as much testing info as possible. I also try challenge my own thought patterns against the ISTQB model and the other way round so that I don't lose the freshness and the awareness achieved from my work in exploratory testing. The more i question the things I hear the better I learn new thing. I get new points of view to things and I can also learn new thing to support my knowledge in testing in general. Maybe I think some of these ISTQB thing are good for keeps and I take them with me and use them where best suited.