Just say "no" to certification

Posted by Jamis on November 10, 2006 @ 04:58 PM

Pat Eyler is looking into designing a certification program, in conjunction with a university course. This really got me thinking.

As a general rule, I believe certifications are a joke. Plain and simple. When I was at BYU, and the mandate came from the suits that we had to drop everything and become Java certified, I saw firsthand what a joke it was. The very idea that a test can, in any way, imply competence is laughable.

Now, I know and respect Pat. He’s got more planned for this than just a test, and that’s great. I certainly commend the idea of a Ruby course. But I have to plead against the introduction of “certification.”

Can certification produce competent programmers? I say “no”. If you are certified and are competent, then you were competent before you were certified. The two have no relation, except insofar as the certification process might ignite the passion of a competent programmer to improve themselves. The problem is that you don’t have to be passionate or competent to take and pass these tests. You just have to be good at memorizing and cargo culting.

Certifications are used primarily by ignorant decision makers as a discriminator. Thus, if someone wants to get noticed by said decision makers, they need to take and pass the test. It’s certification for certification’s sake. This encourages anything but learning. It encourages large-scale mediocrity, caused by people memorizing exactly what the test demands, and nothing more. It encourages learning out of context. It encourages cargo culting, rather than original thinking.

And what happens to the community when this happens? It becomes diluted. The passion gets leeched away. The language becomes inundated by people with little concern for the language itself, or for what they will use the language. They have little care for the community, except insomuch as the community can help them solve their own problems. They take. They demand. They question. They do not give. And the community suffers.

So please, Pat, and anyone else out there that is contemplating a certification program of any sort: don’t do it. By all means, educate, teach, spread the word, and encourage passionate programmers. But don’t certify.

Posted in Essays and Rants

Comments

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10 Nov 2006

1. Pat Eyler said...

A well written plea. I understand your point of view, and will try to carry it back to the rest of the committee. Certainly, to me, it’s the education and introduction to the community that are the most important part of the proposed program.

The bottom line (to me) is that if we can’t come up with something the community likes, we’re better off not doing it.

2. Pat Maddox said...

I think it’s important not only to create something the community likes, but to create something that’s actually beneficial to the community.

Warranted or not, when an individual or group creates a certification program, they’re implicitly declaring themselves a leader in the community. I’m not suggesting that Pat and his group couldn’t do a good job. However, creating a certification program will instantly elevate them to a higher level of credibility in the eyes of the rest of the industry. Then they’ll be giving the industry as a whole something which it loves, but isn’t necessarily good, and drive the Ruby community in that direction.

One thing we’ve learned from Ruby and Rails is that it’s important to keep the programmer happy. From a business standpoint, happy programmers make $$. Certification doesn’t make happy programmers.

As Jamis said, certification is orthogonal to education. There are many Ruby seminars and workshops going on, and I think that’s great. Please add to the excellent educational base available to Ruby programmers. Just be very mindful of the grave responsibility and possible consequences of creating certification.

3. Hans said...

Hear, hear! There’s another problem with certification: many good programmers don’t certify. We’re morally against it. And many good programmers don’t certify because they don’t have the money to spare/squander. You stiff people entering the community, you stiff the old hats that will run circles around anybody who gets certified, and you stiff the community itself as Jamis so eloquently put it.

11 Nov 2006

4. Pat Maddox said...

Honestly I think this is all you need to know about Ruby or Rails certification. Everybody knows that Jamis is a Ruby all-star hacker. If he’s against certification…well, that oughta tell you somethin.

5. Andi said...

Software certification is a invention of corporate people. Usually the ones deciding who to hire have zero technical knowledge or even knowledge how reality is ;) They need something to justify a hire (and if it turns out the guy is a sucker, it’s not their fault). I’m against it an resisted it for 15 years now (and it’s hard in good ol’ germany the land where certifications define who you are). I even think that certifications de-value a person in many ways. It’s not about knowlege, creativity, and innovation anymore, it’s about having more certs than the other guy. However, hardware certs are another thing (like Cisco stuff or medical devices, etc.), I think it’s really useful in that area. In the ruby world I’d hate to see a certifications trend. What about giving dedicated classes at college or university? Or giving away a special reward for “most innivative ruby utilization of year X at y college”? I think that’s a much better way of doing things – keeping it in the education domain. In a perfect world we wouln’t need any of this though :)

6. Neil Wilson said...

I just can’t believe that people really want to go around saying that their certified.

And as anybody who ‘can’ knows the simple word ‘Paper’ in front of any computer qualification reduces it quickly and simply to what it is.

“He’s a paper MCSD”.

NeilW

7. Reg Braithwaite said...

http://weblog.raganwald.com/2005/07/why-you-need-degree-to-work-for-bigco.html

8. John Ford said...

You’re absolutely right, Jamis (and commenter’s). I’ve had a tough time getting this idea across to the businesses I’ve worked for. I’d recommend someone for a position who could program the pants off any other applicant but the applicant would win the fight as a “paper X.”

Unfortunately, this stretches beyond just the technical world and into areas such as teacher certification, doctor/nurse certification, construction certification, etc. Educational institutes often times train people to take tests instead of giving them valuable real-world skills.

9. Devi LLP said...

Just to play devil’s advocate here:

If there is a business looking for ruby on rails developers how do they find them? how do they know the developer is as “hot shot” as he or she claims to be? Do they come and ask David or Jamis ??

Certifications are not a way to separate “rock stars” from “regular joes” , however, they do give a business some sense that a person has at least completed the bare minimum necessary to be at least conversant in the field. It would be nice if the business leaders or hiring managers could hang out in the Ruby/Rails chat rooms and read all the relavant blogs, and some do, but it is unrealistic to expect it from everyone.

Ruby on Rais, and by extension Ruby language itself, is increasing in popularity, and those who do need to hire need to have a way of separating the wheat from the chaff in the limited time they have to make the decision. It would be unfair to ask them to do it blindly.

How would you explain to your boss if you picked someone who ends up being a dud. Surely it is not being suggested that whoever touches Rails becomes a super hot genius ;-)

For every Jamis or Rick or David, there are a hundred scaffold monkeys out there. Would you like to bet your farm on that chance?

10. Devi LLP said...

I must add to this and say that I am, most vehemently opposed to Microsoft style ‘certifications’ which do nothing but encourage rote learning and cargo culting as Jamis has so eloquently described.

I also oppose the way Microsoft does their business, and their code, and all the other evil stuff that they do. This does not mean however, that Ruby and Ruby On Rails community cannot once again lead the way and show the rest of the world how it is done.

Let us not make Micro$not as the model of what is being proposed here, as I think there is some merit to some kind of certification (or whatever you may want to call it).

Maybe a group of the best minds in the community can get together to tackle this dilemma which is definitely going to be faced by hiring managers as RoR and Ruby gain more popularity. Failing to do so may also mean that RoR will become relegated to the backwaters and become the domain of “craftsmen” as is the case with Forth, Smalltalk, Lisp etc.

My feeling is that Rub on Rails community leadership is leaning towards the “craftsman” (woman) model. Ruby leadership is happy happy joy joy without taking any sides :-)

11. Jamis said...

Devi, I strongly encourage people hiring Ruby or Rails (or any other language/framework) programmers, to look at the projects that the person has participated on. Have they done any open-source work? Do they have any pet side-projects?

If no, then it really doesn’t matter how good they are at what they do, or how many certifications they can claim, because they are not passionate about what you want them to do. And if you hire people who aren’t passionate, you’re taking a huge risk. Yes, there are competent programmers out there who shoulder responsibility well and do good work, even though programming is just their “day job”. But for every one programmer like that, there are many more who sneak by doing bare minimums, hoping not to be noticed, and living for that 5 o’clock bell.

Do you want to hire someone you can trust to do good work? Look at the work they’ve done. It’s as simple as that, and no meaningless (and expensive) papers needed.

12. David Vrensk said...

Jamis, I beg to differ regarding #11.

First of all: it seems to me you are replacing a certificate gained through written tests with the badge of passion that a programmer should earn in the trenches of pet-project or open-source programming. But just like you observe that “[t]he problem is that you don’t have to be passionate or competent to take and pass these tests,” you don’t have to be passionate or competent to have a half-dozen pet projects in your public repository. In other words: if a person is willing to go through the motions to pass a test, it doesn’t really matter if the test is a written exam or a pet project.

Secondly, I’d like to think that I can be passionate about something without having open-source work or pet projects to show for it. If my day job is interesting enough, and my bosses over-sell me enough, my professional work consumes my entire passion for programming (and I’ll save my free time for non-programming passions). There would be no point in my engaging in pet projects when I can do an extra hour of paid work and still have fun. This was my situation for a few years. I can’t show you what I did, for it all belongs to my employer or our clients, but it was good stuff, and I was passionate about it.

I won’t go as far as to say that passion and competence are orthogonal, but there’s no one-to-one mapping either.

Thirdly, and more importantly: there are not enough passionate people around to fill all the jobs in the industry. Not by far. And while I too encourage everybody to hire the passionate if you can find them (after all, you can get ten times the productivity for just twice the salary), I don’t think the viable alternative is to put your project on hold until you can get them. You’ll have to make do with the closest match.

So in the end, I think we have two imperfect metrics: certification and pet projects/OS work. Certifications are easy-ish to “forge” (passing tests by reading brain dumps), but convenient for me to check (read diploma, check certifying authority’s database). PP/OS work require more work if you want to forge them, but it’s a lot more work for me to assess them (how do I know that the applicant wrote this stuff? It the stuff of good quality anyway?).

I’ll say “no” to certification, but I’ll say “no” to metrics of passion too.

13. Jamis said...

David, thanks for being willing to debate this point. I have to disagree with your disagreement, though. :)

If someone has “a half-dozen pet projects in [a] public repository”, that implies quite a bit of passion to me. It does not, however, imply competence. However, by looking through their repositories (or having someone who is competent to do so, do so), you can determine competence.

I agree, it is more difficult to peruse someone’s pet projects than it is to confirm a certification. But just that’s because it is more meaningful! You want quality hires? You can’t expect to get them just by asking for a certification. I’m glad that you do agree with me on that point.

You raise a good point, too, about people who were passionate about the proprietary projects they were involved in. In cases like that, you can’t just say “show me your code.” However, you can say “show me some references”, and then follow up with those references to see how the candidate performed at that job.

I find it hard to believe that any passionate programmer would leave zero publicly accessible artifacts behind them, though… Perhaps we have differing definitions of “passionate.”

12 Nov 2006

14. Devi LLp said...

Jamis, I think you would make a passionate manager as well :)

I think the methodology you propose would work for those hiring managers who have the spark. The truth is, that most stable (non startup) organizations tend to be more conservative, and the management is more entrenched and a lot less passionate about finding “the best talent” which would involve a detailed look at the candidates and their work.

Most project/managers don’t want their projects to crash and burn, but they also tend to balance funds available, projects on the go, market rates, probability of landing the deal, rivalries within the management ranks etc. into account while making these decisions.

While from a developer’s perspective we tend to look at what we would need and how the world should function, those making decisions about a framework, say, are more on the ‘dispassionate’ side of the tools and by extension the developers, that they would pick.

I have seen that a project manager has to also worry about disaster recovery scenarios in which someone leaves in the middle of the project. It can happen because management is bad, in which case one could say that they deserved it. It can also happen due to other reasons.

From my limited experience in the consulting and project management world, When you go into a project and you do contingency planning, the choice of tool is ultimately linked with availability of “adequate” resources. I say adequate, because most of the time, you have to walk the fine line of maximizing billability for the longest period of time without pissing the client off. Sorry to sound cynical about it, but all ra-ra aside, this is what is happening in the business world, and everyone’s karma sort of evens itself out in the end :)

Obviously, the context in which I am placing this discussion is that of widespread use of Ruby and Ruby on Rails. It will happen in the future, but we are already seeing signs which are manifesting themselves in terms of rumblings re: certifications etc.

From you response, I am assuming that my “craftsperson” theory is correct. This is how you select the best artisan and craftsperson, because you yourself are passionate about it.

When 10% margins, long running support contracts with large corporations are concerned, corporate climbers really don’t give two hoots about how passionate a developer is. It is disgusting to see how managers/project managers talk of “bodies” that they will take on.

I can see where you are coming from, but I can also see that it will be a long time before Rails and its creator’s philosophy will permeate the North American corporation to the point that we won’t need to have this discussions :)

For now, the biggest concern for me, if I was putting a project team together for a 10 million contract, would be to know ahead of time how I would deal with contingencies. Because as you are possibly aware, sometimes you have to pay hefty penalties to the clients if you don’t deliver on time :) and you don’t want to crash and burn and stake your career at a hot-shot programmer or two or the latest framework (no matter how awesome it maybe) if you know full well that you will have to have a hit and miss approach to find resources.

Sad, but unfortunately given the constraints, a proper certification does give people some peace of mind and it is not just some manegerial bull$hit that businesses believe in just cuz they read it in the latest business book.

peace!

15. Jamis said...

Excellent counter-argument, Devi, thank-you for taking the time to post it. However, I’m still completely against certifications. :) A certification only guarantees that someone wanted the job bad enough to spend some time and a fair chunk of money to become rudimentarily acquainted with some language or environment. As I argued before, it is in no way a certificate of competence, and I wish more managerial types understood that distinction. I can understand how having some certifying authority tell them that “person X has passed an exam proving they know some minimum requirements” would give a certain element of warm-fuzziness, but that’s only because they have no real idea what the certification means. :)

At any rate, I agree that there is no perfect solution. In a perfect world, the hiring company could say “we’re working on X and need someone who knows how to do Y”, and a developer would come along with integrity who would honestly say “I can do those things competently”, and the company would just take their word for it.

In an imperfect world, we have to substitute security for integrity. It’s just too bad that certifications have become an element of that security, because they really are meaningless.

16. Devi LLP said...

Jamis, I concur with your sentiments on the state of certifications in the software world today. What I am proposing is perhaps find a way forward. Not really advocating certifications here because as we have seen, most of the time they are subverted by vendors and by candidates.

So, I guess we are back to square one. At least we are not in negative territory :)

Personally, I would like to see good developers, as proud artists and practitioners of their craft, agree to have their past client reviews made public. Kind of like eBay for R/RoR developers. But I think there may be too many issues with the uptake on that one. Businesses don’t want to be liable, and developers don’t want to have negative marks against them be out there in perpetuity.

I think we agree there is a gap here. I am at a loss as to how that can be filled. Given the braintrust that is the Ruby and Ruby on Rails core, I am sure you guys will sooner or later come up with something which is as elegant a solution as are the products that you so proudly (and rightly so) champion.

Thanks.

13 Nov 2006

17. Neil Wilson said...

There is a wonderful line in Peopleware (DeMarco and Lister) that I think sums up certification and interview techniques in general:

If you want to hire a juggler, isn’t it a good idea to watch them juggle first?

NeilW

18. Sean Cribbs said...

Perhaps the worst part about those certifications is that they test textbook-like knowledge, which can be learned by rote; and then in most of them, you pass if you get 60-70% or better! Clearly, it’s a situation where the knowledge they’re testing is something that you would look up in a manual or API, rather than “how would you solve this problem, given access to all the informational resources available?”

I would have more respect for certifications if they were more like Advanced Placement tests where you write essays. Except in many cases for tech certs, it would be writing code. Then your code-essay could be scored on a scale (1-5 or 1-15 on AP tests) by a panel of jurists who can weigh empirical things like “does it work” with subjective things like “how efficient is it” and “can I read and understand it”.

Even so, it would not solve the corporate mentality to place a stamp on people without evaluating other aspects of their skills. One reason why I haven’t sought any certifications… I don’t want to be branded!

19. Christian Romney said...

A much better measure of a programmer is the estimation of his or peers. If Jamis and DHH tip their hats to me, it’s much more valuable than some random cert. Likewise, when making hiring decisions (both now and in the past) I have never given much weight to certifications.

One idea I find very interesting is that of a guild. Not the cheesy kind with webrings and the like, but a real artisan-style guild with apprenticeships. Of course, this sort of thing involves serious time commitments but RUGs and Ruby Brigades are the perfect places for this sort of program. I’d love to get your thoughts on this.

20. Jamis said...

Interesting idea, Christian, about apprenticeships. It reminds me of some stuff Chad Fowler talks about in his “My Job Went to India” book. Sounds like you want to make it much more formal and contractual, though. I think it would be great, but it definitely would require a good chunk of time to be invested by both parties. Not something to enter into lightly.

Regarding using this as a replacement for certifications, it would require that the “master” be a trusted individual, that could be relied upon to give a fair assessment of his apprentice’s competence. I’d be interested to hear more about this.

30 Nov 2006

21. PDS said...

There is a fundamental problem with not having some sort of certification, in that you propose everyone must “expose” themself or their work in order to be known to be competent. It is impossible, in the methods suggested above, to be considered competent without courting favor through blogs or open source projects. In essence, you make it political.

The point of certifications, like the civil service exams the chinese famously began, is to objectively set a baseline regardless of the political affiliation of the candidate.

Lest you think I’ve wandered off into the weeds, please keep in mind that any association of more than 2 people is a political society. (See sociology 101) The phrase “office politics” has nothing to do with elections and everything to do with the power structure of that society.

Now, getting back on point – your system is “elitist”, not in the defensible sense having to do with competence, but in the sense that it requires association with and approval of a person by a known member of the self-appointed elite. It’s an exclusive society that is inherently subjective, and with a self-serving bias to preserve it’s small numbers for egoist and economic reasons.

Certifications create an objective minimum competence. It may not meet your much loftier (because you are elite…) standards, but it should mean a certified programmer knows the fundamentals.

None of what I have said addresses the “diploma mill” problems, endemic to the microsoft and cisco certifications, where memorizing brain dumps and learning test-taking strategy are at least as important to success as actual comprehension, but those are flaws in the implementation, and not flaws in the concept.

It is conceivable that a rigorous enough exam (ie, one optimized not for profitable administration but for determination of capacity) could be devised that would allow for objective certication. It need not be “meaningless” as you say.

Perhaps it could be combined with a social website, seeded by DHH and a dozen or so “rock stars” instantly labelled as “masters” (inlcuding Jamis of course)

Someone learning on their own, would be considered “novice”, simply by joining the site.

Once that person took a certification test, they would hold the first rank in the “master” system, that of “apprentice”

After being certified, any single master could be convinced to promote that person to journeyman status, provided they vouched for their required 2 years work experience. A second master’s vote

After another year of work experience, two other masters would need to be convinced that this person was fully competent, to vote for their obtaining master status.

By combining an objective test (to gain apprentice status) with a subjective reference system, accessible to “ignorant” hiring managers as simply a grade of competence, you would do a great service to all parties.

A single person gain a certification, apprentice status that gets them an entry-level job once confirmed by the non-technical hiring manager (who gets a simple check on how competent someone is)

Masters get to subjectively control admittance to their own ranks, via two chokepoints, but the less objectively they apply it, by voting in their buddies, the more meaningless they make their own rank.

Eventually, a “grand master” class would be needed, but your objections to certification comne across as protecting your own acknowledged competence against dilution at the lowest level, not distinction amongst the highest.