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A Quick Guide to the Best Entry-Level Agile Certification

A quick guide to agile scrum certifications.

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?

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 having at least one agile certifications made more than their counterpart without.

Agile Training and Scrum Certifications are Big Business

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. It sounds cynical but 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 the demand for training and qualification processes.

If you are looking for the best agile certification, try to stick with the established players listed below in the big 3 sections. I’ve seen a number of other, less reputable certification bodies popping up which can confuse the unknowing. If you see one that is not mentioned below, I would do a quick check on the certifying bodies to make sure it is legitimate.

OK, but Which is the Best Agile Certification?

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.

The Big 3 Agile Certifications and Related Agile Training Courses

There are 3 major certification bodies today and each has their own Agile Training leading to certification. The three 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 for 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 training class from someone that has been 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 certified after a 2-day course? The other 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.

The CSM designation doesn’t carry a lot of weight for me and I don’t consider it the best agile certification. (See my related post on why I am going to let my CSM expire.) 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 go get this certification.

The Scrum Alliance offers advanced certifications for Scrum Masters, as well as basic certifications for Product Owners and Developers.

2. – Professional Scrum Master (PSM) 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 certification.

Rather than simply requiring people to take training, 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 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 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 than the CSM. I think that is because the CSM has been around since 2001 and the PSM has only been around since 2009. About 182,000 hold the PSM I and another 3,000 hold the advanced PSM II and PSM III.

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.

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 professionals (PMPs). PMI introduced the PMI Agile Certified Professional (PMI-ACP) certification in 2012. As of early 2020, there were over 32,000 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 are 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 in the type of training.

The advantage 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. Please see my detailed article on getting the PMI-ACP here: How to Get Your PMI-ACP Certification without Hardly Trying

Honorable Mention – Training and Certification

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

Scaled Agile Academy – SAFe Certification

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 Certification

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. Visit the LeSS Works website for more information.

International Consortium for Agile – 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 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 for beginners. Visit the IC Agile website for more information.

My recommendations for the Best Agile Certification:

Given all the information above, what do I think is the best Agile or Scrum certification?

  • If you are already knowledgeable about Scrum, spend $150 to take the assessment and get your Professional Scrum Master (PSM) certification by this evening. Done.
  • If you are in a hurry, and you (or your employer) are willing to shell out about $1,200, go for the Certified Scrum Master Certification (CSM). You can become a CSM in under a week. Fast but not cheap.
  • 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. We offer them periodically so check our training page for upcoming courses.)
  • 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. (We offer Agile Practitioner training as well!)

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 about the best agile certification? Here are some additional resources that might be helpful to you:

And if you are in the market for training, please visit our Agile Training page. We’d love to have you join us for an upcoming course!

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agile coach ebook

6 Responses

  1. I find it interesting that the disadvantage of the CSM is that it is “not valued”. Not sure where that idea comes from since CSM is the default credential in the industry when recruiters, hiring managers, etc. look for agile related certifications. That would actually seem like a big advantage. Add to it that only Certified Scrum Trainers (CST), who have gone through an extensive vetting process, are allowed to teach the CSM classes ensuring students are exposed to proper scrum as defined in the scrum guide. As for PMI-ACP, literally anyone (including those who have no experience or background in agile or scrum) can offer PMI-ACP prep classes, and the PSM-I requires no training (just take the test online while flipping through the scrum guide if you like).

    1. Aaron, it is good to hear from you. I agree with you that the CSTs go through a vetting process. Whether or not they are vetted has nothing to do with the demonstration of knowledge needed to obtain the certification. As you know, the PMI-ACP is a rigorous test of 120 questions. Most people invest a significant amount of time outside the classroom preparing for the PMI-ACP. And with the PSM-I, I don’t think anyone approaches that 80 question assessment by flipping through the Scrum Guide without any other preparation.

      I stated the CSM is not valued because of the number of people I’ve met who have the CSM but actually don’t know anything about Scrum. It’s easy to sit through a class and obtain it. I think making it so easy to get is what has helped make it the default agile credential, combined with the fact that it has been around the longest.

      Thanks for your comments, Anthony

  2. Having experience with all three I echo Anthony’s assessment. I’ve really come to learn that people who are hiring based on a CSM cert are doing so out of ignorance. You can’t blame them. After all, “certification” is in the name. Why wouldn’t they trust that. After gaining experience and background around so many agile certs and the people that hold them I’ve formed the same opinion. CSM usually means nothing. In fact I tell most to avoid it and coach them to go for the PSM because it forces them to take initiative, study, and put time into earning something. Same with the ACP, but that one is harder to sell (because of the commitment). Of all of them I found the ACP to be the most rewarding, because of all I learned, studied, and experienced going through the process of getting it.

    1. Hi Jamie, I have heard from several others who valued the ACP learning process for themselves. It may not have the same market-place cache but people that have it seem proud of the achievement. I also like that it is broader than Scrum and so many people think Agile=Scrum and are surprised to learn that there are agile teams which don’t use Scrum.
      Thanks for your comments!

  3. PSM is way more popular in Europe than CSM. PSM is also the default credential there and never needs renewed, unlike the CSM.

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