Monday, 2 August 2010

The Certification Filter

I had a few moments to myself the other day and decided to have a bit of fun and do some research about what agencies required when you apply for testing roles. I was surprised (or not) by the number of roles that stated “will be ISEB certificated”

How can they get it so wrong? The ISEB is now defunct it should be ISTQB (sic) so all those who hold an ISTQB qualification need not apply………

Anyway back to the point I am trying to make.

I did some quick research and found that within the last seven days of the 122 testing roles listed I would be excluded from 28 of them since they stated …will be ISEB certified. If you add in the ones that add ‘would prefer candidates with ISEB certification. You get to over half of the roles advertised that I could not apply for.

@Mheusser made the following tweet @steveo1967 - certification might just get you the job you don't want to have.

That maybe be true but I got thinking and maybe it is not the company using the agency that are mandating this but the agency adding its own filter. The company could be missing out on some great testers because of the agency filtering system.

The following are some imaginary conversations with an agency (Sadly I am sure some people may have already experienced this…)


Me: Hi I am interested in being put forward for the role of chief tester as per the advert you posted this morning on your website.

Agency: Sure, have you already sent us your CV, Resume?

Me: Yes

Agency: OK, what is your name, let us see if we can find your CV

Me: My name is Timmy Tester

Agency: Wow cool name sure matches your profession

Me: Yes (Sigh) I get that all the time..

Agency: OK Got your details – just looking at them now, wow 20 years in software testing, that is impressive, I see you have worked at some very well known companies. Oh wait a minute…. You do not list that you hold the ISEB qualification.

Me: No I do not.

Agency: I am sorry Timmy I cannot put forward your application – we only accept people who are ISEB qualified.

Me: Why? I have more than 20 years in software testing.

Agency: Yes I can see that, however the ISEB qualification means that you know how to test and is mandatory for any roles you apply for with us. Sorry but I cannot put you forward for this. I suggest you go and sit the exam and get back to us. Goodbye.


Me: Hi I am interested in being put forward for the role of chief tester as per the advert you posted this morning on your website.

Agency: Sure, have you already sent us your CV, Resume?

Me: Yes

Agency: OK, what is your name, let us see if we can find your CV

Me: My name is Ivor Certificate

Agency: OK Got your details – just looking at them now, you have been in testing for 8 years now, I see you also hold the ISEB qualification. That means you must know a lot about testing.

Me: No I do not.

Agency: Sorry, you said you do not?

Me: Yes I did say, no I do not know anything about testing

Agency: Then how come you have a ISEB Certification?

Me: Because I noticed that if I had this I could apply for any testing job.

Agency: So you must know something about testing?

Me: Well it is an interesting story. I paid to do the multi choice exam, sat down and completed it in 10 minutes by just randomly answering the questions. No one checks if I have any competence at testing, by luck I managed to get the pass mark required to get the certificate. Hence I am now classed as someone who must know about testing and how to test.

Agency: But it says on your CV that you have been testing for the last 8 years.

Me: Yes I have but I just go in and let others, who are not certified do all the work while I just copy what they have done and claim credit for it. So are you going to put me forward for the role?

Agency: Yes I will you meet the selection criteria, so I cannot see any problems in putting you forward.

Me: Thank You.


This may seem like a silly situation but I am sure it could happen in reality. I am not against qualification and people trying to improve themselves but when those qualifications are then used as a filter to exclude people from applying from jobs, it makes me see red.

There are some good examples of proving your ability as a good tester. You can talk to previous companies that you have worked for. They could interview you and talk to you about testing and your thoughts, problem solving ability. However this would take too much time.

I have not as yet found any roles that have stipulated that they require that you attended a Rapid Software Testing Course or The Black Box Software Testing course through the Association for Software Testing. Why is this so? Is it that these types of courses do not have the huge budget to promote themselves? Or that they try to be non profit making?

What is the solution to all of this?

I think within the testing community we need to start educating agencies and companies about how to sort out good from bad testers, how we go about this I am not sure.

Should we have a dedicated website that we can direct agencies to, to explain about certification? I feel this could be a good start and would need someone with far better web skills than myself to get running and also it would need to be unbiased as possible.

Then mail shot the CEOs at each agency when we hit this problem directing them to the website.

Do we try to do presentations at employment agency conferences?

I feel there is a need to educate agencies and companies that are looking to employ testers and give advice on how to spot the good from bad candidates but they need to get rid of the certification filter.

Another thought I had would it be a good idea to have a vetting service for testers and agencies? There could be a one stop service for agencies to verify testers, their abilities and obtain a list of people who would vouch for them.

I tried to think at the weekend if this could work or not. I have a lot of concerns about it being misused and ‘gamed’ by people who have a moral compass that is slightly off balance. How would it be funded? Would it become a monster of its own making? How would testers be vetted and vouched for? Would testers be vetted and vouched based upon their online presence? For example I am sure I could ask a few people online to vouch that I am a good tester however none of these people have worked with me and seen me carry out testing. I could be just saying the right thing at the right time to impress people – how would anyone know unless they have worked with me?

This really brings us back to the beginning of the article, agencies and companies need someway to vet testers and get some guarantee that they know about testing (regardless of which school of thought they follow). So using the certification method is an ideal way to sort out candidates quickly no matter how flawed the certification may be. Do I just bite the bullet and sit the exam if I do not want to be excluded for any testing job? Does anyone have any other methods that agencies or companies can use when they are looking for skilled testers?


  1. If I needed a plumber and looked in the yellow pages (or whatever the local equivalent is) I'd probably find a large choice.

    One filter option I have is to ask my neighbour about a plumber they had in recently. What was their work like, price, how quickly did they come and would they recommend them or not?

    That is a fairly ok filter - the neighbour probably doesn't want to mislead me - unless there's some conflict, in which case why would I ask them and not use other sources also?

    So, how to apply this to the software testing world? Personal recommendation probably has a part to play - but what about all the good testers I don't know personally? Then we're into some sort of tester network scenario. Food for thought...

    I can imagine that if I told an agency I'd attended a Rapid Software Testing course they'd probably think - "oh, so you test quickly". Doh! Or maybe I'd just offer to show them my testing balls - if that didn't get attention I don't know what would...

  2. I spoke to Rosie (of STC fame) about the networking aspect a couple of months ago but it's something that's really hard to implement (and not game).
    I think the "ask your neighbour" applies as well. If you or Simon (or many other people I can think of) were looking for a job at my company you'd be on the shortlist straight away even though I haven't met you, yet. The CV is almost irrelevant.
    What that means in other words is that the CV is part of a particular process, going to an agency or company to let them know what you did. With all the blogs, tweets, etc out there I might not need to take the information out of the CV, it's there in a different form.
    More food for thought..

  3. I really dislike the way recruiters use simple filters as a substitute for understanding the field they're working in. Certification is a glaring example but there are others. Bad recruiters, and there are too many, can't tell which specific experiences are largely interchangeable, and which are entirely separate, of no relevance to each other. Sometimes the recruiters are working to a simple ticklist.

    I don't buy into the argument that the qualifications per se are evil. However, I do agree that misusing them as a precondition for hiring is tipping over into a moral issue. I'm afraid that's not much of an argument in practice. The killer argument is that it's daft and counter-productive.

    Applying the certification filter brainlessly gives you worse testers, not because they're worse for having the qualification. It would be the same if you excluded all left handed testers. You're narrowing the pool of talent from which you can hire in a way that's just dumb.

    James Christie

  4. John,

    I've held the CSTE twice (first time was by petition and when it meant something to go through the process, second was the exam and it was a waste) and don't think I'll do another 'certification'.

    I'm also an ex-Scuba Instructor, and we have a saying: "Certified doesn't mean Qualified". Fits for this this situation.


  5. I have taken the CSTE and passed the first time. The one section that I scored the least was test planning which is the one area that I use almost every day and hence I could not define in their their terms but used my own experience and knowledge. I guess it goes to really show what these certifications are testing. I understand the need to have common language in an organization and these tests bring your team to the same culture and language but I dont think that should be the criteria.

  6. Hi John,

    I agree with James that certifications per se is not necessarily evil, but I must say I haven't heard much good about the ISEB/ISTQB ones.
    On the other hand I have recently attended both an RST course with James Bach and the BBST Foundation course with AST and I found them both very good. I even got a set of balls like Simon :-)

    Your imaginary conversations reminded me of an incident I mentioned in my blog earlier this year.
    Some recruiters/managers obviously use the certifications as a filter and that can only be bad when you look at the whole picture.

    Thanks for a good post.

  7. I use to put 'I am not ISEB certified' so that I would at least come up in searches :)

    OK, I'm bias, how about making 'STC' becoming a defacto for recruitment searches :D

    And seriously, do we want to be spending our time to educate recruiters how to do their job so they can just make more (undeserved) money? With the way the world is moving, I see recruitment agencies dwindling. Perhaps wishful thinking, but I do believe the best testers can be found pretty easily online.

    No easy answer, perhaps a good start would be with our ebook on Building a Test Team :) -

  8. A nice and well articulated problems that are faced during recruitment on day to day basis. I am really not sure why experienced recruiters also behave in the same manner. It might also be because they are not technical and they don't understand testing as an engineering function. What we can do is only educate. Educate as many people as possible on the software testing needs and skillsets that are being sought out.
    I really liked the ebook that Rosie mentioned in the above comment.


  9. Wow - this is a really hot topic with a lot of people. I wish to thank everyone who has taken the time and effort to comment and give their view on this subject.

    I love Rosies thoughts that as the online community grows the need for agencies will reduce.

    Love or loathe agencies they are still going to be around for awhile and they are the gate keepers between companies and candidates. So if we could get them onside with regards to how they filter - surely that would not be such a waste of effort or time?

    It is interesting that the testing community as a whole is not against certification (plusonetesting, shipla, clarotesting comments) and I must say I am not against anyone learning about testing using what method is most suited for that person. I am against certification being used as indiscriminate filter when applying for jobs. Especially when they are only using one type of certification. It ignores exciting stuff like rapid software testing, presenting at conferences, bug advocacy which IMO are all valid certifications.

  10. John - I didn't say that I wasn't against certification. I think that it's a concept that makes no sense in testing, because it implies that the qualification represents some objective statement that holders are good testers, and by extension those without the qualification have still to prove themselves.

    Testing isn't like being an electrician. There are safe and unsafe ways to wire up a house, and it makes sense to have some sort of certification, which shows that an electrician knows how to do the job without killing people. Testing just isn't that black and white, right and wrong.

    It's the qualification I don't have a problem with, and I was careful to say that, and not that I didn't have a problem with certification. Actually, my comment applies only to the more advanced levels. The foundation qualification for ISEB/ISTQB is pointless. The more advanced ones are better, but they still represent only a limited area of the whole field of testing.

    That's fine by me so long as everyone knows that holders have just been given a basic academic grounding in one particular style of testing. The qualifications become dangerous only when they're oversold as covering everything worth knowing and when recruiters apply them blindly.

    James Christie

  11. Oops Sorry for misquoting you there James.

    I think we are on the same page.

    I think there is value in testing peoples competence and having some sort of way to do this. IMO the Black Box Software Testing: Foundations course appears to be the nearest thing that testers may have to establish a grounding in testing. However I think the problem comes in that people then think the learning stops there.

    I have a valid certificate to allow me to drive a car. I learnt the basics, sat a written (multiple choice exam), did a competence exam (driving test). However once I got certified I then began to learn to drive. When I go to a different country and drive I need to learn about local customs and driving styles. When I get a new car I learn the difference in handling and how it works and when it might be going wrong (before it goes wrong!).

    Since I got certified to be able to drive. I have learnt to: drive in snow, hail, foggy roads, at night time. None of these things I did when learning to drive. So maybe we do need to point out that getting certified or otherwise is only the start of learning and that the best testers are those who do admit they do not know everything but are still learning and willing to learn more.

    Does that sound better James?

  12. Sure John, I don't really have a problem with any of that, though personally I would prefer to talk about "getting the qualification" rather than "getting certified". "Certified" is rather a loaded word!