Recently, several people have reached out to me to ask how they can become an Agile Coach. They have been practicing Scrum Masters and they want to “move up” to Agile Coach.
And with good reason perhaps. Last month, Indeed.com listed Agile Coach as one of the top 25 best jobs in the US for 2019. Further, Agile Coach was the highest paid of those “best jobs” with an average annual salary of $161K.
So yes, it seems that Agile Coaching is a pretty attractive role and I would expect more people to show interest.
How does one become an Agile Coach? Below I share my own recommendations about how to become an agile coach. But first, I will share my own agile journey (which I don’t recommend!) as context. You can skip down to my recommendations if you don’t want the backstory.
My Agile Journey to be an Agile Coach
I believe my strength as a coach comes from leading technology projects and programs, something I have done since the late 1980s. (I know, I am as old as dirt.) By the late 1990s, I was specializing in troubled project recovery and taking on large technology programs. These programs put my people skills to the test and I actually had some setbacks.
Fortunately, I found some help from a great therapist and coach and I dug deep into the people skills and relationships that are essential to teamwork and leadership. Along the way, I wrote a book about the lessons I painstakingly learned about working with people.
I remember being interested in agile and scrum back in the mid-2000s. At that time, I was teaching a number of courses in project management and software testing for two different training firms. Then I was asked to develop a course on Agile project management which I did. In hindsight, I knew so very little! I developed the agile project management course around Jim Highsmith’s book by the same name.
I was so excited about agile and Scrum that I began applying agile approaches (mostly incorrectly) on the large technology programs I was running at that time. The organization I was working for did a large-scale transition to agile shortly after that and they brought in experts on agile for training and coaching. It helped me to appreciate how much I still had to learn.
I began reading voraciously. I relied on Mike Cohn, Craig Larman, Dean Leffingwell, and other authors inspired me to keep on learning. Around this time I pursued my PMI-ACP which was my first agile certification.
After finishing that contract, that firm that did the agile training and coaching asked me to help them support an agile transformation at another client. I was named the Agile Coach and I initially served as Scrum Master for the teams to model the behavior while we trained the client team to be Scrum Masters.
Since 2012, I have been doing this work of Agile coach helping organizations move to or improve their agile processes. Along the way, I got my CSM, CSP, PSPO and CAL1 certifications. In 2014, Northwestern University wanted to launch an Agile Certificate program and I submitted a proposal and landed that engagement.
That is what I did. It worked for me because of the long experience I had working with teams and the people skills I have developed. But that is not what I would recommend.
A Recommended Path to Become an Agile Coach
First, Start by Mastering Scrum
To become an Agile Coach today, I believe that you should be extremely well versed in Scrum. There are coaches that specialize in XP, Kanban or Lean, but 70-80% of the world is using Scrum. So you really need to understand and master the Scrum Framework.
Which means you should be a Scrum Master. Or at least that is my recommendation. Good coaches could also come from the Product Owner or Development Team member role. Having experience in all 3 roles would be great! But if you only have one, I would recommend the experience as a Scrum Master. If you don’t have experience working as part of a Scrum or Agile Team, start there.
Practicing one of the Scrum Roles is great and complimenting that hands-on experience with training and certification is even better. I strongly recommend one of the Scrum Master Certifications (either PSM from Scrum.org or CSM from the Scrum Alliance). [Read more about my thoughts on the entry-level certifications here.] Second I would recommend Product Owner Certification (PSPO or CSPO) and then Scrum Developer.
You can go deeper with Scrum of course and Scrum certifying bodies are happy to comply with lots of options. I can’t vouch for the value or ROI of these certifications, except for the CSP. I achieved my Certified Scrum Professional (CSP) from Scrum Alliance in 2014 by attending workshops with Craig Larman. I was inspired and deeply impacted by Larman’s no-nonsense approach.
At the time I achieved my CSP, the Scrum Alliance had just transitioned from an exam model to one based on learning (SEU’s), and the certification was just CSP. Now it is Certified Scrum Professional – Scrum Master (CSP-SM) because Scrum Alliance has spawned several other flavors.
Scrum Alliance also has a few Scrum Coaching certifications for the team and enterprise level. I don’t know much about them but I don’t think they would hurt your career.
Consider the Agile Coaching Institute
With Scrum as a starting point, there are many possible directions that you could take to develop as an Agile Coach. Lyssa Adkins, the author of Coaching Agile Teams, runs an agile coaching program at the Agile Coaching Institute that I have heard is excellent. Several of my colleagues have taken Lyssa’s Agile Coach Bootcamp and they give it great reviews.
Here are some of the current offerings from the Agile Coaching Institute:
They also provide opportunities for continued learning through coaching competency cohorts that meet in person and virtually for 10 months.
I recommend the ACI programs because of the strong endorsements I have received from my colleagues, not because I have experienced them personally. Please visit the ACI site for more information.
ICAgile – The International Consortium for Agile
Another path for development as an Agile Coach is the ICAgile training curriculum. IC Agile is the International Consortium for Agile. They are not a training company; they defined a roadmap, set learning objectives and accredit training for various agile roles including agile coach. In their words:
International Consortium for Agile (ICAgile) is a community-driven organization that consists of pioneers, experts, and trusted advisors. ICAgile is not just another certification body. We are changing the way people do agile by helping them become agile.
From the beginning, ICAgile’s mission has been to help organizations achieve sustainable agility by focusing on the transformation of people, not just processes. We do this by providing learning journeys that equip people with an Agile mindset as a foundation, then guide them along a path towards mastery in their chosen discipline.
– ICAgile Website – https://icagile.com/About/Mission
IC Agile has defined a roadmap and training and certification for 3 levels of agile coaching. Lyssa Adkins, mentioned in the previous item, was a key contributor along with Ahmed Sidkey to the agile coaching roadmap. If trying to grow as an Agile Coach, I would recommend getting these training courses and related certifications as well.
- Agile Team Facilitation (ICP-ATF)
- Agile Coaching (ICP-ACC)
- ICAgile Certified Expert in Agile (ICE-AC)
Other Agile Certifications for Agile Coaches
It is not very popular but another agile certification that may be helpful to become an agile coach is the Agile Certified Practitioner from PMI (PMI-ACP). As noted above, this was the first agile certification I obtained.
The strength of the PMI-ACP is that it is not specific to Scrum. Scrum certifications will focus on, well, Scrum. They may cover lean principles but don’t generally cover lean software development, eXtreme Programming or Kanban. The PMI-ACP does this.
The PMI-ACP certification is a little unique in that it requires agile experience and includes a rigorous exam. I found that my study and preparation to pass the exam was more valuable to me than the letters after my name. You can read more about the PMI-ACP in this blog – Get the PMI-ACP without Hardly Trying.
Other Coaching Certifications
You may have noticed the proliferation of coaches generally. I think this is related to the lack of licensing and variance in certification.
There is a professional group for coaching called the International Coaching Federation. The ICF provides certification for professional coaches, agnostic of whether they are a life coach, executive coach or agile coach.
ICF Credential-holders are part of a self-regulating group of elite coaches who provide accountability to clients and the coaching profession as a whole. They pursue and complete rigorous education and practice requirements that provide unquestioned legitimacy to their commitment to excellence in coaching.– International Coaching Federation, https://coachfederation.org/icf-credential
The ICF provides three levels of professional certification for coaches. Each of these has specific requirements for training hours you need to complete and coaching experience you need to obtain. You can learn more about these by following the links below:
I don’t have first-hand experience with the ICF. I did investigate it a few years back and found the program rigorous, though somewhat time-consuming. The coaches I spoke to in my investigation thought highly of it and valued the framework and tools that coaches can learn and apply.
Don’t Forget Self-Study
I cannot emphasize enough the role that reading and self-study played in my development as an Agile Coach. I have worked hard to read all that I can on topics related to agile coaching and development. This includes blog posts from trusted sources, as well as books. My personal goal is to read a book every two weeks.
There are a number of obvious books for coaches like those on Scrum or Agile. There are also less obvious book choices related to change management, psychology, organizational development, and leadership.
I’ve provided a couple of recommended reading lists on my related blog, How to Succeed as an Agile Coach. There is the short list of top 10 books (reproduced below) as well as a more extensive list of 40 additional books which was inspired by coaching from Craig Larman.
- Lyssa Adkins – Coaching Agile Teams
- Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber – The Scrum Guide
- James Womack – The Machine That Changed the World
- Hirotaka Takeuchi – The New Product Development Game
- Mike Cohn – Succeeding with Agile
- Mike Cohn – Agile Estimating and Planning
- Esther Derby and Diana Larsen – Agile Retrospectives
- Craig Larman and Bas Vodde – Scaling Lean and Agile
- Craig Larman and Bas Vodde – Large Scale Scrum (LeSS)
- Eric Ries – Lean Startup
Final Considerations for Agile Coaches
There are clearly many paths that you can take to become an Agile Coach. I guess the question is, what is your goal in becoming an Agile Coach? Are you simply trying to be more effective in your role? Are you looking to change jobs/careers? Will you be using this at your existing firm or branching out to provide coaching at other firms via your own firm or through a coaching firm?
Another key question is your budget and availability? If you were laid off and have time, urgency and a training budget, that is one thing. If you are busy in your current role and only have limited time on weekends for development, that might lend itself to other approaches.
Is experience more important than credentials? I know an agile coach in Chicago who is super active in the agile community and runs an Agile Meetup group. He prides himself on having no certifications.
I hope that you found this article helpful. We’ve published a number of other articles about how Agile Coaches can succeed. Please see the links to related articles below.