Sunday, May 13, 2012

To ISTBQ or not to ISTBQ, that is the question …

It is without doubt one of the most contentious points in software testing at the moment. “Do we need an official certification to be software testers”.

There are arguments all over the place, and I've found myself inspired by an article by my fellow Twitter collaborator Jari Laakso to write up my own opinion.  You can read his article here.

In favour of certification of course is the fact that “anyone can call themselves a software tester”. Any industry where you can just call yourself a role without needing some form of registration, means that the “cowboys” bring down the reputation of the industry. I might be able to call myself a plumber, but the almighty mess I'd leave your house in, coupled with a crippling bill for call-out would lead you to curse plumber-dom if I was allowed to behave in such a way.

However against certification, there is the fact that it very much becomes a whole “industry” in itself to sell you the course, the exam and the shining certificate. And how do you measure someone's ability? Frankly the way it's examined in a multiple choice exam is laughable – give any good tester options A, B, or C and they will always come up with a brand new answer D.

I myself qualifying for the ISEB exam back in 2005 – it was a compulsary course for my company, and I took it with someone who was new to testing. I found myself wrestling with the syllabus, because in many ways the material hooks into such an idealised form of software delivery that I've never seen it in the real world. I kept finding myself asking “but what if ...” and “but surely ...”.

That said, I really enjoyed the course, and I managed to learn from some formal ways and background theory of doing things which I'd previously just done intuitively (without really being able to say way). And despite being the slight heckler in the class, I formed a good relationship with Rob my tutor, and we kept in touch for a few years afterwards.

As a test manager myself I do find myself looking for someone with the foundation qualification, as I know we'll have a relatively similar framework of testing vocabulary to work from.

However I also agree with a lot of the criticism. The exam based on this certification is based on multiple choice and a rigid syllabus. It's the idea that there's a “right way” and a “wrong way” to test, like everything is black-and-white.

Sure there are many “wrong ways” to test. But there is also no single “right way” to do it either. Testing is taking the pure theory of software delivery model, and then using imagination to find a best model for the project in front of you, the way it demands updates, the way software is developed, the methods used to update your test environment. You don't put together a test plan using multi-choice …

I had a great boss (Stephen Pedrick) in 2005 when I took my course. Not only did he book me on the ISEB course, but he booked me on a following course “Testing – Putting Theory Into Practice”. This dealt with really looking at the theory and making practical test plans, evaluating sample projects. This was almost an antidote to the ISEB course, taking the theory we'd learned (which I did enjoy) and really thrashing it in real work scenarios.

The ISEB course was good, the Putting Theory Into Practice was invaluable. Sadly though, where 30 people took the ISEB certification, only 4 took the one follow on (for which you didn't get a shiny certificate). And this indeed is one of the many potential traps of certification, believing that certification is “all you need” to train as a tester.

It's not, as Obi Wan said to Luke Skywalker, “You've just taken your first step into a larger world” ...