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Nov 05 2010

Certification is a Good Thing

I read with pleasure “The Value of Certification” from Pawel Brodzinski, that emanated from a discussion about evaluating employees.

Pawel points out some obvious pros to certification, and one big con:

  • It’s objective measurement
  • It’s butt-simple (Pawel didn’t actually say this, that’s, ummm, me talkin’)
  • It’s, and I quote, “pretty much useless”

Then it dawned on me. College degrees are certificates, as are high school diplomas. So are participation trophies for the poor schlubs who didn’t win anything at tweeny league and are (defenselessly) surrounded by adults who mistakenly (IMHO) think such a trophy is meaningful to the kids (kind of like dogfood made to appeal to the purchaser). But that’s a digression…

In our software world, it is the Scrum Certification that bears the brunt of criticism — even though Pawel does not mention this particular style of paper valor. For those who pass an exam after two-days of grueling lectures, practical hands-on training (a.k.a., apprenticing) at the feet of master craftsmen, and in-depth co-op work experience at multiple cutting-edge development shops doing different projects… Oh, wait, that’s not quite fair as that really isn’t what’s going down in just two days. Crap. Scratch that tact.

Anyway, let’s just say many folks seem to be intent on hiring other folks based on Scrum certification (caveat emptor: I do not have said certification, so I am not speaking from direct experience — I’m too cheap to pay for it). I base this on my extensive analysis of randomingly seeing two hiring ads for Scrum Masters that were virtually identical in content — and buffoonery, I might add. For me, it was a big, bad smell for the organization. But, in large bureaucratic organizations (government or MyLargeCo), abdicating responsibility is honed to a fine art. Ergo, the HR departments did what they think was valid trawling for Scrumsters by evidently plagiarizing some sort of HR-i-pedia definition of the perfect Scrumster parameters. Good luck with that. These actions are a boon to your not-as-lazy-or-naive competition (oh, unless you are the Government, which has no competition, only an ever increasing appetite — I’ll not digress here, either).

So, maybe the Scrum Certificate is a bit like a Participation Trophy.

Yea, you were there. You participated. You didn’t actually compete/win or do anything meaningful in the real world to earn it, but there you have it. You should feel better about it. And it does mean that you at least did something (unlike me). Go forth and procreate little Scrumlins. (BTW: I’ve got nothing against Scrum, I think it is a great and simple approach to PM! It’s just hard to pass up the opportunity to poke fun at our own agile software world and make up little monikers as I go.)

So I can look at “certification” in at least two ways:

  1. Basing hiring or performance appraisal on a CSM certificate is pretty awesome for the individual on the receiving end. I bet they didn’t have to go into debt to get one (compared to a college degree)! (Although all of me wants to be judged on my real merits, not on some piece of paper — alas the chicken and the egg comes to mind for newbies.)
  2. If companies find a valuable correlation between a certificate (CSM or otherwise) and knowledge work, I would be surprised. In my experience, the last thing that I would qualify as a trait of software projects, is that they are “cookie-cutter” — that is, where one-size anything fits all (be it ideal Scrum process, database, language, etc.). However, sans external stupidity (like a bailout), companies will “learn” how to treat any software certificate — much as they have with college diplomas and belly buttons (i.e., everyone has one). The market will sort things out, eventually — in that I have faith.

So there you have it. Pawel says “Certification is Pretty Much Useless” — and I disagree. That very aspect of certification will serve a purpose to differentiate those that place undue trust in the paper from those that stick to good hiring practices and good employee relations. I predict the latter prevail.

ps: Pawel, I agree with you in spirit.

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  1. Pawel Brodzinski

    I see one more context which can show some value of certification. If you don’t incentivize employees to get certificates and some of them do care enough to prepare for the exam/go to course it tells you something about them, their attitude, their willingness to learn.

    Of course it doesn’t tell you that they are automatically better or more knowledgeable than those who don’t get certificates.

    Unfortunately when I recruit I don’t know whether a candidate got certified because he was incentivized by former employer or he wanted his resume to look better or he did it as a part of his learning effort so I assume the worst case and just ignore the certificate.

  2. Dafydd Rees

    CSM isn’t *like* a participation trophy – that’s *exactly* what it is. They’re trying to change that by adding an exam but the trouble is that it still hasn’t got credibility because of all those CSMs out there that got the cert without the exam.

  3. jon

    I just remembered, I set up a Certification process for “Coad-Certified Mentors” back in 2000 — I should resurrect what I did and blog about that process. (It was more like a mini-apprencticeship.)

  4. Mark Larzelere

    I’ve never been a believer in certificates. In my younger days, I could study for a test, get a great grade, and then promptly forget about a lot of it (now I’m just forgetful). I would rather hire someone who had experience in and success with the technologies I cared about than someone with a certificate in the same technologies. That said, I do believe certification is good for individuals who use the experience of preparing for certification as a means of self-discipline. Sometimes you just need a goal to force yourself to learn something new. As for the CSM, I agree that it is more of a participation acknowledgement than a serious certification. Again, I’d prefer someone who practiced Scrum for a few years.

  1. Tweets that mention Certification is a Good Thing « Technical Debt -- Topsy.com

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by George Dinwiddie and Jon Kern, Jon Kern. Jon Kern said: The Value of Certification http://bit.ly/cvPKpg and my response http://technicaldebt.com/?p=645 (Thans for sharing @gdinwiddie) [...]

  2. My thoughts on certification exams - John V. Petersen's Blog - Los Techies : Blogs about software and anything tech!

    [...] Brodzinski weighed in on this topic here. Joe Kern added his input here. And here, I add my 2 cents on the topic.The way I see it, certifications are a means to an end. [...]

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