Sunday, November 05, 2006


On Certifications, Learning and the ACS

Rob Farley’s series of blog posts (How they know you know , What’s wrong with IT?, On Learning) raise some excellent questions on how we could provide accurate and representative certifications in software development. Does the software development industry need a regulatory body? This is something the ACS has tried and so far failed to do, though I suspect they are doing this from a political motivation rather from a position of industry consensus.

  • Do certifications matter? It depends!
  • Do certifications prove you can do a specific job? It depends!
  • Would certifications with logged hours prove you can do a specific job? Definitely!

Rob provides an analogy with the health industry but I think this is more like gaining your pilot’s license. You have to log a certain number of flying hours i.e. actual ‘on the job’ experience, recorded and logged and audited. Trainee surgeons perform minor surgery under the watchful eye of their mentors, and as their experience increases they perform increasingly complex and lengthy procedures. Trainee pilots fly dual control planes with their mentor in order to log sufficient flying hours (a friend with a pilot’s license assures me that PC flight simulators really do help you learn to fly!). So perhaps this is what the software industry is lacking. No one wants you flying a plane solo or whipping out an appendix if you don’t know what you are doing! But is the topic too broad and changing too quickly? Should we just favour people you have the ability to learn quickly, are enthusiastic and have the ability to get the job done?

Can you regulate and accreditise the software development Industry? Is the ACS the body to do it? I personally think that the single most important factor in making the IT industry, and particularly the software development side of it, almost impossible to regulate is its breadth and rate of change. By the time anyone writes a comprehensive accreditation (including books, exams and the information filters through to university courses etc) it has often been revised, sometimes dramatically so.

The very malleable and black box nature of software renders it unsuitable for the same metrics or ergonomics we apply to other more tangible things. Take for instance, designing an entirely new interface to a process: with no ‘yard’ stick other than experience, it is hard to define a ‘good’ (or even ‘good enough’) interface. [This is where the Zen like “Be your own client” is useful]. It is not something that is easily taught; rather it needs to be experienced. Rather like the important role of making mistakes and learning by them. There are schools of thought that believe making mistakes are a fundamental part of the learning process.

I think a positive way forward is for a company such as Microsoft to bring out developer certifications in 'a new' sandbox format that truly measure 'ingrained' skills as oppose to 'swotted' facts. Microsoft has already made moves in this direction. A software certification that is guaranteed to prove you can do a range of things would be much more like law or accountancy exams. Exams which are heavily multiple choice orientated are always going to spawn so called brain dumps, which can be rote learned. Now there is nothing essentially wrong with rote learning; after all that’s how we all learn to speak! The problem is that the number of questions can never be large enough to be a representative test, unless you were asking hundreds, if not thousands of questions, which of course is impractical.

A number of the leading practioneers in our industry are self taught programmers. OK, I have no hard statistics, but I do know at least half of the high profile names in our industry are self taught programmers, and that’s not to say they don’t have a university education in Computer Science or some other subject. It’s just that they taught themselves before attending a degree course.

Consider the fact that most managers have no relevant qualification or certification to show they can perform their role well (and let’s face it, many can’t). This is no different from a programmer. Do we expect managers to have certifications in management? Hmmm, maybe we should…

I think Mitch Denny and Rob Farley made some excellent observations but I think they may have missed something when they talk about the digital native. The biggest problem digital natives face is not that they dislike learning or being taught, it’s that they do not like being held back in the rate of learning; education is set up to run at a pace slightly above (and one would hope above not below) the ‘class average’ and that syllabuses, teaching methods and rate, reflect this. If you are passionately interested in any topic, learning it will not seem like a chore and the rate of learning and retention is much higher.

The ACS has tried to be more relevant but does not seem to be succeeding (I won’t mention the pin-up calendar affair, nor that they are conspicuously silent in the blogosphere!). Maybe new, recruits like Rob can have a significant impact and I truly hope so; but deep down I’m a cynic and I believe they won’t make a substantial difference in the near term. Many people who have become involved with the ACS have commented on its heavy bureaucracy, and like politics, many people get involved eager to change things but slowly get absorbed by the existing command structure.

I’m not adverse to the ACS or other societies such as the ACM and IEEE (I have been a member of both), nor am I adverse to the ACS attempting to be a catalyst for change in the industry (hell, I might even join for a year!), I just don’t think they are going about it in the right way.
I felt encouraged reading Rob’s account of the ACS’s mentoring scheme, which sounds like a great idea and probably worth the membership fee alone, if the program is any good; it’s only downside appears to be that it is effectively a ‘closed-shop’, so it’s not possible to say whether or not it’s particularly relevant. I believe the best thing the ACS could do to show that it is the right body for the software development industry, is to make it’s mentoring program more open and maybe even open it to non-members with the view that if it is good then people will join in order to have continued involvement in the mentoring program.

Personally, I’d love to have a mentor! I was about to say it’s probably too late for me but then I remembered this:

It is never too late to be what you might have been. - George Eliot

“Change favours the rich, the insider, the passionate and the downright lucky!” That’s enough raving from me…

UPDATE: Rob Farley let me know that the ACS mentoring scheme only applies to people in the Professional Development course run by the ACS. It doesn't apply automatically to all members.


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