It is my practice to reconsider important topics. Certification certainly is such a topic. Here are today’s thoughts. (For related articles, click “certification” in the links above.)

Sam Newman @samnewman wrote an intense blog against a DevOps certification. Check it out. I’ll wait.

This prompted me to think about certification, which I was kind of doing anyway, since I’ve been talking with some Scrum Alliance people about the Certified Scrum Professional program, particularly with respect to how we could make it stronger, and cause new material to be created to help people.

Sam’s article got retweeted and a number of people chipped in about disliking certifications. In addition, I have a lot of good friends in Agile who are strongly against them. I tweeted something asking for the “real” reason they dislike them. I asked this because, frankly, I find some of the reasons people give to be too abstract, while their vehemence suggests something more visceral. I wanted to know where they’re really coming from.

Here are a few things I picked up, unattributed:

  • Certificates [may] mislead hiring entities into over-valuing the certificate.
  • Certificates [in general] cannot certify skills in practice, only knowledge at best.
  • Certificates [often] try to over-simplify a complex topic.
  • Certificates [may] lead to hiring the wrong people.
  • Certificates [may] cause people to value the paper over real experience.
  • Certificates [might] give mistaken impression of readiness for some position.
  • Certificates [may] lead to mismatch between importance of real learning versus having the paper.
  • Certificates are [sometimes] actually negative indicators of competence.
  • Certificates [sometimes] take too little time to get.
  • Certificates [often] have low value to experienced practitioners.
  • Certificates are [often] created with no real consensus on what makes up quality.
  • Certificates create conflict of interest for creating authorities who make money from them.
  • Certificates cheat me out of my fair share of the action!

I’m pretty sure that last one is from the heart. (Thanks, Jason!)

To me, the others are true, at least as modified with my additions in square brackets. Twitter tends to generate absolutes in nuanced situations because of the 140 character limit. They do not feel to me like the “real” reason the person would be strongly negative about certificates, but I admit that I’m a programmer and sometimes I get worked up about stuff that any rational person would just get over and go to lunch.


Let me try to summarize that list a bit, oversimplifying a bit in the process. I think that I believe these two statements:

Certifications usually do not accurately reflect a person’s real capability. This can result in poor personnel decisions by companies, and poor learning choices by both companies and individuals.

Certifications offer a sales advantage, even over more valuable learning opportunities, resulting again in poor learning choices and people who are less qualified than they might be.

However, I also believe this:

Certifications bring people into classes who would otherwise not be in any class at all. The choice, very often, is not between poor certification class and some better class, but between poor certification class and no focused learning at all.

Conclusion? No. “I will sum up.”

Where do I stand? Right on the line. I am a Certified Scrum Trainer. Generally speaking, I teach very few CSM courses. When I do, I almost never issue the certifications (I co-teach with Chet and he does that.) If I teach a private CSM (I think I taught one last year) then of course I do issue the CSM.

Is that a cop-out? Maybe. Not much of one, I’m not getting rich at it. It’s just a little line of principle that I like to draw to show that I’m not a complete and total whore. Let me offer an explanation.

I think the Agile path is valuable. I observe that Scrum is a pretty decent start at following that path. I observe that while some people contact me and ask me to come and coach them or teach them to program, others contact and ask for a CSM course or a CSD course. My CSM course is rather good, if I do say so myself. Our CSD course is the original, is based on XP Immersion, and rocks.

Both those courses are valuable, well worth the two or three days for a CSM, or the five for a CSD. I am confident that the participants will get their money’s worth. But wait, don’t answer yet, they also get a fine certificate, printed on the very finest PDF available.

In the end, it’s about helping people learn a bit along the road. If a certificate gets them in the door, whether it’s my door or any learning door, I am inclined to think it’s OK. I do rather wish we didn’t have them, or that they were more meaningful. But even as weak as they are, they generate learning, and often inspire people along their paths.

I think that’s a good thing. Not an unmitigated good thing, but a good thing.