The Agile Certifications Question

There is a question that comes up often enough on forums, social media, and other corners of the internet: Do I really need an agile certification? Does having agile certifications make a difference? Typically, this question comes from someone wanting to get into a better job, move up, manage a development team, or transition into software development all together. The root of the question probably stems from a few factors. One, certifications are expensive. It isn’t surprising to see a certification cost beyond the $1,000.00 mark. So naturally, if you are going to drop a thousand dollars on a piece of paper, you would want to know if that is actually an investment in your future or if you are just contributing to a cottage industry that doesn’t really give you any more opportunity for change.

A second source of this question is in regards to the myriads of certifications, certifying-bodies and organizations that are out there. What is the difference between Scrum.org certifications and Scrum Alliance certifications? What about the Project Management Institute (PMI)? Is a PMI certification better than an ICAgile, Scrum.org, or Scrum Alliance certification? With all the choices out there, I am not surprised to see people ask if a certification is actually useful. Because, if it isn’t, then you don’t even have to do the research work to figure out which of the many certifications you should get or determine which organization actually gives you the knowledge you need to get your career to the next level.

Context and Caveats

So, before getting into answering this basic question, I want to give you a couple of caveats and context. First, the context.

I have multiple agile certifications. My first certification was the Agile Certified Practitioner, through the Project Management Institute (PMI – ACP). I then got certified as a Certified Scrum Master through the Scrum Alliance (CSM). Then, I continued through the Scrum Alliance and got my Certified Scrum Practitioner (CSP). Finally, I rounded off my certifications within the Scrum Alliance with the Product Owner Certification (CSPO). They then changed up their certifications and broke out their advanced certifications across the scrum master, developer, and product owner roles. Being that I had my certifications before this change, I pretty much won the lottery and was grandfathered into that program.

So, for anyone that is keeping track, I have the PMI – ACP, CSM, CSPO, CSP-SM, and CSP-PO certifications. That’s a lot of alphabet after my name (and it makes for a headache when meeting development hours for each of these agile certifications).

Now, for the caveat: I didn’t get any of these certifications until I was years into the software development/technology industry. In other words, I didn’t start out with these certifications. I wasn’t initially trained in anything Agile-related. I picked up a lot of experience on agile teams before I started to go through these certification courses/classes/workshops.

So, what does this all mean to you? Should you work towards getting some agile certifications? Most of the answers that I have seen on blogs, forums, and other sites say that the certifications don’t really do anything for your ability to help a team or help yourself become more agile. The certification is just a piece of paper showing that you passed a test or attended a two-day course. Now, all that is true. But, let me give you my take on it (it’s a bit more nuanced than a simple yes or no to certifications).

Agile Certifications — My Response

Consideration 1

I don’t think that certifications are a waste of time. But, I also don’t think that a certification is your golden ticket to the good life. Certifications are meant to supplement your experience or provide a foundation to frame the experience you are getting in your work life.

In my case, I was able to expand my expertise and contribution to the team by being exposed to the philosophical underpinnings of what I was doing in my job.

A certification is a step in the process that may or may not make sense to you. If you want to manage a development team, help the team grow, enhance your surroundings, then you may need to expose yourself to new ideas or processes in order to better contribute to your team. You can gain access to ideas and approaches through certification courses. If you are more interested in producing working software with really no thought to improving the process, then a certification would be a waste of time.

On the current development team that I work with, none of my developers have agile certifications—nor would I expect them to. They don’t really care about the process, they just want it to be painless and good. I’m the one on the team that really cares about how the sausage is made. Thus, I need to have a knowledge of the options I have to apply to my team. I can get that a number of ways, one of which is certifications. So, does that situation apply to you? Then it may be worth it for you to get your certification. Or you could read all sorts of various books. Some good ones are here and here.

Consideration 2

Another consideration is where you are at in your career. If you have no starting point, but you are wanting to get into development, and you are not a developer, then a certification would make sense in that it would give you theoretical information that you can speak to with your interviewer. Having a certification shows that you have an interest in agile development and it may just open a door for you to get an interview.

If all things were equal and you were applying for a job along with another person, and the only differentiation was that you had a certificate, I’d interview you first. Now, if it was evident that you just attended a course without actually thinking it through, then your certificate didn’t do you anything but get you in the door. But, if you can speak to the things taught through a training course, you may have not only opened the door, but also landed a job. But, keep in mind that all the things that are taught to you by getting a certification, are freely available to you on the internet or in a library somewhere. You can also get a lot of knowledge and insights by joining an agile group.

Personally, I’d recommend doing all of the above if you are looking to improve your situation. A certification is good, but if you can back that up with supplemental learning through your own research or participation in an agile users group, then you will land the opportunity you are seeking. In this day and age, there is no excuse for ignorance or hope without any underlying work towards a goal.

A Macro view of Agile Certifications

In a larger context, certifications are useful in applying the principles of Shuhari – cue the record scratch sound now.

Say what?

Okay, let me back up. Shuhari is a concept given by an Aikido master instructor named Endō Seishirō shihan. It is meant to explain the phases of learning that people go through. The first phase, shu (pronounced “shoe”) is where you don’t know anything. You learn one technique to do your job, and apply that over an over. This is a development team that uses scrum. They know it, they apply it, and get the job done. Regardless of the problem that comes up, they use scrum to solve it. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. However, is your team adaptable? If you follow the procedures of Scrum without adapting it to your team needs, are you really agile? I can tell you that to improve and develop your team, you’ll need to refine what you do over time.

The next level in that progression, Ha,  is to break away from the confines of the one technique or tool and to learn from many other frameworks. Insights from other avenues are incorporated and used. Underlying principles are understood and the appropriate technique is applied. This level of learning yields better, and more efficient results. This is where a scrum team may break out and incorporate things from other methodologies or frameworks. The team would do this in the interest of becoming better or adapting to their particular situation.

The final level is Ri, where the person isn’t learning from outside sources, but from within. In this level, the underlying principles are understood, varying techniques are used according to the problem needing to be solved. But the techniques incorporated are changed to accommodate the unique situation or problem. In the context of a team, it is no longer just practicing Scrum, or Kanban, or something else. Rather it is it’s own defined process that may look like scrum or Kanban, or something else, but it is strictly for that team, for that solution, for that circumstance. This is the way Spotify works on their development efforts. This is how you and your team become truly agile and capable of handling a wide variety of demands placed on you.

Certifications are a piece of the learning puzzle

With all that said, and ShuHaRi explained, what does that have to do with certifications? Well, the certification process can be used to strengthen an individual in the Shu or Ha phase of learning. It sets the ground work for getting a team to the Ri phase. It isn’t the sole foundation that can be used (as I mentioned earlier). But, agile certifications can be used one way to enhance a person’s development, skills, and understanding.

Final Thoughts

So, to sum up, agile certifications are worth it in the right context and circumstances. It isn’t right for everyone. Also, certifications are not created equal. Even within the context of the certification, the way they are taught are not equal. Some are computer based, some are group based, some are on a power point, and some are more interactive. In my opinion, I would look for training where interactive groups are used (collaboration is a fundamental agile principle). I would stay away from courses that are simply a lecture based in power point. You learn from other’s experiences and comments. You learn from doing things and applying what you learned as soon as you learn it. Those are the courses I’ve seen as the most valuable (and I’ve done a wide variety of them).

If you have any question about certifications, let me know. I’d be happy to help out.

Being > Doing

Thanks for reading,

David Bjarnson

 

David Bjarnson

David Bjarnson

David is an agile practitioner for 6 years in various capacities working specifically on software development for a number of different companies. David has his CSM, CSPO, CSP-PO, CSP-SM, and PMI-ACP certifications.

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