A Quick Guide to Agile and Scrum Certifications

Anthony Mersino
August 31, 2017

Bewildered by the number of Agile and Scrum certifications and training courses offered today? Do you wonder what would be the best Agile certification for you?  It is a question that I get asked frequently by those new to Agile and Scrum. It doesn't help that the names of the certification and the certification bodies are strikingly similar. Anyone new to Agile would be understandably confused.

How did we get here?  Training and certification is a profitable business.  I am sorry to sound so cynical but unfortunately I find that money has created a lot of problems in this area.  As Agile practices and methods have become more widespread, there has been a rush to cash in on the demand for training and qualification processes. 

A couple of quick notes about the certifications.  First, these are the entry level certifications only.  There are plenty of other advanced certifications that are out there that are not covered.  Second, it is important to know that Agile is a blanket term for many methods and frameworks, and Scrum is one type of Agile framework.  There are other Agile approaches including eXtreme Programming and Kanban that are not part of the Scrum framework and would not be covered in a Scrum certification.  So Scrum certification would be more focused in scope than a broader Agile certification.

So here is my quick, beginners guide to the most popular agile and Scrum certifications, along with my recommendation. 

The Big 3 Agile Certifications

There are 3 major certification bodies today, and a growing number of smaller ones.  These are listed below based on their age and popularity. 

#1 Scrum Alliance - Certified Scrum Master (CSM)

The Scrum Alliance is one of the oldest and most popular certifications in Scrum.  Founded in 2002, they have nearly a half million current certificate holders for the Certified Scrum Master or CSM designation.

Achieving the CSM is really easy, you simply need to take a 2 or 3 day class from someone that has been qualified as a Certified Scrum Trainer (CST) by the Scrum Alliance.  CSM training courses run on average between $1,000 and $1,500 per person.  After the class there is a 35 question, online test that is pretty easy to pass.  So the CSM is pretty easy to get and many people have done exactly that, me included.

The advantages of the CSM is that it is easy to get.  And fast - you can sign up for a class and in two days you are a "Certified Scrum Master". 

The downside of being so easy to get is that it doesn't mean a lot to have it.  And, that seems somewhat contradictory to someone who is "certified" as a "master" of Scrum. The other downside is the cost of the training, which can only be delivered by the CST.

The CSM designation doesn't carry a lot of weight for me.  Still, if someone is going to be practicing Scrum and especially if they are in the role of Scrum Master, it shows that they cared enough to go get this certification.  The Scrum Alliance offers advanced certifications for Scrum Masters, as well as basic certifications for Product Owners and Developers.

#2 - Scrum.org - Professional Scrum Master (PSM)

Scrum.org was founded in 2009 by Ken Schwaber, one of the co-creators of Scrum and a co-founder of the Scrum Alliance.  I won't go into the drama here but suffice it to say that it was set up on a different model than the Scrum Alliance.  Rather than simply requiring people to take training, Scrum.org focuses on testing people to make sure that they have the knowledge.

By testing, I mean standard assessments of knowledge of Scrum and the application of that.  The assessment for the Professional Scrum Master or PSM designation is 80 questions. The assessment costs $150 and allows you one attempt. To pass, you need to get a a score of 85% or higher within 60 minutes.   So technically it is an open book assessment but practically speaking you need to master the material in order to pass.

The good news is, you don't have to take training from Scrum.org or anyone else to pass.  If you've already been practicing Scrum or if you've studied the Scrum Guide or other books, you can pass the assessment without taking a course.

There are significantly fewer people holding the PSM designation - somewhere under 120,000.  This is most likely just a factor of the newness of the designation. 

The advantages of the PSM is that you are not required to take a training course, so that may save you some time and money. 

The disadvantage, though a minor one, is that the PSM is less well known than the CSM. 

#3 - Project Management Institute - Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP)

The Project Management Institute is no stranger to the recurring revenue streams created by certifications, with over 760,000 project management professional (PMPs).  In 2012, PMI introduced the PMI Agile Certified Professional (PMI-ACP) certification and as of earlier this year, there were over 16,000 people holding the PMI-ACP credential.

The PMI-ACP is slightly different from the previous Scrum certifications in that it covers all of Agile, rather than being only focused on Scrum.  So you will be expected to know Kanban, eXtreme Programming, and Lean Software Development in addition to Scrum. 

Another key difference with the PMI-ACP is that it requires 1,500 hours of experience with Agile methods and practices.  That is roughly 9 months full time.  And that is often a challenge for people new to Agile and Scrum who are looking to add a credential.  Philosophically, I don't have an issue with requiring hands on experience for someone who calls themselves "certified" - after all, isn't expertise the whole point?

Oh yeah, I almost forgot the exam.  There is a pretty significant exam of 120 questions that is not open book. You are given 3 hours to complete the exam. 

PMI also requires you to take 21 hours of training on Agile to qualify for the exam.  There is latitude on the type of training.

The advantages of the PMI-ACP would be that it includes a broader scope than just Scrum.  It is also more rigorous and PMI is a brand name; one might also consider the fact that there aren't many out there holding it to be an advantage as well.

The disadvantages would be the cost and time involved in getting the certification.  Even with training, some studying outside of class is going to be needed to prepare for the exam.  Another disadvantage for some beginners is the required 1,500 hours of experience.

Honorable Mentions

There are a few other certification bodies that are growing in popularity that are worth mentioning. 

Scaled Agile Academy - The Scaled Agile Academy is a fast growing organization led by Dean Leffingwell. They offer 7 certifications related to scaling agile with the Scaled Agile Framework, or SAFe. These certifications are not really for beginners and I would discourage anyone from seeking this certification first.  SAFe is overkill for most organizations IMHO but the name "SAFe" and great marketing helps it appeal to large organizations and fills training courses. 

LeSS - Large Scale Scrum (LeSS) is another certification body focused on Agile Scaling. Led by Craig Larman and Bas Vodde, LeSS has also been endorsed by the Scrum Alliance. LeSS was late to the party on certifications and lack the name and self-promotion that has benefited SAFe. They offer 2 levels of certification and have a smaller following than SAFe.  Like SAFe, I don't recommend this for beginners.

IC Agile - IC Agile is a new but fast growing certification body. IC Agile took a different approach by creating role-based learning roadmaps, and then qualifying training providers. So if you take the training from an approved provider, you can get the certification.  IC Agile currently offers 9 different certification tracks, several of which might be applicable for beginners. 

My recommendation:  

Given this information, what do I recommend?

  • If you are already knowledgeable about Scrum, spend $150 to take the assessment and get your Professional Scrum Master (PSM) certification this evening. 
  • If you are in a hurry, and you (or your employer) is willing to shell out $1,200, go for the Certified Scrum Master Certification (CSM).  You can become a CSM in under a week. 
  • If you have more time than money, you can prepare yourself and spend $150 to take the online Professional Scrum Master (PSM) certification.  (You can also take a training course to prepare for it.)
  • If you have hands-on experience with agile  principles and practices, you can prepare and take the PMI-ACP.  It is going to take the most time and energy, but may also be the most prestigious of the top 3. 

These are the biggies at least for entry level certifications.  I hope you find it helpful. Please share your own experience in the comments below. 

Want more details?  Check out this exhaustive and entertaining inventory of agile certifications by Bob Galen.

About Anthony Mersino

Anthony is passionate about helping technology teams THRIVE and organizations TRANSFORM.  He loves partnering with organizations to help teams with Agile thinking and the Scrum Framework.  He teaches Agile and Scrum as well as the cultural elements that are necessary for an organization to gain true business agility. Anthony has  authored numerous articles and two books: Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.

Comments