Certification Frustration

By | November 7, 2013

This post originally appeared on TechWell.

Peter VaihanskyWith agile development steadily gaining in popularity, we are witnessing the proliferation of various sorts of agile certifications. The most popular by far is the Certified ScrumMaster (CSM) training and certification, which is now available in abundance all over the country and beyond. However, the CSM boom is not without controversy in agile circles.

To become a Certified ScrumMaster, you first need to take a standard two-day CSM training course, which in most cases will cost you about two thousand dollars. After that, you take an online test, where you have to answer correctly at least twenty-four out of thirty-five multiple-choice questions. The test, according to numerous accounts, is exceedingly easy and only serves to establish familiarity with the basic concepts, roles, and artifacts of Scrum.

Interestingly, it is not possible to just study the material, take the test, and become certified. Some suggest that the whole point of CSM certification is to drive business to the trainers accredited by the Scrum Alliance.

Scott Ambler makes the case that the problem with the CSM designation lies in the usage of the words certified and master. The “master” part comes from the ScrumMaster role in the Scrum canon; there is nothing to be done about that. However, the word “certified” itself has problematic connotations. When we hear “certified physician” or “certified electrician,” we typically think of some kind of professional screening body that is vouching for a particular individual’s ability to do a good job.

However, being a Certified ScrumMaster simply means you have attended a training workshop and passed an online test. It says nothing about your ability to work with a Scrum team or to run a successful Scrum project.

The CSM certification process is in stark contrast to, say, the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification. The PMP certification has stringent education and experience requirements that are audited and validated. Candidates should expect to study thirty-five hours or more in preparation, regardless of their experience (most PMP preparatory courses are about three months long). The test itself consists of two hundred questions and is taken in a controlled environment with no access to supporting materials.

Agile Alliance, in its position statement on certifications, promotes what I think is a reasonable position, echoed by several professionals in the industry. The group recognizes that CSM certification is knowledge-based and easy to achieve and says employers should only have confidence in certifications that are skill-based and difficult to achieve—although Agile Alliance’s position is also that employers shouldn’t be obsessed with certification anyway.

To be fair, the Scrum Alliance never claims that the CSM certification establishes anything beyond what it actually does. Maybe this debate would not exist if the Scrum Alliance offered a certificate of completion instead of the title of Certified ScrumMaster.

What are your thoughts on CSM certification?

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