Editor’s Note: Tammy Khan has now earned every ISTQB, ASTQB, and IQBBA Foundation and Advanced Level certification offered by ASTQB. She graciously offered to answer our questions so other testers could learn from her experience.
Q. Your record of certifications is quite impressive! Can you give us the entire list?
A. I obtained my first ISTQB/ASTQB/IQBBA certification in October of 2017, and by March of 2018, just over five months later, I had passed 10 more exams. As it stands right now, I hold all of the certifications currently offered at the Foundation and Advanced Levels and would need to meet the work experience prerequisites to progress further.
Here is the complete list of my certifications, in the order I achieved them: CTFL, CMT, CTFL AT, CFLBA, CUT-FL, CTAL-TAE, CTAL-SEC, CTAL-TTA, CTAL-TA, CTAL-TM, CTAL Full [this is awarded upon the completion of all three Advanced core certifications], and CPT.
Q. Can you tell us about your background and experience in software testing?
A. Overall, I have 4+ years of full-time software testing experience as a QA Analyst and more than 10 years of work experience in information technology. As far as software testing is concerned, my focus has been on the manual testing of web applications used for healthcare business intelligence (BI) and care coordination. Primarily, I have concentrated on functional testing, data validation, application security, and user acceptance testing.
My foray into IT came right after my first stint in college as an Elementary Education major. After a change of heart, I turned down what would have been my first teaching job and joined the military to work in the telecommunications field.
In the Army, my initial training mainly involved electronics as well as computer operations and maintenance. My jobs in the service included work as an Automator and as a LAN Technician. These positions basically involved help desk support and a lot of break/fix work.
After the military, I took a job doing computer system rollouts and later did technical writing, editing, and researching for an online educational services and exam provider. Subsequently, I worked for a company’s quality assurance and engineering departments, mainly testing office print and imaging device hardware.
Seeking to build up a career in quality assurance, I returned to school to obtain a degree in Management Information Systems. This qualification matched much better with my career goals and what I did for a living.
After graduating the second time around, that was when I first landed a position in software testing.
Q. You mentioned that prior to getting your first certification, your company lost some client contracts and had layoffs. Have your certifications gained the attention of employers?
A. It was actually around nine months after starting to study for my first ASTQB certification that the company that insisted on paying my CTFL courseware access started to lose client contracts and go through a rough patch. Priorities changed at the business during this time as well, and the organization at some point no longer talked about paying for all the QAs in the department to take the CTFL exam.
When I left the company, I thought it would be prudent to resume studying for the exam, but with another training provider (an ASTQB-accredited training provider). I had to pay for the training out of my pocket, but it ended up being well worth the money and then some.
As far as getting the attention of employers, I do feel that my ASTQB certifications tend to propel my resume to the top of the pile. Recruiters have told me that that my certifications show a strong commitment to the software testing profession, and it looks to them that I have given my career a lot of thought and that I am in it for the long haul.
Also, before obtaining any ASTQB certifications, I noticed that hiring managers tended to ask me a lot more technical questions about software testing methodologies and procedures. But now, because I have so many software testing certifications under my belt, the questions I get tend to focus on whether I have familiarity with such and such tool, framework, or programming language. Nobody is trying to get me to prove to them anymore that I have competence in software testing. This has taken a load off of my back when preparing for interviews.
Q. Was the order in which you took the exams a good progression? Were you able to build on the following exams to some degree?
A. When I think about it more, I have come to the conclusion that there were good and bad aspects to the exam progression that I followed.
As for the good, my basic strategy after the CTFL exam was to accomplish as many Foundation Level certifications as I could before moving on to the harder stuff. Having an adequate knowledge of a broad range of Foundation Level subjects really helped me to understand and absorb the Advanced Level topics quickly. Much of the higher-level content was new to me, so it was important to have some solid scaffolding in place beforehand to get the most out of the studying.
One of the things I regret doing, though, is starting to study for CTAL-TTA before any of the other Advanced Level exams. At the time, I had an extremely limited exposure to general programming languages, so being able to read and analyze pseudocode for my course was a terribly frustrating experience early on. Additionally, studying involved doing a lot of complex exercises involving logic, drawing and interpreting diagrams, and getting a handle on technical testing procedures. As compared to the material for traditional-type exams and the other ASTQB offerings, there was a lot less emphasis on facts, principles, and definitions.
Because of the difficulties I experienced early on, I actually abandoned studying for the CTAL-TTA for a while and cleared the CTAL-TAE and the CTAL-SEC in the meantime. To complicate matters more, there were no specifically tailored study materials available for the CTAL-TAE exam. There was a book in the works, but it was scheduled to become available in the U.S. at least a couple months after it was needed.
I ended up passing the CTAL-TAE as my first Advanced Level certification using only the syllabus and sample exams provided by the ASTQB [I used the sample Test Automation exams from both the Advanced and Expert Levels]. As a person without any on-the-job experience in software test automation, the fact that I had no courseware or book to work from did not give me a lot of confidence on exam day. Thus, I would advise folks that are interested in their first Advanced Level certification to choose a topic with which they have some familiarity and make sure that there is adequate material available.
Instead of learning my lesson, though, I also studied for the CTAL-SEC without outside materials, even though they were readily available. But that was a much better experience because I regularly performed security testing in my job.
As far as the CPT exam is concerned, I wish that it was available to take around the time that I took the CMT exam. These two certifications are very much complimentary, and it would have been best to take either one after the other while the material was so fresh in my mind. But such a progression was impractical in my case because the CPT exam was released only after I cleared all of the Advanced Level exams.
Q. Which certification was the easiest? Why?
A. For me, the CPT exam was the easiest of the lot, though still challenging. I have no experience in software performance testing, and to complicate matters more, because of the newness of the exam, there were no outside materials available that were specifically geared to obtaining the certification. Despite this, the fact that it was my 11th ASTQB exam really helped me know what to study, how to study, and what to expect. So it ended up being no big deal.
Q. Which certification was the most difficult? Why?
A. Even though I had high-quality courseware at my disposal, the CTAL-TTA ended up being the most difficult certification to obtain because the subject matter really fell out of my comfort zone and I had no prior Advanced Level exams under my belt. Additionally, prior to cracking open the courseware, I had very little experience with general programming languages and, except for what I learned from security testing at my job, I had very little exposure to advanced testing methodologies. I also found it difficult to understand and absorb some of the key material and tended to have trouble working out my answers to questions within the recommended timeframes.
Because everything was so initially troublesome for me, I took a hiatus somewhere in the middle of the studying process and actually cleared two other ASTQB exams in the meantime. It took a lot of motivation to start studying for the CTAL-TTA again, but I am glad I did.
The second most difficult certification for me was the CTFL. This was my first ASTQB exam and, not knowing what to expect, it was hard to know when it was time to pull the plug on studying. I felt so overwhelmed by a lot of material that I had never encountered in testing at work.
Q. Did you learn more about what interested you professionally as you progressed through the certifications? How so?
A. Studying for the CTAL-TTA helped me understand code logic and my preparations for the CTAL-TAE made me understand how important programming skills have become for the software tester and for others who work in information technology. Additionally, while pursuing the CTAL-SEC certification, I developed a renewed interest in IT security and am currently working toward attaining general purpose, entry-level qualifications in that field. Lately I have been busy studying for an IT security certification and have been taking the programming courses that will be necessary for me to make a major career transition.
Q. Do you think it’s worth someone’s time to get the certifications, even if they don’t use them in their current job?
A. Yes, I do think that it can be beneficial to get certifications that one is not using at his or her job. In my case, if it were not for my pursuit of certifications, I would not know how outdated my software testing skillset had become or have been able to figure out that I have programming aptitude and interest.
IT certifications of all sorts can easily be recycled to support a career change, especially one within IT. For instance, certifications with “Analyst” in the name can potentially be used on a resume for Analyst positions that could be well outside of the software testing domain, strictly speaking, such as what we find with the Data Analyst or IT Security Analyst. For jobs requiring technical writing skill, one can list any number of certifications that helps make the case that one is a technical person. The CTAL-TM credential, I would think, could even be recycled for any type of IT manager’s resume, such as for an IT Project Manager or Network Administrator.
When I am ready to start applying for my first IT security job, I plan to feature more ASTQB certifications than just the CTAL-SEC certification on my resume, even if the position happens to deal with network security rather than application security [CTAL-SEC deals more with application security and ASTQB certifications in general tend to focus on testing applications].
Q. How did you train for the certifications?
A. For many of the certifications, I used online, on-demand courseware from an ASTQB-accredited training provider. This courseware included instructor videos, slides, and plenty of exercises and quizzes. It also provided easy access to the ASTQB syllabi and sample exams. I felt that it was especially important to cover every one of the suggested materials and, after finishing a given course, also spend half a day (for the CPT exam, for instance) to more than three days (in case of the CTAL-TTA course) rereading the slides, redoing select exercises, reviewing the syllabus, and retaking quizzes and the sample exams.
Halfway through studying for the CTFL, I actually switched from online courseware paid for by my workplace to the richer materials provided by the training provider. I found the latter to be of higher quality and something that fit better with my personal learning style. Even though I had to pay for courseware access out of my own pocket from that point forward, I still felt that everything was a good deal, especially because I continued to learn so much from my training. At the end of the day, then, I have to credit the ASTQB-accredited training provider with being a big part of my success as a test-taker.
That said, there were certifications where, for whatever reason, I chose to study just the ASTQB-provided syllabi and sample exams on my own and did not rely on any outside material. For the self study route, I read each syllabus at least twice, highlighted what I felt were the especially important sections, and took the ASTQB-supplied sample exam until I consistently scored 90 percent or better. I took the self-study approach only for the CUT-FL, CTAL-TAE, CTAL-SEC, and CPT examinations. It was a questionable strategy, mostly because of the fact that, except for the CTAL-SEC, I had little to no prior exposure to the examination topics.
Q. Did using a training provider make it easier to prepare for an exam?
A. Yes, using a training provider was a more straightforward process. For the exams in which I used this approach, I felt that I got much more out of my training efforts for every hour spent. Additionally, it was definitely helpful to have a seasoned professional offer their informed opinion about what topics I should emphasize more during my studies. Without a doubt, when I used the training provider route, it gave me much more confidence in my knowledge and abilities on exam day.
Q. Does having the certifications give you the confidence to know you can learn and grow as a professional? Why?
A. If two people have the same amount of experience and passion for the job, it stands to reason that the employer will tend to choose a candidate with strong certifications over someone who has not yet demonstrated these qualifications. I plan to continue to leverage the certifications that I have and also choose certifications in the future that have the greatest potential to both support my interests and set me apart from the crowd.
You can reach Tammy Khan at firstname.lastname@example.org.