I’ve really nothing witty to say about this subject as a prologue to my thoughts, because its a serious topic. As you read these words, know that somewhere out there a classroom of people have paid anywhere from $50 USD to $250 USD for the privilege of taking a test. If they pass this test, they will receive a paper certificate saying they have passed and be granted the right to put a certain grouping of capital letters after their name no professional business cards, signatures, and online profiles. For some this is a lifetime award, and for others they’ll need to again pay for the privilege every few years if they want to keep tagging said letters to their name. The bodies conducting these tests are not affiliated with any accredited institution of higher learning nor do they have any sort of license or charter from a governmental oversight board. The testing bodies generally fall under the umbrella of “professional organizations” which can be defined as a collection of people who’ve formed a group based solely on a common understanding of their trade and its work. Since there can be many different understandings of their trade and its work, there can be many different professional organizations. Sometimes the differences can be apparently slight to the uninitiated, but it does not matter. Professional organizations exist to serve the initiated and direct the uninitiated. Sometimes these differences can have large consequences such as the one between the American Medical Association and dentists. Since they would not be allowed into the AMA, dentists formed the ADA and to this day there are still pockets of violence and mayhem if one member (intentionally or otherwise) infringes on territory tagged by the other. Stories of drive-by flossing are horrible, so there’s no need to repeat them here.
But what, you may ask, do these people sitting in a room (usually in Europe or India) have to do with me? Everything. According to the word on the street, if by “street” you mean various blogs and message-boards, these people represent the end of software testing as we know it. After reading the passionate debate on both sides, I’ve some to conclusion the Mayans were actually talking about this conflict and not the end of the physical world. So look for 2012 to be the year Software Testing as a job ends. Update your resumes.
But in all seriousness, what’s really going on here? Quite simply there are two forces at work. The first is a natural tendency of trades to eventually evolve into professions. And why do trades naturally evolve into professions? To some extent its to keep up with advances in techniques and knowledge formerly kept private to protect your livelihood. Another reason is the movement to a profession involves a codification of first principles and a body of knowledge which allows higher level discourse and development to occur. It’s hard to move the conversation along if you’re spending all your time trying to figure out what someone means by a “pony wall” in a technical paper. But mostly the trades move toward professions because once the uninitiated buy into the idea you are a profession, you can charge a lot more for your services. You see when you work at a tradesman level you are required to obtain specialized skills and knowledge, but its seen mostly as an obtainable task requiring only a certain amount of study and a little practice. For proof, witness the number of weekend tradesmen who decide they can re-tile their bathrooms in a weekend because they took a three hour course at Home Depot. A profession because of the existence of professional bodies, bodies of knowledge, and seemingly arcane jargon give the impression of unique abilities to the uninitiated. The outsiders then feel as thought they must compensate the initiated at greater levels if they want to take advantage of their rare and unique abilities. For proof, how many people do you know who feel comfortable filling their own cavities after taking a weekend course at Home Dental? Do you even know where the dental supply stores are in your town? How about the hardware stores?
I rest my case.
So what are the identified steps toward becoming a profession? According to Ask.com (the Wikipedia of the 90’s except with … you know … vetted contributors), they are as follows:
- The establishment of the activity as a full-time occupation
- The establishment of training schools and university links
- The formation of a professional organization
- The struggle to gain legal support for exclusion
- The formation of a formal code of ethics
These steps look good enough for me to throw out there as a working theory so look at them and see if you can figure out where software testing currently lives. Have we established ourselves as an activity with a full time occupation? Yes, with some debate still remaining amongst Luddites who persist in thinking nothing can occur without a coder dipping their beak. But those people are to most extents doomed to the recycle folder of history as Software Test has pretty much established a beach head, moved into the dunes, and erected rides and concession stands along the piers. So it looks like right now we’re attempting to formulate some professional organizations to help … but wait. What happened to step number two? Do we have recognized and accredited training schools offering degrees in software testing out there?
No. The closest we currently come are a few classes offered as addendum at Colleges and Universities offering a more generalized Computer Science (ie: coding/architecture and sysadmin) degree. Some lower level (two year colleges and trade schools) and unaccredited or “for profit” colleges are offering coursework in software testing but that doesn’t count. So if step two does not exist, why are people attempting to jump straight into steps three and beyond.
The reason is the second (and possibly third) force at work … greed coupled with the desire not to seem like a fool. Since institutions of higher learning do not currently offer comprehensive coursework on the subject or software testing, the professional organization seeking to collect people together can find a rich source of income filling that void for people seeking entry. This is why certification by medical boards is NOT a multi-million dollar international industry, unlike software testing certification. The business of these certification bodies is to make themselves as attractive to potential revenue sources as possible, primarily through numbers. It’s a pyramid scheme to some extent. The more people who get certified by a particular body, the more attractive it becomes to others. The accrual of numbers is in essence lending it an air of authority. McDonald’s used to attempt the same when it assured potential customers they shouldn’t feel guilty about purchasing a giant ball of fat and grease that tasted like cardboard because millions of other people had made the same choice. The certification bodies are simply doing the same. ” A million billion testers can’t be wrong.” Unfortunately the cycle is becoming self-perpetuating for many because people with these certifications are now coming into positions of hiring authority. Either because they don’t want to admit they were gullible and spent money on something that proved of little value or they actually believe in the system because of the air of authority imparted by the illusion of popularity, they have started making these letters after someone’s name a requirement for employment. This is opening up even more avenues of revenue because now the certification bodies can loop in people who just want to get a job and find they can’t, even though they suspect it’s all “a racket.”
So is this self-perpetuating pyramid scheme the end of the testing industry, or even putting it in danger? I don’t believe so. I’ve been around long enough to know people who saw something similar happen with coding, and that seems to be doing okay as an industry. Why did it stop? Because step number two eventually asserted itself. Four year colleges and accredited Universities began offering majors in computer science distinct from mathematics and/or electrical engineering. Once that began happening, the natural tendency of the college academic is to publish their thoughts and ideas in order to subject them ACTUAL peer review. Most crackpot or misinformed opinions cannot stand up to actual peer review, so all of the generalized “programmer certifications” went away. They’d survived before only because they were usually published in an echo chamber where only those espousing similar beliefs would “challenge” them. I see similar things happening with a lot of testing “academic journals” and other publications. Rigorous academic review and healthy debate will soon enough silence them, once the colleges catch up to us. In the end the only people harmed by these groups are the ones who may have spent more money than they could afford betting on a body of knowledge that later becomes discredited. It’s an individual choice, however. You’re free to roll the dice and spend your money how you would like. You’re also free to perpetuate the cycle as a hiring manager as long as you would like, in spite of any evidence to the contrary.
But my advice to all of you is to weigh your choices carefully. We’re not yet a profession as we just barely became a trade perhaps 30 years ago. Spend money educating yourself and developing your trade craft and do the smart thing … wait it out. In the meantime, attach yourself to the smartest and best tradesmen (and women) you know like a sucker fish cleaning off the shark. You may guess correctly about where the industry will emerge in the decades to come, but you may not. Can you afford to gamble with the money you’re being asked to put on the table?