Are certifications really worthless?

Posted on April 6th, 2010 in Agile, Kanban, Lean, Methodology by siddharta || 5 Comments

It seems that the debate over certifications has started all over again. The Scrum Alliance is now going to start offering a Certified Scrum Developer program. It’s kind of odd, because Ron Jeffries, who had a part in developing the program says 1) Certification is essentially worthless 2) It puts butts in the seats. This is kind of scary, because at the very least you expect that program organisers should believe in their own program. Imagine paying big bucks to go to a CSD class and the first line you hear is “Students, this certification which you paid good money for is useless. But it was the only way we could get you to attend.”

Anyway, the CSD reignited the debate on certifications all over again. So are certifications useful or not? Here is my take on it.

In general, I think certifications do have value. A certification is just a qualification. It sets a minimum bar. A certificate is not a guarantee.

This is where people in the agile community are completely missing the point. For some reason, we in the agile community are treating certifications as if they should be a guarantee of quality.

For example, take this quote from James’ article:

…if your employer values certification above actual ability, it’s probably not a great place to work.

C’mon. Companies don’t hire based on certification instead of ability. Companies hire based on certification in addition to ability.

Did you graduate from college? Thats a certificate. Sure, there are good people who didn’t graduate and there are many bad ones who passed all the exams. Still, a company would rather choose the best among 25 graduates, than interview 100 random people because, hey, there might be a few good ones who didn’t graduate. The certificate is simply a first filter, not the sole condition.

Think about this:

The next time you want to get your accounts done, would you go to a Chartered Accountant, or pick a random bloke off the street?

The next time you want to visit a doctor, would you go to a registered medical practicioner, or pick a random bloke off the street?

Yes, there are poor CAs who managed to pass all the exams. Yes, there are poor doctors who managed to pass all the exams. Yes, there possibly are good accountants or doctors who didn’t graduate.

On the whole though, you are better off trying your luck with the ones who’ve got the certificate. You just have a better chance of hitting it right.

Where the Scrum Alliance gets it wrong

So, what about the CSM (and now CSD) certification then? Here is where the Scrum Alliance gets it wrong.

The problem with the CSM is that you get the certification for simply attending a two day training course. If a certification is supposed to set a minimum bar, then this bar is so staggeringly low that it makes absolutely no difference at all.

In fact, if we consider that most of the participants to the CSM are hearing about Scrum for the very first time, then the CSM is actually an anti-certification. In an weird way, if you see a person with a CSM, it probably means that they only have a couple of days of theoretical knowledge of Scrum, and have never applied it in real life. The majority of people who have done Scrum for any length of time are not CSMs.

Instead of certifying people who are experts in Scrum, the Scrum Alliance has gone and certified only the rank newcomers to Scrum. You may actually have a better chance of getting a good hire by ignoring the CSM pool altogether!

The goal of a certification is to certify that a person already has the required competence. Not to take in new people and teach them – thats training, not certification. Training should be provided by anyone, certification by the certifying body.

Doing certification right

The reason why we trust accountants and doctors is simply because the certification sets a reasonable minimum bar. Not everyone can attend a 2 day course and become certified in tax law or medicine.

Similarly, any agile certification should actually certify something! The challenge here is that practices are evolving at a very rapid rate. How do we decide what to certify?

Having established what are the important knowledge areas and competencies that are important, the next challenge is to figure out how to evaluate it. Tests? Hands on? Both?

Finally, how do we keep it consistent? A certification is worthless if it is not consistent.

Also, separate out the training from the certifications. Let people get trained anywhere (or by self study). They can then come over and take a test to get certified.

The Lean SSC certification

It looks like the Lean Software & Systems Consortium is thinking about doing a certification program. A few thoughts on that

  • It is a good idea, if done right (see points above)
  • Doing it right will be hard, but its worth taking a shot at it, if only to see what comes out of it
  • Hopefully it won’t go the way of the Scrum Alliance by offering training courses disguised as certifications
  • It should focus on certifying the experts rather than using it as a marketing program to spread awareness. CSM has contributed to increasing awareness of Scrum, but it has come back to bite it now that there are too many certified people who don’t have the quality. A certification that doesn’t establish a minimum bar is worthless.
  • I wonder if it is too early? The right time for a certification program is post-mainstream when companies are complaining that they are unable to get the right people for lean/kanban.

So what are your thoughts on certifications? Worthless? Useful? Impossible to do right?

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5 Responses to “Are certifications really worthless?”

  1. Jason Yip Says:

    If the goal of certification is to provide confidence of quality, then a misleading certification is less than worthless.

    Our thoughts should be on the most effective ways to provide confidence of quality with better certifications as only one aspect of that.

  2. siddharta Says:

    Hi Jason,

    I agree 100% with you. But why is the agile community having opinions based on “misleading certifications”?

    Of course a misleasing certification is bad. Thats obvious.

    The question to ask really is

    a) Would a good certification be worthwhile?

    and b) Is it practically possible in the real world to create a good certification program?

    My first answers to those questions are Yes and Yes.

    There *are* certifications that are worthwhile. If you graduated from college, you got a certificate of graduation (your degree). For the most part, that *is* a valuable certificate. There are many others: accountants, doctors and a whole lot of people get certified in a way that is reasonably relevant. In general, passing these certifications have stringent requirements. You can’t become a doctor after taking a 2 day training course.

    So really, in my mind, the question over whether certification is valid or not is a false one. We cant use flawed certification as a basis for the debate.

    Certification done right can work. What does “done right” mean? How can we “make it work”? These are the important questions that need to be debated. Is it possible to do do it right and make it work?

    Sure, maybe its impossible to do it right. But we need to discuss it before coming to that conclusion, rather than dismissing it outright based on the CSM experience.

    Of course, if there are other ways to do provide confidence of quality apart from certifications, then those should be explored too.

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