September 15, 2023
Are you bewildered by the number of Agile and Scrum certifications and Agile Training courses offered today? Do you wonder what would be the best Agile certification or Scrum training for you, or which will provide the greatest return on your time and money?
What is the best agile certification for beginners? This is a question that I get asked frequently by those new to Agile and Scrum. It doesn’t help that the names of the various Scrum and Agile certification and the associations that provide the certification are strikingly similar. Anyone new to Agile Training would be understandably confused.
There is a significant benefit in getting a certification. A recent global survey of over 2,100 Scrum Masters showed that those that had at least one agile certification made more than their counterpart without.
The reality of the Agile certification world today is that there is a lot of money at stake. Agile training and certification is a profitable business. I know it sounds cynical. Unfortunately, the gold rush of training and certification has caused a lot of people to invent new certifications and certifying bodies. As Agile practices and methods have become more widespread, there has been a rush to cash in on demand for training and qualification processes.
If you are looking for the best agile certification, try to stick with the established players that offer certification. Those are the Scrum Alliance, Scrum.org, and the Project Management Institute. You could also consider certification from the other three mentioned below: Scaled Agile Academy, Large Scale Scrum, and IC Agile.
Many other certification bodies are popping up, and some of them are worthless. It can be confusing to the unknowing. If you see a certification that is not mentioned below, do a quick check on the certifying body behind the certification to make sure it is legitimate. See my related post, the Circus of Agile Certifications, for a list of over 250 agile certifications, many of which have little or no value.
A couple of quick notes about the certifications. First, these are entry-level certifications only. There are plenty of other advanced certifications out there that I have not addressed.
Second, it is important to know that Agile is a blanket term for many methods and frameworks. Many people equate Agile and Scrum as one and the same, but Scrum is only 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, beginner’s guide to the most popular Agile and Scrum certifications, along with my recommendation.
There are 3 major certifications bodies today and each offers Agile Training to prepare for the certification. The three are listed below based on their credibility, age, and popularity.
The Scrum Alliance is one of the oldest and most popular certifications for Scrum. Founded in 2002, they had certified nearly a million CSMs before they stopped reporting on certification holders.
Achieving the CSM is really easy; you need to take a 2 or 3-day training class from someone qualified as a Certified Scrum Trainer (CST) by the Scrum Alliance. CSM training courses can vary in price depending on location and instructor. I would expect to pay about $1,300 per person on average.
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 advantage 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. How can you be a master of anything after a 2-day course? Another downside is the cost of the training which tends to be a little pricey because it can only be delivered by a Certified Scrum Trainer or CST. And finally, the CSM certification, like all certifications from the Scrum Alliance, expires. This means that you need to take additional training and, more importantly, pay more money to the Scrum Alliance to retain the certification. See my related post on why I let my CSM expire.
The CSM designation is good though I discount it because of how easy it is to obtain. Still, if someone is going to be practicing Scrum and especially if they are in the role of Scrum Master, getting the CSM certification shows that they cared enough to get this certification.
The Scrum Alliance offers advanced certifications for Scrum Masters, as well as certifications for Product Owners, Developers, Coaches and Leaders. While they no longer share statistics, they did share with me that they have 1.4 million certified members across all of their certs.
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 Schwaber left the Scrum Alliance to create Scrum.org, which is a direct competitor.
Scrum.org handles its certifications differently than the Scrum Alliance. Rather than simply requiring people to take training and get the trophy, Scrum.org focuses on testing people to make sure that they have the knowledge. And they don’t care if you took their training course or not.
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 score of 85% or higher within 60 minutes. Technically, it is an open-book assessment, but you need to master the material in order to pass because you don’t have time to look things up.
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 fewer people holding the PSM designation than the CSM. I think that is because the PSM has only been around since 2009.
The advantage of the PSM is that you are not required to take a training course, so that may save you some time and money if you are willing to self-study. Another advantage is that the certifications from Scrum.org never expire. Once you are certified, you don’t need to worry about paying money or taking another test.
The disadvantage, though a minor one, is that the PSM is less well-known than the CSM. That said, as of 2023, there were more than 565,000 people who had obtained their PSM I certification and another 31,000 that had obtained their PSM II certification.
Like the Scrum Alliance, Scrum.org offers advanced certifications for Scrum Masters, as well as certifications for Product Owners, Developers, and Leaders.
The Project Management Institute is no stranger to the recurring revenue streams created by certifications, with over 760,000 project management professionals (PMPs). PMI introduced the PMI Agile Certified Professional (PMI-ACP) certification in 2012. As of early 2023, there were over 53,000 people holding the PMI-ACP credential.
The PMI-ACP is slightly different from the Scrum certifications described above. The content covers all of Agile rather than being only focused on Scrum. So you will be expected to know aspects of Kanban, eXtreme Programming, and Lean Software Development in addition to Scrum. Though Scrum is the most popular agile framework, an understanding of these other approaches is beneficial.
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 looking to add a credential. You cannot get the PMI-ACP as a beginner.
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 of certification?
Oh yeah, I almost forgot the exam. There is a pretty significant exam of 120 questions that you need to complete within 3 hours.
PMI also requires you to take 21 hours of training on Agile to qualify for the exam and that can be a hurdle for some people though PMI is flexible on the specific training you take.
The advantage of the PMI-ACP is that it includes a broader scope than just Scrum. It is also more rigorous, and the Project Management Institute is a recognized brand name. One could also consider the fact that there aren’t many out there holding the certification 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. Please see my detailed article on getting the PMI-ACP here: How to Get Your PMI-ACP Certification without Hardly Trying.
There are a few other certification bodies that are growing in popularity that are worth mentioning.
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. Visit the Scaled Agile Academy website for more information:
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 lacks 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. Visit the LeSS Works website for more information.
IC Agile is a newer but fast-growing certification body. IC Agile took a different approach by creating role-based learning roadmaps and then qualifying agile training providers. So if you take the Agile or Scrum training from an approved provider, you can get the certification.
IC Agile currently offers 9 different certification tracks, several of which might be applicable to beginners. Visit the IC Agile website for more information.
Given all the information above, what do I think is the best Agile or Scrum certification?
These are the big and best certifications for beginners. I hope you find it helpful. Please share your own experience in the comments below.
Want more details about the best agile certification? Here are some additional resources that might be helpful to you:
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