The case for certification

I had to read the Agile Alliance’s position on certification a few times before I could decide whether I liked their position or not. Part of this is that the opinion is not that well written. Getting past that, I came away with these core statements:

  1. Employers should not require certification.
  2. Non-skill-based certification testing procedures have little value.
  3. The Alliance is deeply concerned that uncertified, skilled workers will get locked out.

After considerable rumination I’m still feeling like the Alliance’s stated opinion here is fuzzy at best, misguided at worst.

I tend to agree that employers should not require certification for all things, but I disagree with the blanket statement that employers should never require certification. Wouldn’t you like to know that your management team is involved in current program management developments in the industry? Wouldn’t it be good to know that your Software Configuration Management lead didn’t pick up his knowledge entirely by the seat of his pants? Certification, just like earning a degree, demonstrates that a student has studied and understood specific subject matter. Particularly for team leaders this is valuable across the organization.

As for the value of different kinds of certification programs, I think this is a problem that will market correct. The market will tend to favor better certification programs. Certainly, I agree that skill-based certifications heavy on essay testing, problem solving and hands-on examination is the best way to go. But it’s neither here nor there. Education and certification is a good thing to support; if there are a few poor programs out there, they’ll eventually get weeded out.

On the Alliance’s next point, that skilled but uncertified workers might be “locked out,” I can’t help but feel the concern is misplaced. First of all, there are a number of industries where certification is required and sponsored by the employer as part of on-the-job training. But more to the point, I’m not at all concerned that the overly chaotic technology industry is on the verge of adopting uniform, required certification prerequisites. I can’t shake the feeling that the technology industry would benefit from looking harder at certification programs, much like the medical, scientific and even accounting industries do. Would you want an Uncertified Public Accountant working on your tax return, or a Certified one?

I’d love to see the Alliance restate their opinion, possibly stressing some of the benefits we could, as an industry and at the individual level, realize from good certification programs:

  1. Keeping knowledge current. I don’t care how good a programmer you are. There is simply no way to stay on top of the best practices body of knowledge without looking to external sources. Picking up as much of that knowledge as possible through excellent training curriculum makes sense. The individual improves their skills; the organization motivates and energizes their employees and realizes benefits from best practices.
  2. New discoveries in the field. There are new breakthroughs almost every day. The training and certification programs available today provide a venue for tapping into that knowledge, and in many cases the alumni associations create communities to share and develop ideas.
  3. Demonstrating skill in established standards. Good certification testifies to two things, in my mind: First, that the individual is capable and competent enough in a field to pass an examination. That’s actually pretty darned valuable in the loosely defined technology field. Second, it tells me the individual cares about their continuing education and trying to be the best they can be in an area. Certification is optional. I’ve found that the people that get certified tend to be people that are more passionate, more enthusiastic, and want to be better at what they do.
  4. Establishing a few standards. There are a lot of evolving standards in technology. Some are well established and many are brand-spanking-new. With this amount of technological turnover it’s hard to know what someone means when they say “I know Agile.” Having a common point of reference is not always a bad thing.
  5. Assuring baseline knowledge in senior team. Without some common ground, how can we all talk about the same domain? By having at least the senior team go through with certification it helps bring all of the benefits of continuing education to the team using a common vernacular.

I’ve managed a lot of project teams over the past few decades. Almost every team that I’ve been asked to take direction of has had a wide range of skills, some barely adequate and some exceptional. Most of us have had similar experiences: Quality assurance groups where none of the staff have been formally trained in structured software testing, configuration management or even what quality assurance programs are all about, for instance.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say we need certification. We need to know that the program manager knows how to manage across projects; that the quality assurance manager understands product life cycles; that the configuration team has a solid grounding in configuration identification and audits. It’s a natural evolution of this industry—an industry that is still very young, and showing it’s growing pains every time we look at it.

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