Agile Ponderings: Certification – useful or not?

I’ve had to do a lot of thinking about certification recently. Why? Because I needed to decide if I should apply to become a Certified Scrum Coach (CSC).  As you can see from the logo on the left, I did decide to apply, and in fact, as of April 20, 2009 I’m officialy a CSC (I wouldn’t be able to display the logo if I was not a CSC).  I believe I was the 19th person in the world to be awarded CSC status.  I have to admit it feels pretty good to know I was accepted.  If you look at the criteria and the application form you will see there is a very high bar to exceed in order to qualify.

There have been many blog posts recently about certifications for agile.  James Shore has one here, Elisabeth Hendrickson has one here, Michael Dubakov has one here, Peter Stevens has one here, and even an April Fool’s joke by Scott Ambler here.  For many people the problem with certification seems to center around how it is accomplished.  For a long time it has been possible to become a Certified Scrum Master (CSM) by attending a CSM course which was facilitated by a Certified Scrum Trainer (CST).  There was supposed to be a test given at the end of the course starting on April 1, 2009, but a delay in the implementation date was recently announced.  The common question being asked is, can you truly get enough information to become “certified” in something by simply attending a two or three day course?

The answer of course is no, unless you are trying to be certified in something EXTREMELY simple.  I don’t count agile or scrum as “simple” at all, so becoming certified in 2-3 days doesn’t make sense to me.  However, that is looking at it from the perspective of expecting “mastery” to be what the certification implies.  In the case of CSM, I believe it is not really mastery (even though it says Master in the name), but rather a certification that you have been exposed to Scrum in a meaningful way.  The choice of the words “certified scrum master” is unfortunate, but at this point we can’t change history.  For CSM, I believe hiring managers also look at it as having been exposed to Scrum in a somewhat meaningful course.  Other than that, it isn’t really used in the industry very much.  When you see job ads asking for Scrum Masters they rarely mention CSM, they want someone with actual experience doing the job and doing it well!

Which leads to the next Scrum level of certification: the Certified Scrum Practitioner (CSP).  Almost no one has a problem with this level of certification because it implies not only do you have a knowledge of Scrum, you have actually used it!  I dislike the fact you can be on a project that failed and still get CSP status, but that is a minor nit.  It is a true practitioner certification.  In fact, until I became a CSC I used it in my bio and no one batted an eye.

This all leads to the level of certifiation I just achieved: the Certified Scrum Coach (CSC) level.  This combines a lot of knowledge about Scrum coaching (have you seen the application?), significant real-world experience coaching (1500 hours) and references (at least 2).  This means it is not just knowledge, but also practice and even having someone else say you were successful at it.  To me this certification has some real teeth to it, and that is why I decided to apply for it.

In summary my feelings about agile certification are as follows:

  1. If the certfication is based on actually having done it AND knowledge of how to do it then in my book it is a valid certification.
  2. If the certification is based on only knowledge which can be gained by reading a book, then it is not quite so useful.  It is only useful to show the person certified has been exposed to the practices but may not actually know how to apply them in the real world.  Theory is not reality!
  3. If the certification includes references then it means more to me.  This is why I like the CSC certification.  It includes all of #1 above as well as requiring at least a couple of people willing to say you were good at it.

The next certification I will pursue is that of Certified Scrum Trainer (CST).  This certification also comes under fire at times.  I believe it has come under fire mainly because there is no component of it which says the people a CST has trained have been successful as Scrum Masters.  There is a need for reference letters, but there is nothing to stop someone from submitting two from the same course and even from the same company.  I hope that doesn’t happen, but in theory it could.  In my case I’ll have a cross-section of people from several different clients who will all say the training they received started them on a successful path.  Thankfully, having trained or presented to nearly 1000 people in the past 18 months I don’t have a shortage of candidates to write reference letters!  My problem with the CST certification is a bit less theoretical – it costs a lot of money.  $7500 for certification as a CST is the most expensive certification I’ve seen.  I wish the certification were more difficult to achieve, but it does at least have a bar in terms of ability, and the cost is another bar which I believe keeps many unqualified individuals from trying.  I’ll be sending in my application in a couple of weeks.  Then we’ll see!

How does this post match my blog mission to help struggling teams?  Teams should not assume having someone go to CSM training will be a savior for the team.  A new CSM may have some knowledge that will help, but in the end, results are the true measure of success.  If your team isn’t being successful, get help from someone with both the knowledge AND the practical results to back up that knowledge.  Check references and ask plenty of questions.  In the end, engaging someone who can really make a difference will be well worth the money!

Until next time I won’t be worrying about agile certification because certification isn’t Making Agile a Reality™ for organizations. It is primarily people doing the right thing regardless of certification which drives success.

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  1. Thanks for this overview, Bob. I’ve been wondering about the training courses (and their usefulness.) I agree that experience and academic learning go hand in hand for developing skill in almost any endeavor. I do see a lot of job descriptions that say they want CSM, almost as a prerequisite.

    1. I’m glad you found it helpful. There is certainly nothing wrong with becoming a CSM. If companies are requiring it I think the hiring managers need a bit more education, but that is a lot harder to accomplish. There are some really good Certified Scrum Trainers out there. If you do decide to go through the training email me and I can send you a list of my favorites.