OK, Let’s Talk About Certification

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.

(image by The Lightworks)

This article will be part of the book Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders. You can follow its progress here.

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  • http://www.dominic.cronin.nl/weblog Dominic Cronin

    I agree. Having a certificate doesn’t prove you’re an expert in anything, or even competent. Particularly for consultants, it can be a sign that you’ve spent too much time unassigned, on the bench, with nothing to do but gather certifications.
    Even so, as the competence manager for the Tridion team at HintTech, I regard it as important that our people go and get the relevant Tridion certifications. OK – so we’re usually very busy, so the too-much-time-unassigned criticism perhaps doesn’t apply. In fact, most of our people have to make significant efforts to fit certification in to their already busy lives.
    So there’s a beginning: it shows a direct personal commitment to the technology they have chosen to specialise in. Secondly, it shows identification: they are standing up in front of the world and saying “I’m a Tridion guy!” (Please substitute whatever technology is relevant for you.)
    Lastly – even though the people who shout loudest about their qualifications are often the ones who have nothing else, it’s also true that the people who are most vociferous about the pointlessness of certificates are often the people who haven’t invested the effort to acquire any.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/enriquebecerra Enrique Becerra

    Here in Argentina, like everything, is all the opposite.
    A good developer won’t get a good job. The ones with some course or other kind of paper degree are more accepted.
    There’re tons of university-grade guys who get their title and instantly became government employees with good salaries, etc. They didn’t get any real world experience at university and almost know nothing.
    Resuming. The ones with more certificates will be more accepted and better positioned

  • Radu Davidescu

    Interesting approach. For me, certification it’s like money. A piece of paper that said something, and most of the time increase the self-esteem of the owner. As money should recognize the wealth of the owner, certification should say something about competence.
    There is also a linked relation between money and certifications. Most of the times, money are required to get certified and then, once certified people are demand more money in the activities where they are certified.
    Yes, certification are investment. Investment in you. If you think that a certification will bring you a better status and in the end a bigger income, go ahead, make it. It’s even better if the company pay the certification price. But, be aware, like money there are a lot of types of certifications. I guess Jurgen prefer to receive EURO for his extraordinary upcoming book and not Congo’s CFA. It’s a matter of trust. Certifications like money are a piece of paper. The real value of that paper it’s bring by the trust. The more general trust exists the more valuable certification/money are.
    I have some friends that make a lot of money. And they explain to me that their most valuable asset is that they know how to make more money, always. I guess also in this business there are people that reach a level of self-confidence enough to say: I don’t need certification to prove my knowledge or skill. I need to know that I can prove anytime, anywhere and to anybody my strengths and skill.
    That’s very good, that’s self-certification, and when it’s recognized by other have incredible value (both in money and self-esteem). It’s like printing your own currency and people buy it.
    Best regards Jurgen,
    waiting for the final chapter of your very interesting book, and hope to have smart review ideas.

  • Patrick

    I am glad to read your post, Jurgen. You manage to talk sense about certification instead of either bashing it or promoting it on its own. Certification is a piece of a puzzle that may benefit a system, either emerging or established. It will never work on its own except in a flawed system. Combined with the right intentions, tools and support it may help create awareness and focus and eventually create a movement towards a different culture and better results. And I will never mention that this is an easy task.

  • Jasper (los angeles)

    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.
    But enough about the semantics of the certificate. I agree, what matters is how much time you spent practicing Agile Principles and Scrum.

  • http://www.expertprogrammanagement.com Expert Program Management

    I agree. The way I see it, someone having a certification just means there are certain questions you don’t have to ask them when giving a job interview. In this way you have more time to dig into the persons experience, capabilities, and personality. From this perspective I think certifications are a good thing.

  • Hepzi

    For me Certification is valuable and a critical part of a person’s career when: the person is not only certified, but have minimum required experience (like 5 years or so). I have worked and working with many people who have no experience whatsoever, but have certifications;
    Due to the lack of experience,
    1. they tend to stick to their “books” that they used to study during their certifications;
    2. they tend to quote from excerpts and use cases; they cannot and do not dare execute anything!
    For me, When times comes for EXECUTION, only EXPERIENCE with EDUCATION will help an employee EXECUTE; this is where, people who have ONLY certifications FAIL without experience. certification is a compliment to your career achievement and organizations shouldn’t short list potential employees based on certifications, but a combination of CORE needs such as education & experience and complimented by certification (if needed)
    Stay Blessed

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