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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.

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