Certification aspires to be a societal recognition of some level of professional competence. It’s a measure neither of performance nor ability: a shortcut that claims to predict long-term professional competence. While most certification requires training, it is usually granted on the basis of a few minutes of testing that purport to predict a career of behavior.
While we hold the stereotype that certification indicates an elite level of performance, conveyed by those holding the highest standards in a given field, it’s difficult to find anything that indicates why this should be so. That is, there is little culture of meta-certification: of certifying those who establish certification norms. Its goal is always to separate the included from the excluded, but there is often little evidence that it separates the capable from the desirous.
It isn’t the individuals involved who are the issue, but rather the institution of certification itself. Certification is a trust substitute. I can trust that a proxy certifying agency has established trust on my behalf rather than requiring that I take that bothersome time to do so.
Too often, these norms are set by people who have more of an interest than any imbued right or moral imperative to establish them. They need only to avoid the extremes that would attract controversy, and rarely invoke any empirical grounding. That this is largely so should raise our suspicions. Standardization efforts rarely tap into broad practice or the representation of broad mores, because the people who develop standards almost always take the mantle on themselves instead of being thrust into the position by a supportive constituency. That in itself doesn’t imply that standards-makers are inherently evil or opportunistic. I have known many of these people and they are doing their best to do a good thing.
At best, certification sets the bar at a level sufficiently above blind stumbling to gain the label of competence. But success in today’s engineering and software worlds depends on being able to handle complex situations that defy teachable technique. Any “skill” that can be evaluated with a test is suspect: as highlighted in Is there a doctor in the house, we know that test scores are poor indicators of future performance. Most certification tests knowledge — not practice.
Certification makes sense at the level of agreed, objective standards with a foundation in absolute axioms. Lawyers are certified by the bar on the basis of understanding arbitrary rules of conduct called ethics. Lawyers must be ethical: they need not be moral. Certification comes from being able to mechanically adhere to codified workflows of court procedure and client engagement — not for the aptitude to follow them. The same is true for most technology certifications, whose exams largely test knowledge at the very lowest layers of the Bloom taxonomy. So though Scrum practice has moral and business implications, ScrumMaster certification is largely about level-1 Bloom knowledge (regurgitation) of elements of the Scrum framework and of technique.
Few certifying entities enforce the practices covered in the evaluation instrument. Maybe we presume that the certified should police themselves. If that’s the case, it’s difficult to argue the value of certification. Agile principles are rooted in continuous feedback — not a one-time assessment of one’s direction as in waterfall, but through ongoing introspection. Certification should be a process rather than an event or even a series of events. Even better is a life process of learning and of Kaizen mind. Certification pretends to establish the trust that can launch one’s career in some well-defined profession, but at best it only prepares one for a job.
Disclosure: IEEE Computer Society is a provider of two certifications for software developers--the CSDA and CSDP.