Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Are you part of the faceless masses?

I was on my way home the other day when I happened to talk to a woman who works in HR in some consultancy company. We were talking about how to get oneself hired to a company and how to be one step ahead of the other applicants. With recent discussions with James Bach in my pocket I became challenging her claims about employing oneself and best practices thereof.

What she suggested was that by certifying one can have an advantage in the job market. If one is not certified there is no knowing what the person can or can’t do, right? Certification is the first gateway to rule out incompetent testers, right? I had some thoughts about this prior to talking to James but some of the arguments that I had been using were lacking momentum. James gave me some golden thoughts in how to be one step ahead of the cattle of unskilled certified testers (I believe that if skilled they will see that the certification will not get them employed).

Certified terminology

Certification by name certifies a certain characteristic of a person, object or organization. It is not comprehensive but directed to a specific area. It can be achieved by passing an audit, an examination, a course of some kind, to name a few. Certification is not to certify the skill of doing something but the knowledge of some fashion. It can be of terminology, syntax, operating system details, etc. None of these, however, point toward the skill of doing something.

The certification where you get certified by defining a set of terms is quite usual. You get the information from books and then you take the test, usually multiple-choice examination to ease the assessment process. You can basically get a certification by guessing the right row of answers, having a list of those answers achieved by cheating, or by memorizing a set of terms. Because the test doesn’t aim to assess the understanding of those terms the value of it is quite minimal.

As terminology changes from company to company, from context to context, we do not need to memorize a set of terms and apply them by force. We need to understand the meaning behind the terms we use and to explain them. Then, if conflicting with the other terms within that context, the use of terms must be adjusted. If you say “testing” and mean “systematic evaluation of the quality of the system using various techniques applicable to the context”, and the organization uses “uggabugga” for that same meaning and “testing” for coffee tasting, it might be good to adjust the use of terminology for that context. If you just keep using the term taught to you by some book somewhere, you will drive yourself unto a cul-de-sac of misunderstanding.

Proving skills and standing out

The testing certification provided by ISTQB is a good example on how certify a tester without any skills to actually test. It is a book examination, essentially. More so, there is a course aiming to pass the test. I’m not going to talk about the syllabus at all, but about the skills taught at the course, or the lack thereof. The certification doesn’t aim in proving skills of the tester. A tester with no experience in testing can go to the certification examination and pass before doing any testing at all.

A recruiter going through applications for a job look for something that might look for certifications as a proof of skill. When confronted by a certification that by nature does not measure skills but the knowledge of terminology (which obviously is the wrong way to go) the recruiter might confuse the person having skills. This is not to say that the applicant doesn’t have skills, they might very well have a huge set of skills, but they are not the characteristics that get you to the interview.

“If you don’t get to the interview then you cannot show your skills. That is why I use the certification to get to interviews!” I hear you. Read more.

Rising over the masses

The recruiters have a hard decision in determining who to call to interviews and who not. They look for something that stands out! You might think that a certification gets you the interview. Stop there for a moment. How many other applicants you think do the same thing? How many of the 500 applicants to a Test Engineer job have the exact thought of having a certification as a ticket to interview? 50? 100? 450? This obviously depends, but think this: The certification makes you part of a mass of people. By using a generic way to stand out, you’re “massifying” yourself – you become part of a gray mass that doesn’t stand out in any way.

Like I asked in the beginning, “Certification is the first gateway to rule out incompetent testers, right?” it actually is so. But it not a gateway only to rule out incompetent testers, it is there to rule out incompetent recruiters. A person without proper testing knowledge, skills and passion does not know how to recruit a good tester. He may know a little and thus relies on the magic of certification, at least a little. Even the most unqualified recruiter is looking for SOMETHING to make the call who to call to the interview. By having 90% of the applications look the same, they have a hard time deciding. The gateway works so that it rules out the certified testers and leaves those that have the spark, the passion and the skill. Do you want to be the one getting the interview or be ruled out because “you don’t have the spark”?

First thing recruiters see is the application. We are force-fed the template from recruitment agencies and we use that. We are afraid to be different and difference is what you should be aiming for! Instead of creating a dull list of what you can do and schools you’ve been to, do something else! Write a bug report where you describe your behavior and characteristics. Do an interview of yourself and post it like a newspaper column. Send them a video of you testing a product while explaining what you’re doing. I could go on and on! Be outrageous, but professional. The point is to make a statement. Send a filled template and you’re doomed.


When I had explained myself to the HR person on my way home, she said: “Well you’re obviously a guru, so you don’t need a certification.” That is not correct, although I briefly basked in admiration. I’m not a guru any more than the next guy. I have passion and I’m not afraid to show it! I have goals and I’m not afraid to tell them! I have a hard built reputation as a tester and I'm not afraid to promote it! (Maaret might say “He’s cute when he rambles.”)

Every single tester can be a professional, and they should. Every single tester can apply to a place where they want to work and get employed, and they should. Be ambitious, be excited, be passionate. And show it. Don’t fall into marketing trap and be part of the mass – be you!

And get refining that CV right now!


Erik Brickarp said...

I like your post. I think you touch upon a very interesting core problem: recruiters get tons of applications and want a quick, generic, "pass or fail" kind of test to filter out the "junk". I guess some in the context driven community would say "just reverse the process and remove anyone highlighting a certificate", which might be valid for some recruiting contexts but far from all. For instance, just because you have a certificate and brag about it doesn't mean you with the right guidance couldn't evolve into a professional skilled tester... This is going in a never ending direction, I'll try to write a comment-style blog post a day when I have time (not during my coffee break). But I still think the question is really interesting.

What I really wanted to say (at last .) is I once talked smoke diving with a guy I did military service with. Their certification process, if I remember/understood it correctly, was something like:

- Theory exam

- An as close to reality as possible scenario where professionals judged your performance. I don't know how controlled this judgement was by regulation and standards but at least they had to be professionals (no idea about the criteria for that) themselves.

- The certification process was repeated with a constant interval (think it was once a year). As I understood it, the theory exam was quite a lot more extensive the first year and after that it was a much shorter version based more on changes since last year, but the demands on the practical part was the same.

- The examination board was "owned" by the firefighters in some way so factors like passing people just to get money/reputation was probably not much of an issue, the guy/girl you passed could well be your partner one day...

First I don't know if this was his fantasy or reality and even if it was true I've probably changed it over the years but all that is irrelevant for my point... I think that kind of certification would at least prove SOMETHING rather than NOTHING and might be, to some extent, useful.

... but in the end you also got to question (as I interpreted you did): Shouldn't there be some skill involved in the initial filtering of applications as well? (factory recruiters vs context driven recruiters? .) Do they really need a generic pass or fail kind of tool? Also, maybe you as a company have written a too general ad if you get 500 applications? Maybe you need to sit down and rephrase what you're really looking for?

Thanks for a great post, it obviously put a lot of interesting thoughts in my head.

Sami Söderblom said...

I fell in love with this post, Peksi! <3 It provoked a ton of thoughts in my head and here's few of them...

It's a noble cause to fight against this brainlessness in recruitment. However it's quite an overwhelming task. In all professions, including testing and HR, there are people who are really good at it and there are those who aren't. There's only so much Jamie Olivers and an overabundance of McDonald's chefs. And the latter are often those who interview us. Testing is nothing but a hobby to them.

That being said, I prefer stealth mechanics; I have my McCertificate of Testing (ISTQB Foundation) which gets me past this first barrier, and eventually to meet someone with whom I can speak professionally. Actually I shouldn't speak about stealth mechanics; It's more like trojan horse mechanics... ;)

Going to ISTQB exam is just a matter of swallowing pride. The exam itself can be passed even by those who have no idea how to test; A fact well known by professional HR people. I consider it to be just some dirty work every job has. Perhaps even some of the good recruiters measure our ability to withstand this dirty work, to be humble. It can also be a trap; I've indeed been labeled a part of this faceless mass just because I have the ISTQB Foundation certificate.

Honestly, I don't know. These are just thoughts, swimming in my head.