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OK, Let's Talk About Certification

04.22.2010
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Like many agile software development evangelists I am somewhat skeptical toward people taking pride in their certificates. In my experience, a certificate proves little about a person’s capabilities, other than that she was at some point in the past in some measurable way aware of some information. That’s it. Even “skill-based” certifications, which supposedly test for a person’s skills instead of their knowledge, prove little more than the ability of a person to perform certain activities in a sandbox. They certainly don’t test the skill in successfully completing a real project.

It seems that certificates have very little effect on a person’s competence. A good friend of mine, who is expert in traffic management, believes that the Dutch driver’s license has been the least important contributor to the Dutch top position as one of the safest country in the world to drive around in your car. The main contributor to Dutch (relative) road safety, he said to me, has been one of culture, not certification. Dutch people care. About their car, their money, and other’s people’s lives. (And in that order, I think.)

In software development and project management we have a similar issue.

The Project Management Institute’s PMP (Project Management Professional) certification seems to have quite rigorous requirements--they require their PMPs to take ongoing education classes, have a certain amount of experience, and so on. And I’m sorry to say that, although I’ve known good PMPs, it’s also true that the worst project managers I’ve met were PMPs who should never have been put in charge of a project. They were also the ones most proud of their certification, and most unaware of their deficiencies. I don’t know what the PMP means, but it does not mean “basic minimum of competence.” – The Art of Agile Development, James Shore


This critique could apply to any certification, and I believe it could easily lead to the fallacy of Hasty Generalization. You see, despite there being many certified people with terrible performances, this doesn’t mean that certification is unable to sort an effect. It could very well be (as I believe is the case) that certification is part of a bigger and complex approach to address the issue of competency. True, certification in itself may have little effect. And certificates may falsely lead people to believe that they have a formal degree of competence. A certificate by itself is useless. It may only have a positive effect when combined with other measures. Certificates can lay a foundation of awareness for what’s out there, and what’s important. When combined with a personal coach, social pressure, proper tools, some supervising, and capable management, a certificate could pay for itself a hundred times.

The Dutch know that a driver’s license alone is not enough to minimize casualties in traffic. But when discipline, road marks, car horns, traffic police, and law making are in place, the effort of obtaining a certificate (or driver’s license) could be the catalyst that makes all the other measures work a lot better.

References
Published at DZone with permission of its author, Jurgen Appelo. (source)

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)

Comments

John Turner replied on Sat, 2010/04/24 - 4:10am

I must say that I find some of the opinions regarding certification very difficult to justify.

Some will say they are useless and provide no value in ascertaining a person’s competence while others state they are the absolute certification of someone's competence.

The reality is somewhere in the middle and I don't think this is a difficult conclusion to reach.

Clay Press replied on Sat, 2010/04/24 - 12:18pm

 

Certification does not Make a Programmer. 

How about Blogging?  What better proof of one's programming capabilities and prowess.

Frank Silbermann replied on Tue, 2010/04/27 - 1:13pm

It seems to me that if a person has little or no experience in project management, then certification in project management demonstrates interest in the specialization and the intiative to learn.  A candidate with certification would make a more suitable trainee than someone with little or no experience who is uncertified.  It's sort of like getting an MBA -- when you're recruiting management trainees a good MBA is something you should look for.  If you're trying to find someone with 20 years of middle/upper management experience, the MBA is of little relevance -- the track record is what counts.

 

Also, I see certifications as a way to help experienced people move on to new job roles and new toolsets, thereby avoiding technical obsolescence.  For example, someone has 20 years of experience in COBOL and good reviews, and who is certified in Java, might make a good hire for a large Java team at above the rate of an entry-level programmer.

Dustin Marx replied on Sun, 2010/05/02 - 4:50pm

When a person seeks certification to prove his or her value to other people, that person is in the unfortunate situation of having the certification being only of the perceived value to the people he or she is trying to impress.  In other words, "the value of certification is in the eye of the beholder."  If the potential client thinks certifications are great, then gaining that certification may be advantageous.  The developers who achieve a certification are most likely to be happy with it if the reason for getting the certification was personal (sense of accomplishment, learn something new, etc.) rather than to impress someone else.

http://marxsoftware.blogspot.com/2009/01/technical-certifications-good-bad-and.html

 

Sindy Loreal replied on Sat, 2012/02/25 - 8:51am

The CSM certification is to “Scrum Mastery” what a Written Drivers License test is to “guiding a convoy of cars and trucks from the centre of Paris to Alpe d'Huez in rain wind, and and snowstorms”.

The CSM course is a starting point. It seems the word “master” creates the most friction. It’s rare to see similar arguments over “Certified Product Owner”. Names that better reflect the CSM course would be: Scrum 101, Scrummaster Basics, Certified Scrum Grashopper.

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