Of course it’s a misnomer

On Twitter, my good friend Mike Sutton said, “CSD is a misnomer. The value of existing Certifications needs to be justified before new ones are released.”

Many of the terms we use are misnomers.  For example, “acceptance testing” is a misnomer because it doesn’t indicate acceptance if the tests pasts–it indicates lack of acceptance if the tests fail.

What is the misnomer in the phrase “certified scrum developer?”  I can’t really tell, because the phrase is so ambiguous.  Developer, in this usage, means “software developer.”  Scrum is referring to a particular “product or system development framework.”  Certified means “received a certificate.”  There’s not much overlap between these concepts, though, so the combination takes more explanation.  The phrase itself does not communicate a clear concept from one person to another.  The debate over the phrase has proved that point.

“Wait a minute,” you say, “Certified means more than ‘received a certificate!'”

Then what does “certified” mean to you?  It seems to carry different connotations for different people.

Well, what’s the denotation?  I looked it up in the dictionary:

Function: adjective
Date: 1611
1 : having earned certification <a certified gemologist>
2 : genuine, authentic <a certified big shot> <certified intellectuals>

Looking up certification takes us in a circle, leading right back to certified.  I also looked at certify, certifying, and certificate.  They all come from the Latin certificare which derives from the earlier certus which means “certain.”  The general gist of all of these is

to attest authoritatively, usually in a written statement, and especially one carrying a signature or seal.

But what is being attested and by whom?

One example of certification that frequently comes to mind is that of doctors.  Note that certification of doctors is different from a medical license, though the granting of a medical license may require certification.  Graduating from medical school (or any school) is a certification and they generally give you a nice diploma (a certificate) as tangible evidence that you’ve met their requirements.  There are other certificate programs that attest to education, practice, and testing beyond that of a medical license examination.  Clearly some certificates are backed by years of study, supervised practice, rigorous examinations, and have the force of law requiring them.

But what about that “certified gemologist” in the dictionary definition?  That’s a certificate offered by the American Gem Society, a non-profit trade association promoting competence and ethics in the jewelry industry.  That’s good stuff, right?  Membership in the American Gem Society also requires that “at least one full-time employee who has studied and completed an Accredited or Graduate Program from the [Gemological Institute of America] or Gemological Association of Great Britain.”  Seems they’re open to charges similar to the Scrum Alliance, that it’s a grab for tuition dollars rather than a sincere desire for improving the marketplace for jewelry.

In truth, any attempt to create a program to differentiate practitioners of whom you approve from ones you consider unscrupulous charlatans is a blend of both altruism and self-interest.

And then there are “diploma mills” that skip faking competence at the practice, and go right to faking competence at teaching and evaluating.  There are already organizations in the field of software development that I suspect might fall into this category, at least, by my standards.  And I don’t know any way to prevent them from doing so.  I would certainly hate for governments to start issuing licenses to write code and regulating whose certification was allowed.

Instead, I’d like for people to make their own judgments.  Instead of blindly trusting someone to be competent because they hold a certification, I’d like them to consider who is behind that certification and what are they certifying.  I’d also like them to consider that instead of blindly distrusting someone because they hold a certification.  And since the number of available certifications cannot be held to zero, I think the best way to get people to give such consideration is by having the number of available certifications greater than one.

In any even, it’s not the certificate that matters.  That’s just a tangible token.  It’s what’s behind it.  If what’s behind it is only that they attended a two or three day class with a reasonably good instructor, and that instructor thought they showed some understanding of the material, then that has some value to me.  In fact, it has more value to me than certifications that someone has passed a test showing they’ve memorized a lot of detail about the Java library.

Like a story card, the certificate is an invitation for a conversation.  “Where did you get that certificate?  Who was the instructor?  What was the course like?  What did you get out of it?”  In that regard, a course taught by Ron and Chet would carry some weight with me, because I know and respect Ron and Chet.  A certification has no more value than the signature or seal making the assertion.  I could look at the material the course covered and evaluate that coverage using the catalog of the Agile Skills Project.  But most importantly, asking “What did you get out of it?” and listening to the response will tell me a lot about their engagement and what they consider important.

And isn’t that what’s important when evaluating an unknown developer?

22 Replies to “Of course it’s a misnomer”

  1. Hi George,

    Great post. The only thing I would clear up – in general, you are dead on about certs. The word “certified” is quite loaded. In the specific example of CSD, the context around creating the CSD was because teams weren’t able to ship software, so they would just need to hire or send their existing developers to CSD training to give them the knowledge to build software in an incremental way.

    But I highly agree with asking people,
    “What did you get out of it?” for certifications listed on their resume. And if they can’t answer that, then it should be on there.

  2. Cory, I’m not sure what you’d clear up. Can you clear that up for me? 😉

    A 3-day hands-on class can give people the knowledge to start building software in an incremental way. So can bringing in an Agile Engineering Skills coach for 3 days. Of course, they’ll be only 3 days better (at best) by the end of that. Whether they continue to practice is up to them.

  3. Would you please clarify what you mean when you say ‘developer’? To me, it’s anyone involved in developing software, including programmers, testers, DBAs, BAs, Sys admins, etc. But to many, developer=programmer. What is this certificate certifying – programming ability or general s/w dev ability?

  4. Very timely post. The Wall Street Journal posted an article today on an increase in firms requiring project managers to gain certification http://bit.ly/agYYKi (subscription may be required, but I was able to do an end-run via http://www.facebook.com/l.php?u=http%3A%2F%2Fbit.ly%2FagYYKi&h=). The PMI certification program requires hours of experience before being able to take the exam. More than are needed to obtain a Student Pilot’s certification from the FAA and fly solo (http://www.faa.gov/pilots/become/faq/), another certification program required by the industry.

    Check your state’s Division of Licenses (or comparable agency) and you may be surprised at the professions required to have some sort of certification. The people who cut your hair (cosmetologists) are often one of those that need to be certified.

    And what of that other hallowed certification program? The college degree? Are they actually qualified to work in the software industry as developers? Are those programs actually turning out graduates well-versed in practical problems faced in the workplace, or is the criticism that colleges and universities fail to meet the needs of businesses merely grousing by some with some other agenda? If the degree program is adequate, why are hiring managers requiring more certification?

    And if the degree program or other certification process were adequate, is having achieved the requirements to obtain it once sufficient? Does the industry change enough to require practitioners to obtain further education or skills, or are there fundamentals that endure throughout the SDLC?

    Regardless of the posturing of individual practitioners, one thing has remained consistent: if any profession fails to adequately police itself in the interest of public safety (e.g., ADA, AMA, NASD, MPAA, etc.), eventually the government will (FAA, SEC, EPA, ATF, FDA, etc.).

  5. Ron and Chet’s involvement in the CSD has given me a lot of confidence that it is , at its core, something worthwhile. Nevertheless, we actually don’t yet know all the skills we need to deliver great software regularly, because (IMO), our history as an industry is off costly, bloated and wasteful systems, delivered late and of low value.

    So by focusing on ‘developer’ – which in this case I take to mean ‘software developer/programmer/coder’, I feel the SA is heading down a road I’m not sure it fully understands.

    In any case, I have the belief that everything we do is inherently incremental (if not iterative) and so, something more is forthcoming and with vigilance and support, it will add more value to what we currently have.

  6. Hi George,

    Oh, haha. Sorry about that. What I was trying to say is that most of the conversation as of late has been focused on the CSD cert, and there was a specific context for what “certified” meant there.


  7. And, to be clear, I supported the concept of the SA-REP, of defining what the needs were and getting people down that path. I think that’s a Good Thing. But as I said here (http://blog.coryfoy.com/2010/03/developer-certification-ala-certified-scrum-developer/) the SA didn’t need to create a cert to encourage people to take the classes. They just needed to set them up and point people at them.

    I have no ill will towards Ron and Chet – I think their class is a great introduction, as the XP Immersion was a great class too. I guess I just have a bit more disdain for certifications than others.

  8. Lisa, I haven’t seen Ron & Chet’s course materials, so I don’t really know. I suspect that their course is skewed toward programmers.

    As I understand it, though, the course contents are developed by the instructor and must be approved by the SA, but aren’t defined by the SA. Therefore it would be quite possible to cover what you thought was important.

  9. Cory, I’m not fan of certifications, myself. I have a few, including a couple college degrees. I am a CSM, mostly to have an easy answer when a potential client asked that question.

    My current views on the certification angle (as opposed to the education angle) can be summed up in what I said above: “since the number of available certifications cannot be held to zero, I think the best way to get people to give such consideration is by having the number of available certifications greater than one.”

  10. Hey George, I checked out the Agile Skills Inventory and I was really impressed. There are couple of things that came to mind that couple be added – but they may be in the detail somewhere.

    What occurs to me is that the attraction of certification is the same as the attraction of a pill to lose weight. We want a quick fix to a problem that *cannot* have a quick fix (at least not without side effects). just like losing weight, we should eat right and exercise more. To be a ‘good’ developer/team member you have competent tech skills (test, design, coding whatever) , know how to communicate at a very deep level, be empathetic, self confident without arrogance and a whole list of other things that are developed over years (sometime a lifetime).

    The side effects of starting them off in a 3-5 day course is that *they* think they are at the end of their journey, not the beginning. And they have the paper to say so.

    Mentoring and deeper community involvement (peer review groups, hacker meets, design jams, sleepovers, open conferences etc) are the *right* way to nurture the type of things we want to see. But it takes time and requires more people to care more. Not so easy.

    sorry about the splurge, I had a moment.


  11. Mike, what you say is true, except for one thing. If they start off with a 3-5 day course with a good instructor, then they’ll learn that they are only at the start of their journey.

    So some percentage of the “quick weight loss” seekers will go to a diploma mill and get a certificate for their money. That’s going to happen anyway, so I’ve decided not to worry about them.

    But some percentage is going to go for a certificate, and find something ever so much more valuable. A short class doesn’t replace mentoring and deeper community involvement, but it can be a door to enter that community. And that makes it easier.

  12. Mike,

    Oh, and about the Agile Skills Inventory. Join the yahoogroup and bring up the skills that came to mind. I can’t imagine the list ever being complete in any fashion, but it’s that community involvement thing.

  13. Great post George, and this… “Like a story card, the certificate is an invitation for a conversation.” is a brilliant line. Indeed it is, and I just wish more people saw it that way. It dismays me when people tell me they have taken the CSM class, and when I ask from whom, they have no idea, or at best say “Rally” or “Danube” but no recollection of who the trainer was.

    People that pay for these certificates themselves tend to remember the trainer, and indeed would have done a fair bit of research beforehand to determine the best trainer. They also retain more of what they have learned. Trouble is, so many who do the CSM are sent there by managers/HR folk and have little interest in it in the first place. The value of the certificate seems to be for the organization, not the individual.

    I value certification when an individual cares to receive it, and treats it (and moreso the study that led to it) as a personal accomplishment. I value it not at all when a company demands it for some kind of weird compliance reason.

  14. George,

    Actually the SA does specify what needs to be in the course. They specify the five areas that must be included with several bullets under each category. The categories are Architecture & Design, Test Driven Development, Continuous Integration, Collaboration and Refactoring. This is just for the three day course. There are other requirements that must be met in order to earn the certification.

  15. The CST for my Cert was Arlen Bankston from LitheSpeed. I remember this because:

    a) He blended Lean/Kanban aspects into the training
    b) I still periodically review his CSM material from years ago and learn from it.

    In short, I feel as though the ROI on CSM is very acceptable in both knowledge and $$$ earned.

  16. David Bland: The CSTs for my own training were Ken Schwaber and Kurt Peterson. I remember it especially because of Kurt’s interactive (theatre-based) exercises, and an aha! moment I had during Ken’s MLBTix exercise. The ROI was great for both me and my employer, who, I am sure, would not have sent me were it not a certified course. The “C” worked in this case.

  17. @Alfonso,

    >> Regardless of the posturing of individual practitioners, one thing has remained consistent: if any profession fails to adequately police itself in the interest of public safety (e.g., ADA, AMA, NASD, MPAA, etc.), eventually the government will (FAA, SEC, EPA, ATF, FDA, etc.).

    This point resonates with me. I don’t think that software can be viewed as a “public safety” issue, but it does have a massive impact on public prosperity 🙂

    Following the debate on certification, I think there is an American centric perspective that tends to hold sway.

    Speaking as a Brit, I think the best thing that could happen to the Software Industry is government regulation. Why not? It worked out fantastically for the telecoms industry. The reason that you can use your mobile phone anywhere in the world today is largely down to ETSI, the European Union and Government licenses in Europe.

    Now that the Americans have a regulated health insurance market, the next on Obama’s list is hopefully regulating software too 🙂

    I’m partially joking, but markets left to their own devices don’t always deliver. I’ve heard people argue against a professional body for software developers because “unions” don’t work! Well try explaining that to Doctors or Lawyers who have effectively used professional bodies to maintain high ethical and professional standards across the board!

    Oh, again the problem here could be local. If we are talking about US Doctors and Lawyers then perhaps their professional bodies are more like unions that grant a license to print money 🙂

    I guess my point is to remember that there is a wide world out there were different regions have different values. Not everywhere in the world is the right to make money valued more then everything else.



  18. I have difficulty with this post in a couple of ways.

    Taking a course and putting it on the resume is an invitation for a conversation.

    Certifications, though, are created precisely to obviate the necessity of a conversation. If you are a Certified Professional Accountant or a Certified Financial Analyst or a member of the State Bar of California or a Fellow of the Society of Hospitalist Medicine, then this is a promise backed by an institution that you meet certain minimum standards. The exact goal of certification is to make it easy for non-experts to tell something about the holder.

    It’s true that misnomers exist, but that is not an excuse for creating more of them. It is especially not an excuse for knowingly creating a misnomer that financially benefits the creator. Saying that somebody is a “Certified Scrum Developer” when all they did is write a check and take a course strikes me as, frankly, disingenuous at best.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.