Training and certification – let’s clear it up a bit

25 June

In a recent blog from the very active NZ Testing Community, I read about training and certification being treated as the same thing. This made me realise that there are some very general confusions in our industry around this. I am hoping to clear some of them up. To me, there is a huge difference between training (the imparting of knowledge) and certification (the assessment of knowledge). I cannot agree more with the current topics being discussed in the testing world. I do not think that the certification at the foundation level truly reflects knowledge of testing, but then I do not think it was ever designed to!

Lumping training providers and certification bodies into the same category shows a lack of understanding of the process and a lack of knowledge of the subject. I hope that I can help by explaining how it all works, based on my experiences as a member of the certification body, a customer of training providers and now as a training provider. I have been very lucky to have seen both sides of this situation and would like very much to share this knowledge with you.
What is the difference between training and certification?

Training and certification are terms that both revolve around a common reference point – this reference point is called “Knowledge”. The role of training is to impart or share knowledge and the role of certification is to test knowledge. First of all, we must all realise that they are very different roles with very different approaches and goals. Training is a divergent activity – it open up vistas and unexplored horizons to people, but certification is a convergent activity – a method of fencing in knowledge to a few questions and a pass (or fail) mark, narrowing the knowledge to a set of learning objectives and questions to be answered.

 

What is certification used for?

In testing specifically, and in ISTQB, the role of certification is to give a common and global baseline of knowledge acquired. It is possible to gain ISTQB certification at any level (Foundation, Advanced and Expert) with no training, as attending training is not a prerequisite for any of the exams. All that is required for the Foundation and Advanced Certification is to sit and pass an exam. This exam is a multiple-choice exam that tries very hard to assess knowledge. The assessment of knowledge is done by asking questions on different knowledge levels (K Level) designed to assess the candidate’s depth of knowledge on a topic. K1 is a simple definition or recall of a term; K2 requires the candidate can understand a concept or pick a concept that has been paraphrased; K3 is the application of a skill to provide an answer and K4 is the selection of a skill or technique to apply to supply the answer based on analysis of the question. Obviously the higher the K Level the more difficult the question and the more knowledge that is meant to be proven.

However, time and again in the industry, it has been seen that candidates who hold Foundation certification do not know how to apply even the basic testing skills, nor do they understand the basic testing terms. Why is this? Because there is no training required to sit these exams. Anyone can download and access the syllabi and book and sit the exams at any time. The premise behind this is probably that there are a lot of very skilled testers out there who need not pay the time or money to go through training. However, what is being found is that there is an awful lot of under-skilled (or unskilled) testers who are certified.

Certification is being used by testers to get new jobs and by hiring managers to shortlist testing candidates. Prior to a basic certification, the knowledge of what makes a good tester, what a tester does and who is a good hire was very difficult to come by. By setting up certification schemes organisations were able to attempt to baseline skills and knowledge.

At the very best, Foundation Certification proves that the candidate has heard of testing, may have read the syllabus and has taken the time to get certified. It proves nothing about skill or exposure to knowledge about the industry.
Training, on the other hand, is all about imparting knowledge (ideally the knowledge that the candidate needs). But there lies a conundrum. If the candidate wants nothing more than knowledge enough to pass the exam, should that training be available?

 

Why training is expensive?

Knowledge has long been acknowledged as a commodity and in our merit-based societies, the acquisition of knowledge can be seen as a huge bonus. As such, training providers are often seen as the “baddies” because we charge for knowledge. As a training provider, I have to tell you that a huge investment goes into building and delivering knowledge. It cannot be done lightly if the quality is required. The better the quality of the training, the better the knowledge is shared. The better the quality of knowledge needed, the better the training needs to be.

If the role of training is to impart knowledge and the role of certification is to test knowledge it is very important that there is a wide distinction between training and assessing, otherwise, the assessment itself can be suspect. In the world of testing, we have an example of this with ISTQB. ISTQB consists of a central body with local bodies providing an examination/assessment framework for the generation and administration of their exams. Associated with these bodies are training providers who are separate entities designed to impart the knowledge that is to be assessed. These are usually commercial organisations who have paid money to be counted as an “accredited” training provider. This means that the accredited courses that the training provider delivers have been assessed as suitable in style and coverage to meet the needs of the certifying body.

Self-training such as reading the syllabus can be undirected, unstructured and unproductive. Informal training such as study groups, online forums and networking events can be driven by strong personalities or misguided understandings. They often lack cohesiveness and structure. They also make little allowance for new people to the group. How often do we see newbies attempting to ask basic questions online and getting slammed for it? Formal training will follow a structure, a known path and is specifically designed to meet the candidate’s needs. But formal training can be more expensive too.

When it comes to training, the candidates must ask themselves “what do I want from the training” and then find a training course that delivers that goal. If the goal is certification, then expecting anything more is not really viable. If the goal is knowledge and skill acquisition then a course that prepares you for certification is not a good fit either.

 

But the question arises time and again, how do we prove that someone has acquired knowledge?

Training providers have a commodity to supply to candidates… they supply knowledge. Not all candidates want to acquire that knowledge prior to attempting certification. Not all the knowledge is structured to grow the candidates either.
Some training providers will have courses that are specifically focused on passing the exam. All the course covers are what is needed to gain a pass mark in the exam, no context to that, no background to the learning and little or no application of the skills. This is an exercise in teaching keywords and phrases and key tricks to passing the questions to be presented in the exam. Little, if any testing knowledge is imparted in these courses. I for one dislike delivering these courses as they are not about testing, they are about passing an exam. Training should be more than that… training should be about thinking and adapting, learning skills to be used time and again – multi-dimension training, not single-dimension training focused on passing the exam. But here is the problem. To train testers requires going beyond the syllabi, beyond the collection of works by industry bodies. This also requires skill to find, compile and pass on.

Training of software testers should as a minimum require the use of the software. I cannot understand how you can assess a software tester’s skill without having them test some software. I also don’t believe that people just organically know how to do things – training needs to be structured to grow knowledge, not just to present information as a finished state. Good training should provide not only the skills needed for the direct application of the skills but the skills needed for the continued growth of the skills. One of my key learnings from University was not the knowledge I acquired in the subjects I studied, but the knowledge of how to acquire knowledge, how to learn, and how to expand my horizons with my learning.

All of the information in our courses is freely available to anyone if they spend the time and energy researching and collating, thinking and analysing. I recommend that people do this! However in this day and age, we are often restricted by time, so a training provider builds a course that will provide that information for you in a structured and cohesive manner. The training provider also goes to the effort of putting a framework of notes, slides, exercises, references and further reading around the knowledge to assist in the knowledge acquisition. This is why training costs.

 

What options do we have?
I think certification was designed to provide a jumping-off point for future knowledge acquisition. It has however been used as a short cut by candidates and hiring managers to avoid learning more about testing skills and how to assess them. I think the answer is to take certification out of the theoretical paper-based world where we use words to assess skill and move it into the practical world where we use the application of skills to assess skills. Then we face the question of how to assess that? How do we build a mechanism that allows comparative assessment, that shows the difference between someone with the skills and someone without?

 

Conclusion

Knowledge acquisition should be a constant and ongoing thing for anyone who wants to grow their career. For me, one of the first things I knew when I became a tester was that I did not know enough about the role and the skills needed. I sought out knowledge and found some training that allowed me to sit an exam and become ISEB Foundation Certified (yes, before ISTQB!). But as part of that process, I also found more references, knowledge sources and information beyond just the syllabus. I found a community of thinkers and sharers of knowledge. Some of them shared their knowledge for free, others charged for it in the form of subscription fees, book purchase costs or course fees. I generally found that the old adage “you get what you pay for” was very true. A lot of the free information that was available was not good information. It was food for thought but I often had to reject it on some level. Not all of it was like that though… some were gold! But it took a long time to find those gold nuggets. Now I freely share those nuggets with anyone who asks.

 



Posted by Sharon Robson

Sharon Robson is the Software Testing Practice Lead for Software Education. Sharon has been in IT for over 20 years. She was a founding board member of the Australia New Zealand Testing Board (ANZTB) and Head of Marketing for the International Software Testing Qualifications Board. During her time with ANZTB Sharon was actively involved in the establishment of the certification scheme locally and exam question generation. Once she became a training provider Sharon moved into promoting the need to acquire knowledge. Sharon has spent most of the past decade attempting to reconcile training needs with certification goals. Sharon’s main focus is on sharing knowledge that will help people enjoy their jobs more. Sharon has a clear understanding of the hiring mechanisms that work and the exam systems in place.

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