Agile Certification Programs: Scam or Legit?

February 6
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Before I write about Agile certification, I want to share a story.  When I was still a software developer, I had an awful experience with certification. The company I was working for at the time needed to become a Microsoft Partner and so needed a number of staff to get Microsoft certifications. I was asked to get MCAD – Microsoft Certified Application Developer – and sent to a 9-day bootcamp style training which guaranteed certification at the end.

I was excited and nervous. Through my colleagues, I had heard that the exams for the certification were quite difficult and that there was a lot of material covered. I already had some great experience with Microsoft .NET programming, but was not an “expert”. On the first day of the camp, the instructor emphasized over and over again that we must go through the supplied practice exams. The structure of the camp was two days of instruction, ½ day of study, then an exam on the afternoon of the third day. There were three exams so that structure was repeated three times during the bootcamp. The instruction was terrible. Droning repetition of what was in the provided reference textbooks. There were no exercises that I can remember.

Finally, the third day arrived. I was exhausted by the terrible and lengthy lectures. I tried to study the textbooks, but I was super nervous. Finally, with just a couple hours before the exam, I decided to try the practice exam. I went through it quickly and found a few things that I needed to look up… but I thought I did okay.

Then I went to the testing centre. Supervised, and with booths and dedicated computers. No cheating possible. So I started the exam. The questions looked terribly familiar. In fact, every single question on the real exam was an almost exact replica of a question on the practice exam! The only differences were trivial changes to wording that had no impact on the answers. I was shocked. I almost didn’t finish writing the exam.

After I finished, I called my boss. I told him about how ridiculous the situation was. He advised me to finish anyway, and I did. I stuck it out through the nine days, passed all three exams, and got my MCAD certification. But I came away from the experience extremely cynical about certifications.

Theory of Certification

The definition of certification from a quick Google search is: “the action or process of providing someone or something with an official document attesting to a status or level of achievement.” By this definition, there is a great deal of room for variety of types of certification.

In the ecosystem developing around business agility, there are many examples of agile certification programs including:
– Scrum Alliance, Scrum.org, Scrum Study, etc.
– Scaled Agile, Large Scale Scrum, Scrum@Scale, etc.
– IC Agile, OpenAgile
– Lean Kanban University, Personal Kanban
– PMI (Project Management Institute) and PRINCE2
– … and many more.

Each of these organizations and their respective programs have a different model of certification. But one of the most fundamental questions most people want to know about a certificate is “is it recognized?” (and therefore will it help me improve my career prospects?)

Currently, the most well known agile certification programs globally are those from the Scrum Alliance, PMI, Scrum.org, Scaled Agile and the Lean Kanban University. Each of these programs has various advantages and disadvantages, but they are all globally recognized and “popular”. Obtaining certification from these organizations will help your career, but you must also be careful to understand each program to find out what suits you most.

Another important dimension of certification is harder to measure, but involves what is often referred to as “rigour” or “legitimacy”. In other words, does the certification actually mean that the person holding it actually has verified knowledge and/or skills? Given my above story, you can imagine that I’m somewhat sceptical of this aspect of certification…( it seems it is always possible to cheat.)

Nevertheless, there are complaints about many of the above certifying bodies and how they run their certifications. The organizations which seem to have the highest standards for testing (one dimension being rigour) include the PMI, Scaled Agile and Scrum.org. Many of the other organizations grant certifications based on attendance in learning environments with no formal testing. That said, testing is only a weak determination of quality. In fact, the learning environment is often much more important since that is an aspect of a person’s experience. (This is why at BERTEIG we refer to our training as Learning Events!)

Agile Certification and Careers

One of the great things about most agile certification programs is that you will learn new ideas, information and techniques. This learning will have an impact on your professional development depending on how hard you work to apply your learning and how receptive your work environment is to allowing change. If you work in a very rigid environment, you may end up forgetting much of what you learn simply because you are not able to practice it. Likewise, if you find you don’t have the personal discipline to use what you have learned, again, your new skills and knowledge will atrophy.

Every certification, therefore, isn’t just an isolated piece of paper… it depends heavily on how you and your organization actually apply the learning associated with the certification. If that learning is not applied, then the paper is worthless.

For many years now, I have been a Certified Scrum Trainer with the Scrum Alliance. Over the years, this particular program has been criticized, sometimes rightly, for how it is run.

Criticism of Agile Certification Programs

Many of the certification programs in the Agile ecosystem lack proctored exams to test knowledge. Nearly all programs lack independent review of practitioner skill level. As such, a strong case can be made that the overall state of certification in the Agile ecosystem is immature.

The Scrum Alliance certification program, perhaps partly due to its size in the marketplace, is frequently criticized. The main criticisms fall in the following categories:
1) Bums in seats: The CSM and CSPO classes grant a seemingly-important certification with merely two days of class time, and in the case of the CSPO, no exam. This is considered insufficient for certification of anything meaningful by critics.
2) Lack of consistency: Although less so now with the introduction of learning objectives by the Scrum Alliance, trainers have very diverse ways of presenting their materials. There is concern that some trainers do a very poor job of actually helping students learn about Scrum and agility.

Of note: Scrum Study is almost universally considered to be a sub-standard certification program and should usually be avoided.

Certification of the Individual vs. the Program

One important distinction to clarify is that often a certification is granted to individuals participating in a program, but sometimes a certification is granted to the program itself. For example, Scrum Alliance program does both: the Certified Scrum Trainer must have their training materials certified (for example, the Certified Scrum Master) and the participants in the Certified Scrum Master training, but also obtain a certification with participation and a test.

Ultimately, the most rigorous certification programs have this dual-level certification. However, “rigorous” is not necessarily a desirable quality when learning about agility. It is worth examining this potential disconnect in a bit of depth.

The Manifesto for Agile Software Development asserts that we aught to value “individuals and interactions over processes and tools”. If we extend this concept beyond software, and apply it to certification programs, we can evaluate the inherent integrity of those programs. A certification program with a great deal of rigour applied through carefully controlled processes which deliberately attempts to remove the subjectivity of individuals and interactions, is probably not Agile-like.

On the other hand, agility does not ask us to dispose with processes and tools. So we are looking for a balance that prefers individuals and interactions. In an Agile certification program, this could manifest in various ways:
– emphasizing minimalist certification processes
– reducing documentation and emphasizing observation to validate a program (e.g. having a reviewer attend a class)
– mentorship and fast feedback loops to help build the capability of individuals to deliver on learning objectives
– simple high-level learning objectives rather than detailed checklists for compliance

Rigour and Learning

Individual, team, group, organization and industry effectiveness are all part of an ongoing learning process that involves many dimensions. In other domains of knowledge besides agility, we see a common pattern in certification programs: they become more rigorous and exclusive over time. Economic incentives drive this process: how can a group of insiders (those already certified) avoid the commodification of their certification, while at the same time keeping it desirable. Levels, exclusivity, cost, and rigour are all aspects of this.

However, rigour usually slows down learning and innovation. So most of the latest cutting-edge knowledge and practice is not subject to any certification. Certification best applies with a stable or slow-changing knowledge base. For Scrum, we have the Scrum Guide which has modest incremental changes on a yearly basis. Kanban and SAFe are still going through fairly rapid innovation so their certification programs are changing quickly, although there are signs these are stabilizing too.

Conclusion

All these factors taken together mean that as a customer of agile certification programs, you have a complex task in evaluating your options. There are many dozens of certification options and several certification organizations, along with many hundreds if not thousands of certification providers.

In future articles, I hope to outline some detailed benefits and criticisms of the certification programs offered by Scrum Alliance, Scaled Agile, Lean-Kanban University, IC Agile, the Project Management Institute, and others. If you have recent personal experience as a learner with these programs, I would be interested in hear from you as I prepare these articles.

Disclaimer

We are involved and deliver certification programs both as public learning events and private training with Scrum Alliance, Lean Kanban University, Scrum.org, Scaled Agile, and the Project Management Institute.  We believe in the programs we deliver, and despite some controversy and concerns, we stand behind these programs.

Berteig Consulting

Empower Your Entire Organization with BERTEIG Consulting in Agile, Scrum, Kanban, SAFe and LEAN.

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