August 25, 2016

Why Agile Certifications Alone Don’t Make Agile Testers

The aura around Agile certification is growing by the day. Whatever their IT project role, individuals – newbies and experienced people alike – have begun to pursue Agile certification to add credence to their profile.

And managers like you and me, we are playing along. We introduce certification as a component of our teams’ annual appraisal. We make certification ‘desirable’ for any jobs we are recruiting for.

Getting certified to validate your understanding of a skill or knowledge area is always a good idea. The belief is that by getting our team certified, we improve their (and therefore our) chances of success. And (potentially) significantly reduce upskill time and level of support/ mentoring necessary to build an Agile team.

Theory is important – it has its place in the learning ladder. So, in theory, if you spent a few hundred dollars, euros or pounds, put in some after-work reading, and gave a test, you’d earn the title of an Agile Tester – or a Certified Scrum Master, or a Business Analysis or Project Management professional. You’d be certified. Well done!

If most of your team possess such Agile certifications to flaunt their understanding of Agile and Agile Testing, you’d feel more confident of their ability to succeed in an Agile working environment. Fantastic!

I’m serious when I say this – it’s good to get certified. There are no downsides to that. Just like it’s good to get an MBA.

The real question is, if it’s necessary. And, more importantly, if it’s enough.

Is getting certified as good as acquiring experience? This is a question Test Managers are beginning to ponder.

In this post, we will explore why Agile certifications in themselves aren’t enough to provide your team the skills necessary to succeed. And we will review what, in addition to certifications, will help your team become truly Agile in their ways of working.

The market for Agile certification is vibrant

Using Agile certifications to bring parity of skills within the team is a sound strategy for improving team efficiency. And the market for certification reflects this thinking as well.

A quick search for Agile certifications for Testers will show you one thing: that there are a lot of organisations out there that are keen to help you get certified as an Agile Tester. Which is also a good thing.

As with any other discipline (Project Management, Business Analysis etc.), a host of Agile certifications exist for Testing. And as with any skill that has many options for Agile and Scrum certification, some are preferred over others (ISTQB over ICP-TST, anyone?).

Managers highlight the number of skill-certified professionals in their team when selling their ability to take on a challenging assignment or client. Job adverts for Testers and Test Leads imply that a candidate stands a better chance if they possess an Agile Testing certification or Scrum certification.

Traditionally respected skill certifiers like the PMI (Project Management Institute), ISTQB (International Software Testing Qualifications Board) and IIBA (International Institute of Business Analysis) have all jumped on to the Agile certification bandwagon. They have either introduced standalone Agile certifications, or tweaked the syllabus for their flagship certificate courses to include an Agile extension.

The stats are quite convincing.

About 500,000 testers in the world have so far acquired a certificate in testing by ISTQB. And I’d extrapolate that a roughly equal number have received a certificate from the host of other alternatives to ISTQB out there. The numbers for certified individuals in other streams like development, business analysis and project management are equally mind boggling.

Apart from the bog standard Agile and Scrum related certifications like Certified Agile Tester, PMP-Agile Certified Practitioner (PMP-ACP), Certified Scrum Master (CSM) etc., more niche Agile certifications are now gaining popularity. Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) certifications are a case in point. With the ever-increasing need to introduce Agile ways of working to large enterprises, SAFe Agile certifications are gaining popularity among the enterprise crowd.

Do Agile Testing certifications help?

“Yes. And No.”

Yes. Certificates and related prep/training courses offer some foundational knowledge and training on the subject – in this case, Agile Testing. Experienced testers see them as a refresher, and an opportunity to reinforce Agile Testing fundamentals. For the inexperienced among the lot, Agile testing certifications introduce Agile and Scrum fundamentals, and provide them a solid base on which to build Agile Testing experience.

Agile/Scrum Certifications help standardise Agile Testing concepts and fundamentals in the minds of testers and test managers. They help testers use consistent language and terminology in their day-to-day project interactions. Standard processes and practices can be imbibed, implemented and practised. In that sense, yes – certificates help.

And No. We’re still seeing poorly planned testing impacting project delivery. Some so-called Agile projects spend almost 40% to 50% of their lifecycle in testing and defects management.


Because, the team – certified or otherwise – sometimes don’t understand Agile. And sometimes, they don’t understand testing either. Recruitment isn’t always effective as we tend to pick candidates with certificates as a first preference, without trying enough to measure and validate the individual’s experience. A lot of good candidates are lost due to this ineffective screening strategy. In that sense, no – certificates don’t help.

How do you help your team become good Agile Testers?

Agile/Scrum certification or attending a training course alone won’t make a good Agile tester. There is no substitute to experience. Hard, solid experience gained over years of testing in Agile projects.

Your team need to learn how to handle the practical challenges of working on Agile projects. They can learn to do that only by working on Agile Projects. While there are many Scrum and Agile certificates and training courses out there that can provide a good overview of Testing in Agile projects, a tester learns to be effective on Agile projects only with hands on experience.

The market is waking up to the fact that Agile skills and practical experience are more valuable than certifications. And you should too.

“There is no substitute to experience. Hard, solid experience gained over years of testing in Agile projects.”

Get them hands on Agile project experience

That is not to say drop the idea of Agile certification altogether. By all means encourage your team to get certified. As I’ve said before, it can only mean good.

Just don’t stop there or make Agile certification your team’s only priority. Your focus needs to shift towards helping your team acquire demonstrable Agile Testing experience.

And demonstrable Agile Testing experience can only be achieved by immersing your team in Agile projects. Expose them to the Agile ways of working. Get Agile coaches’ help to imbibe Agile principles and practices. Hold them to the high standards necessary to deliver truly Agile projects.

Encourage sharing within the team – of experience, of feedback, of best practices. Imbibe a level of responsibility in every team member to go truly Agile.

Set measurable performance targets that encourage Agile transformation

Such as identifying 95% of all critical functional bugs within sprints, and before regression tests. We’re not talking 95% of all bugs here – just critical and functional bugs.

We tested this approach with one of my teams a few years ago. And the results were stupendous. My testers embedded themselves into the Scrum team (yes, I know some argue that developers must test within sprints). They then created/ selected Test Scenarios and Test Cases for user stories being delivered within the sprint. Following Sprint Planning sessions, the test scenarios and cases were passed to the corresponding developer of a user story by the end of the 1st day of the sprint (or by the second day at most).

Developers used the test scenarios and test cases as the minimum passing criteria for their Unit Testing and Development Integration Testing.

Lo and Behold! We had well-tested code before the end of the sprint, which the testers could then put through a series of System and User Acceptance Tests.

Having the test scenarios and test cases to hand at the beginning of a sprint meant everyone involved could focus their energy on the most important tasks:

  • The tester worked with the BA to come up with Test scenarios and test cases soon after the planning session was completed on Day 1 of the sprint.
  • The BA worked with the Product Owner (yes, again, they are two different roles – Scrum doesn’t preclude BAs) to finalise look and feel and copy elements using the test artefacts as a guiding scope.
  • Using the test artefacts, the developer caught most major bugs, usually within the first week of the sprint (we had 3-week sprints), and was able to pass back cleaner code for integration testing.
  • More importantly, the developer was able to focus their energy on building the minimum code necessary to pass the test cases, greatly improving their code efficiency.
  • The tester had the time to prepare extensively for System and User Acceptance Testing close to the end of the sprint. And they had much less to test and fewer bugs to catch, thanks to the cleaner code. Not having to execute run-of-the-mill test cases also meant they could spend time and energy on catching the subtler and more complex bugs which are usually hard to find, using other methods like exploratory testing.

Provide daily, onsite Agile Coaching

Agile coaches perform a very important function – especially in mid- to large-size IT organisations trying to convert to Agile ways of working. Agile Coaches work across a number of projects in a large team, and monitor Agile adoption. They provide knowledge, support, process consultancy and mentoring.

Agile coaches absorb a lot of the confusion that ensues when your team is transitioning from waterfall to Agile. Having them around boosts your team’s confidence during the transition, knowing that they can rely on their Agile coaches for guidance and support.

Aim to have at least one Agile coach supporting four to six scrum teams at a time. This will benefit all the disciplines – not just testing.

When you’re recruiting…

“Look for candidates with demonstrable experience rather than just for those with shiny Agile certificates.”

When you have a problem, fix it at the source. The most effective way to build an effective Agile Testing team is to fix the tap that filters candidates into your organisation. As with anything else, transforming your waterfall team into a bunch of successful Agile testers requires that you introduce good Agile testers into the team.

When recruiting, look for candidates with demonstrable experience rather than just those with shiny Agile certificates. Some of them could have both, and that is a bonus. But don’t discard candidates that don’t have an Agile Certification based on just that criterion alone.

Be more involved with initial screening. Where your HR team does the initial screening for you, provide them a well thought out target candidate profile. And give them specific questions to ask during the first HR screening call that helps bring out the candidate’s Agile Testing experience.

For instance, they could ask ‘Can you describe a project which used Agile methodology, and how you did or led testing to support Scrum? Be as detailed as you can in your description of day-to-day responsibilities’. While they may not necessarily understand everything a candidate might provide in response, your recruiter will be able to gauge with enough confidence whether the candidate is truly experienced as an Agile tester.

Better yet, go hands on with the recruitment process end-to-end. Get your team to screen profiles for Agile experience. And take the help of your Agile coaches as well.

Over a period of time, you will have introduced more Agile testing experience into your team. This infusion will help the rest of your team gradually upskill.

Organisational changes to support Agile ways of working

“Agile transformation for traditional waterfall-oriented organisations can be quite painful and stressful for all involved.”

I have discussed Agile Transformation at an organisational level previously. Transformation is – well – transformational. The impact should be felt right at the top, and down to the grassroots level. Agile transformation for traditional waterfall-oriented organisations can be quite painful and stressful for all involved.

The challenge is to get through it and in the right way, always with the end goal in mind. Agile Transformation is a sure shot way for you to go beyond just depending on Agile and Scrum certification to get desired outcomes.

Bringing it all together

The knowledge and skills that an Agile certification provides will definitely augment your team’s experience.

Agile Certifications, however won’t replace Agile Testing experience earned over time by working on Agile projects. Understanding the difference will make Agile Testing a successful endeavour for you and your team.

Transforming your organisation to Agile ways of working will prove effective in the long term. And don’t forget to shake things up with your recruitment strategy – Agile and Scrum certificates alone aren’t enough to help you interview and recruit your next Testing superstar.

What are your thoughts on the importance of Agile certification in building Agile talent? Leave your comment below to discuss.

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