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Are software testing certifications harming the profession?

How the debate over software testing certifications could help improve the industry in the end.

By Meg Cater, Technical Content Manager, SmartBear Software

Over the last few decades in the U.S., certification programs have become ubiquitous, bringing professional training and jobs to millions in many different sectors. Especially in an economic climate like ours, we can’t be too harsh on a trend that obviously provides some increased job security. But certification programs have also triggered some hot debates, especially among seasoned professionals in careers that have three things in common: they have historically been taught through on-the-job training or mentorship, they have become a thriving and needed profession, and they have no formal college degree route. Software testing is one of the many professions in the midst of such a debate, and for good reason. Like all the others, there is a legitimate fear of the profession losing…well, professionalism. Why? Isn’t proof of training a good thing to have? Yes and no.

Unfortunately, there are always the companies or organizations that will certify anyone, no matter their past experience, as long as they are willing to pay, sit through the program, and can pass an exam. The problem is (and this is where the 20-year seasoned professional gets pissed) such programs offer or require the student to demonstrate little to no hands-on experience. Especially in a career like software testing—where creative thinking, trial and error, and the capacity to juggle many competing demands within a company—no course can come close to even a year of on-the-job experience. And, to top it off, companies may start requiring or highly valuing certifications from their employees, effectively forcing those veterans to take what they may see as overly simplistic courses in order to get or keep a job. With all the software testing certification courses available (just Google it, you’ll see), it’s no wonder that testers are becoming concerned.

However, I also see this as a necessary step in the professional development of the software testing profession itself. Not necessarily the certifications, but the debate that surrounds them—the way it calls the most trained and knowledgeable masters to speak out and better define the training requirements that should be put into place, the way it encourages them to figure out the future of their profession that colleges and training institutions must respond to.

Software testing is a rapidly growing field that is only gaining in complexity and importance. As software infiltrates and upholds more and more areas of our global civilization, from finance and governance to healthcare and communications, making sure that it functions properly and securely will only become more needed. So, I think we need a debate about training requirements.

The other healthy part of the certification debate is that it will demand that certification programs become relevant if they are to remain respected, probably leading to specialized certifications rather than general ones - something that won’t create a career or an education, but that can add to one. Which raises the question of the need for a college major in software testing. To me, this is a very different layer to this debate, and has much more to do with the future of software testing than current reality. How do we want the next generation of software testers to step into the world and see their own work? How do we need them to see it?

So, even though it can be scary and even infuriating at times to see an entire profession you love being reduced to a weekend seminar for a $200 online program, it is also a sign of growth. More importantly, the debate about certification programs will shape the future of that profession. And, as far as I can see, software testers are not going to sit on the sidelines and allow the future of their chosen profession to be outlined for them.

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Meg Cater is Technical Content Manager at SmartBear Software. Before entering the software world, Meg was a journalist specializing in STEM education and global environmental issues like clean water and sustainable chemistry. Her current passion centers around the investigation of how software is shaping our globalizing world and international security, communications, medicine, entertainment, art and culture.

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