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Agile certifications: Are they worth the price?

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Kym Gilhooly B2B tech journalist and editor, Independent

When Gilbert Pazos sends members of his agile development teams to get their entry-level agile certifications, a couple of things happen. When the two-day training date arrives, he gets a lot of pushback from team members. By the end of the second day, they're brainstorming ways they can accomplish tasks as a team.

"I've yet to hear anyone come back and say, 'I want to keep doing waterfall,' " says Pazos, an agile project manager at a Fortune 500 company. "There's always a transformation in the way they think about their work—they come out of that agile certification training wanting to do scrum."

This experience has made Pazos an advocate for agile certification, particularly when the exam follows instructor-led training. The classroom dynamic sparks the collaborative mindset central to agile methods. While he's always working to instill that "team-think," Pazos says off-site training accelerates the process by removing work distractions. And with the chance to earn their certification as an end goal, employees are more invested.

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Certification value: Up for debate

But not everyone sees value in agile certifications. They're subject to the same criticism that dogs other technical certifications. In this case, though, the debate has a sharper edge, as some former agile certification luminaries have become naysayers.

"Some well-known industry veterans once involved in agile certifications are now railing against them, and training in general," says Daniel Gullo, founder of Apple Brook Consulting, which provides agile certification training and consulting services. Hearing these arguments isn't easy for a man who holds, among others, the Scrum Alliance's Certified Scrum Coach (CSC) and Certified Scrum Trainer (CST) certifications and led the design effort for the Project Management Institute's (PMI) Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP) certification.

Opponents contend that agile certification programs have lax vetting, training, and exam requirements. Beyond that, they say, certification only proves that the graduate is book smart, but it reveals nothing about experience or expertise.

Does that mean these certifications—a veritable acronym soup targeting different roles, frameworks, and tools—are worthless?

According to the Scrum Alliance's 2015 State of Scrum Report, they mean something to 81 percent of the 4,452 respondents who said that agile certifications helped improve the scrum practice. Presumably, the same goes for those holding its foundational Certified ScrumMaster (CSM) certification, which earned a spot on Global Knowledge's list of the 15 top-paying certifications for 2015, with an average salary of $101,729.

An agile certification, of course, doesn't reflect experience, soft skills, or real-world technical acumen. Likewise, it doesn't predict on-the-job effectiveness.

"Certifications are just a way to establish a baseline," says Gullo. "Just because someone has an agile certification doesn't mean they'll be good at their job."

Agility wanted

In an ideal scenario, an agile professional would have years of experience and expertise across a range of frameworks and methods, capped by a respected certification program's stamp of approval.

However, the accelerating pace of agile adoption is forcing businesses to compete for talent: more than 94 percent of organizations responding to the 2014 VersionOne State of Agile Survey said they were using agile methods in some capacity. To hire the kind of employees built to excel in agile team models, managers feel pressure to get more creative, evaluating candidates not only on their experience and expertise but also on their potential.

As demand and salaries increase, the number of workers certified in various agile frameworks, including scrum, Extreme Programming (XP), kanban, and lean, is growing accordingly. Gullo estimates that there are 20 to 30 agile certifications of various levels on the market, primarily focused on scrum. Certificates are available at the entry, practitioner, and expert level, targeting different team roles and positions higher up the ladder.

Out of the slush pile, onto the shortlist

For agile developers just starting out, the right certification can do some of the talking.

"My certification proved valuable in two ways," says Joseph Percivall, who learned agile programming and became CSM-certified in 2012 during a college internship. "First, I learned the core principles of scrum, which validated what my team leader taught me." Second, he says, the certification set him apart from other candidates during job interviews.

It likely helped that Percivall, who now works as a software engineer at a large IT services provider, could also highlight his work ethic through the PL/SQL developer associate certification he earned while still in high school, as well as three software development internships.

Who's missing the cut

However, even when applicants have no experience, "certain agile certifications can get them through the HR screening process," says Cliff Berg, president of Assured by Design, an IT enterprise agile transformation and DevOps consultancy.

To become CSM-certified, participants must complete a CST-led, two-day course and pass an online exam. For its entry-level counterpart, Scrum.org's Professional Scrum Master level I (PSM I), applicants can take the introductory course, but it's not required to sit for the test.

Berg questions how much value a two-day course provides. "CSM proves you know the vocabulary, but you might know nothing practical. Yet that's a certification companies look for," he says.

While Berg has been developing software using agile techniques since the 1980s and now guides clients engaged in enterprise agile and DevOps efforts, he isn't CSM-certified. "So if a hiring manager was screening for a CSM certification, I wouldn't make the cut," he says. "Neither would Jeff Sutherland, who invented the scrum process and helped write the Agile Manifesto."

Enter here

The most well-recognized agile certifications are those developed by the Scrum Alliance, Scrum.org, and PMI. Scrum Alliance was founded in 2002 by Ken Schwaber, who left in 2009 to start Scrum.org. Newer entries include those offered by ICAgile and Scaled Agile.

For those building an agile baseline, Gullo recommends starting with either the CSM or Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO) certifications from the Scrum Alliance.

While Pazos believes both the Scrum Alliance's CSM and Scrum.org's PSM are good entry-level programs, he advises starting with CSM because it's better known. "If you're pursuing a foundational scrum certification, I'd recommend CSM because it's the most recognized in industry circles." Jesse Fewell's Who's Winning the Agile Certification Wars provides a breakdown of the most sought after agile certifications.

Moving up the ladder

At the practitioner level, requirements get tougher. For example, to earn a PMI-ACP certification, which covers scrum, lean, XP, kanban, and other frameworks, applicants need 2,000 hours of team-based project experience and another 1,500 hours working with agile methodologies or teams. A PMI Project Management Professional (PMI-PMP) or Program Management Professional (PgMP) certification can satisfy the general project experience requirement. They must then complete 21 hours of classroom training to sit for the exam.

Requirements for earning expert-level agile certifications vary. In general, prerequisites include current practitioner-level certifications, demonstrated real-world experience and expertise, and recommendations from certified experts. Applicants must then complete coursework, meet exam-score benchmarks, and in some cases, undergo a peer review process.

Agile expert certifications include Scrum Alliance's CST and CSC, Scrum.org's Professional Scrum Trainer (PST), ICAgile's Certified Expert (ICE), and Scaled Agile's SAFe Program Consultant Trainer (SPCT). Certified experts serve in various capacities. They may operate outside the team structure to train members in various roles, coach sub-teams working within "team of teams" structures, or consult with teams and stakeholders to scale agile programs to the enterprise level. Others provide independent agile coaching and training services.

Speaking in shorthand

Without years of experience to tout at job interviews, Percivall thinks his CSM underscored his commitment by showing he'd taken the time to learn the material and take the exam. "Interviewers said they hadn't seen applicants who got certified while still in college, and it gave me an edge," he says.

For Pazos, proof of these qualities is among the hallmarks of a certification's value proposition.

"When I look at someone's resume and see specific certifications, it tells me that they're committed to continually learning and improving themselves," says Pazos, who himself holds PMI-PMP, PMI-ACP, CSM, Certified Scrum Professional (CSP), CSPO, and SAFe Agilist (SA) certifications, among more technical certificates. "It also shows they're doing this in a way that's methodical, organized, and structured, and then obtaining proof of their efforts."

As someone who does a lot of hiring, he finds that agile certifications streamline the process. "I don't have to ask applicants if they know agile—I can see they have their PMI-ACP certification and I know immediately."

He says this confirms that a candidate had the minimum amount of experience needed to sit for that test, and that they wanted the certification enough to study hard. At the procedural level, agile certifications show that potential hires understand their team role and its part in the process, as well as what's required for sprints, daily standups, and different artifacts.

"My job is to build high-performance teams, not high-performance individuals," Pazos says. Ensuring team members are agile-trained and certified, he contends, is a key part of that process.


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