Stefan 5. November 2012
I am often asked to share bit about my experiences in getting certified, so here is my story…but beware it is going to be a long story (which is why it took me so long to write it down).
The Scrum certifications
I am sure many of you have at least thought of getting certified in an agile domain. While the most widely known certification has always been the Certified Scrum Master (CSM). over the past years many have also noticed that the role of the Product Owner is even more important, which is why the Certified Product Owner (CPO) has become more prominent and thankfully more and more within our community have become certified as a CPO.
There is quite some history though on the certification as CSM. Many have complained that you just have to visit a course to become certified (as I did). Then, after the Scrum Alliance had introduced an exam, many complained that it was a test that you cannot fail. Scrum Alliance has again fixed that recently (see here) . Even though they say, you get your results immediately I am not sure to what detail the information is but more about that below.
I was honestly never into certifications at all but being a passionate agilists, running and coaching agile projects, giving training I thought it would be important to look over the rim and get to know others and learn other ideas. This is why I got certified as ScrumMaster. I actually only did that after I had some experience, which is probably not the best way but in my case the course itself gave me the chance to learn answers for many of my questions that arose from my daily challenges within the project being agile (fortunately the people within my project like me had some previous agile experience, so it wasn’t too bad in the project without a certification ;-). Thus I came back with new ideas and answers and that really kicked off my enthusiasm even more within the project. Over the following months I learned more, the CSC community became bigger and I was interested in the next step:
The Certified Scrum Practitioner seemed to be the next subsequent and consequent step. By that time it wasn’t a multiple choice test as it is today, I had to give compreshensive answers to 20 questions, which in my case led to a 17 pages document that describe essentially how you practition agile in the real world, how you deal with challenges of Scrum and how you establish the continous improvement process by telling stories that give real world project evidence. This was then reviewed by a certification board member and you may pass or fail. I actually like this idea because you really have to prove and explain what you have experienced. For reasons which are not clear to me in the meantime it has also become to be a multiple choice test. My best guess is that the old approach does not scale very well…By the way, I hardly haven’t met a CSP who is not a practitioner or at least passionate about the topic.
As many know the Certified Scrum Coach or Training are nearly impossible to get if you are not a full time Agile Coach and you are not putting a lot of effort into the Scrum Community by writing blogs or books or giving speeches in conferences. Therefore I called those quits approaching them.
The scrum.org alternative
Most of you know, the Scrum Alliance “lost” Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland who then founded the Scrum.org. With them we have now a Scrum certification alternative now (see here), eg. the Professional Scrum Master (PSM). Their main difference is in terms of the certification: they also have multiple choice tests but you can do them online and without having participated within a training. On the other hand they are known to be comparibly difficult so it is advised to take the training. You can register with the Scrum.org and check out an open assessment. I have not taken the training but I know of people (within CSC) that have and even have failed at the first time – so don’t underestimate the difficulty level.
PMI-ACP – The PMI agile alternative – My ups and downs
I am aware that in the in meantime more and more alternatives pop up and I love to hear about experiences. However the one that I encountered and thought it was interesting to look at was the Project Management Institute – Agile Certified Practitioner – short PMI-ACP. PMI monitored the market and came to the conclusion that “PMI’s research has shown that the use of agile has tripled from December 2008 to May 2011”. So PMI started to work on a PMI Agile certification in February 2011 and invited people like Alistair Cockburn to the committee. They had a beta in the end of the year and it started around the beginning of this year officially. Many in the agile community who had known the PMI for their traditional project management were very skeptical about that and so did I.
However, it turned out that the PMI did their homework. Even though I have the feeling that the topic was formed mainly around the books that some members of the commitee have written or the really famous books (I am sure it really drove their selling lately, which I by the way support because most of them are a good read) , the list of what is being checked during the certification is pretty comprehensive (for those who want to know what the 13 books and topics are in detail, look up the PMI-ACP content outline: it is categorized around two areas: 50 % is about “agile tools and techniques” and 50% is about “agile knowledge and skills”. It is pretty comprehensive as it does not only cover Scrum but also Kanban, Lean, DSDM, Crystal in terms of methodologies but also aspects like stakeholder management, progressive elaboration, distributed teams, team conflict management, servant leadership or how to organize retrospectives:
The Tools and Techniques consists of:
- Planning, Monitoring and adapting
- Agile Analysis and design
- Product quality
- Soft skills negotiation
- Value based prioritization
- Risk Management
- Value Stream Analysis
The Knowledge and Skills is a long list, which you better lookup in the content outline. However, PMI defines also
Domains of Knowledge:
- Value Driven Delivery
- Stakeholder Engagement
- Boosting Team Performance Practices
- Adaptive Planning
- Problem Detection and Resolution
- Continuous Improvement (Product, Process, People)
If you consider this as a content of a certification, this is a much wider knowledge that you have to build to what “just” Scrum is. Honestly, if you want to run Scrum projects successfully I am sure now and then you already encountered quite a number of all of those topics but sometimes rather coincidentally. This certification makes you think about it more. This is why I thought it makes sense to go for it.
I by chance had the opportunity to talk to Wally Moore, from PMI, who is PMI’s relationship manager to the company I work for, in July this year. He for example told me that the PMI-ACP was the certification that really had the highest increase rate of all new certifications they have provided to the market. Even more than 5000 people had registered for the beta phase (but not all took or passed the first exam). So, taken into account the widespread content of the ACP-content and PMI’s reputation I decided to go for it.
The first things that I encountered were the eligibility requirements which I thought were good. Remember, it is called PRACTITIONER. When I am preparing for a certification like that it should indeed separate those who have just learned it theoretically from them who know how to do it. Therefore I was happy to see that there requirements were tough to reach. Unfortunately I cannot currently prove it but shortly after the beta they decreased the eligibility requirements to something that if had them, I would not call myself a practitioner: 2000 hrs working on project teams, 1500 hrs working on agile teams. You are not required to have been a PM on a traditional project, nor you are required to have been a PO or method facilitator (aka ScrumMaster in a Scrum project) – you are just required to have been working in a (agile) project. This definitely has watered the eligibility requirements. My feeling is that PMI wanted to have more people to jump on the certification wagon (it actually shows currently that many do the certifications on top of a PMP or the courses only for PDU-purposes) and it would have been harder the previous way. However to me this lowers the value of the certification.
But even worse to me is audit process. It is just a formal one. What does it mean? Well, when you register, you automatically adhere to the ethics of PMI, so you have to be honest of what you you tell there and you have to list all projects that prove the above eligibility requirements. As long as you don’t get audited, you could basically tell whatever you want (even though this is against PMIs ethics and if proven you will be disqualified!). If you get audited, and I did(!), what you essentially have to do is, download a prefilled form from the PMI-registration site that exactly contains what you have told what you did. This exact form needs to be sent to your contact person whom you have defined to be able to prove that. The form needs to be signed by that person and sent back in an enclosed envelope. You collect all of these and send them to the PMI via snail mail. Everything’s fine, right? No, not really from my perspective. First of all, rumor says it is only about 10% of the people who get audited. Secondly, you usually would only name a contact person whom you have a good relationship with – why would the person then not sign what you pretended to have done? As far as I know this is the only thing that PMI checks – whether the contact person signed. They are then not questioning this. PMI, if that is wrong, I am happy to correct. I would actually love if the PMI would make random inspection calls with those stakeholders and interview them. Even though ethics do not allow to cheat, believe me there is a reason why I would love to see a deeper audit… (sigh). Thirdly, the audit process takes so long, you lose a lot of knowledge you learned in a PMI-ACP preparation course. In my case, I thought it would make sense first to go a preparation course to find out what gaps I had, then register for the certification. Wrong! Never do so: Why? Because then the audit process started and of course you need to give your contact persons time to answer, then send it to the PMI (oversees), then wait for the PMI to accept (or reject). In my case, as far as I remember, overall it took more than four weeks. Even worse, at least 2 weeks after having sent the documents to the PMI I got an automated reminder to please send the proof. I then contacted PMI directly and surprisingly the next day I again got a (automated) message and not a personal answer that they had received it… Most of the details I learned from the prep course were gone and I more or less started learning from scratch – what a waste of time (not a really lean thinking…). Lessons learned: Only register for the certification when everything you need to do is under your own control. The second lessons learned was: Only show edit eligibility requirements that are barely sufficient (again lean thinking). Why? I listed more proof (a longer list of projects) than what was really required. Naively thinking this would maybe convince someone at the PMI that this guy is indeed a practitioner…It only resulted in a longer list of proofs I had to made and more people to be contacted, convinced to sign and send the enclosed envelope back to you. Sadly me feeling is that the audit process doesn’t really raise the bar of the eligibility requirements but made me lose a lot of time for my learning.
How to get prepared for the PMI-ACP?
What the PMI basically tells you is: Here is the list of topics and here’s the list of 13 books you should read. There is nothing like a traditional PMBOK which summarizes the content. This is were the training providers jump in: They provide PMI-ACP prep courses. So, what do you learn in the course? The whole content? No! The intent is to give you an overview on mostly all of the listed topics and is provided as means to identify the gaps of the knowledge you need to work on. At a certain point in time there was one thing I didn’t want to hear anymore from those who knew me: “Don’t worry, you will be fine in the exam”. Even though I appreciated those who appreciated my knowledge, in hindsight from my own perspective I would say I would have failed the exam if hadn’t learned the topics thoroughly. It is actually something positive I take from the exam because that tells you that the questions are indeed sometimes pretty tough to answer without learning.
So how did I prepare myself? As I mentioned I took a prepare course which runs over 3 days and automatically provides you with the 21 PDUs you need to have (I already had had enough PDUs through teaching myself and a Kanban course I had participated in but I wanted to be able share experiences of the prep course and know my gaps). Then I had this long wait time because of the audit process. Then finally when the audit was through I made sure I had a long weekend (Friday through Sunday) on my own without family and started to get prepared. Before that I read thoroughly Mike Griffith’s book “PMI-ACP Exam Prep, Premier Edition: A Course in a Book for Passing the PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP) Exam”. I was actually surprised by the concise content of the book. To me it is not only a book for someone who prepares for the certification but anyone who wants to have a broader look at the topic. With the course the course provide delivers not only the book (which can be separately bought) but also Flashcards and an exam simulation software with hundreds of questions (see here). I prepared myself mainly through the exam questions which can be run based on “agile tools and techniques” and “agile knowledge and skills” or based on the domains (see above). Every time I wasn’t sure about the answer I either picked up the book (or others I own) or researched the internet. By that approach I got to know the gaps and directly was able to fill those with new knowledge. Then I took the simulated exam which provides you with 120 questions within 3 hours (like in the official exam). After I did well there I finally took the what they call the Super-APC-exam which are 120 most difficult question. With that I felt pretty well prepared the next day.
How well was my preparation?
As I said I prepared myself over the weekend and I took my exam on Monday morning to make sure I had a fresh mind, thus felt positive when I entered the exam. One thing that has to be mentioned: The questions are English only! And I have to tell you the question use an English that is sometimes really challenging to understand. The reason why I am mentioning this is that I think it is discriminating non-native speakers. I was sometimes challenged by some of the questions and answers that sometimes had only subtle differences which were important to be understood. Dictionaries are not allowed and I think the fact that you pass or fail should not be something where native speakers should have advantages – PMI must definitely think about that. Be also aware that others may distract you as you are not alone. Especially if you start getting nervous any further distraction makes it worse especially when you additionally have loud aircon that prevents you to concentrate (sigh).
How the exam went
I actually thought I was well prepared and I think I was but… When I left the simulated exam I was able to answer the questions in seconds but the real exam is still different. They have a different ways of asking and they had different focuses. The result was that I hardly couldn’t answer any of the first ten to twenty questions in a safe way which definitely made me nervous. I convinced myself to go on and mark every question as “review” where I wasn’t completely sure. I can’t tell you how many I marked but it was definitely more than half of all questions, honestly! I made it through all questions in roughly a bit more than an hour. Then I went only through all marked questions. For each of the questions I made sure I read the answer completely right (beware the nots, nevers, always, ideallys…) and then went on with a process of answer elimination – each by each. This again took me roughly an hour. By that time I started to become more comfortable (and not capitulating which I had in mind after the first twenty questions). Finally I again reviewed all questions quickly: Read the questions, read my answer, feel comfortable with the answer and then cross-check with the other answers. I recall that through this process I again changed (only) 3 answers. I was done 10 minutes before 3 hours and decided this is it and don’t look back. Sometimes, by the way, I really had the challenge to find the right answer because I would have said “it depends”. Especially because many of the topics deal with soft skills and sometimes as a Facilitator you need to be sensitive and there is not the ideal answer and it just depends on the situation. In some of these cases experience really helps to envision the situation and answer the question. Sometime the question helps if it mentions a word like “ideally” because then the answer usually becomes easy.
I pressed the button to get the exam results and … had to answer a survey … only then I was allowed to send my answers and after a seconds I got the result: I had passed. It actually gives you feedback whether your on average, under average or proficient in both of those areas. And this is again something were I complain: Agile is about continuous improvement and learning. If you fail you hardly get any feedback on why you failed – they only tell you on both areas that you are under average. You don’t know which questions were not answered correctly! And this is what I hate about certifications: the exam does not give you any way to improve yourself, it is not about learning and improving it is only about passing!
I won’t be surprised if some of you just jumped to that section , so here’s my essence:
- PMI made its homework – the content is comprehensive and passing the exam is not an easy task
- To make sure that the PMI-ACP is really a practitioner’s certification I would want the eligibility requirements to be higher, the audit more personal (adding interviews of contact persona) and the questions even more tied to situations that only practitioners can answer
- Only list what is barely sufficient for your eligibility requirements.
- Choose a prep-course that is run by a trainer who runs agile projects
- Only take a course after fully registering. You have one year before you have to take the exam
- Participating in an agile exam I would expect a much more detailed feedback on why I fail the test and guidance. The best would be if the test would show all incorrect answered questions with the right answer. Why not? Isn’t it about learning them? The people under test are not allowed to take away or tell anything after the test anyway, so there is no risk, they will spread this knowledge.
- PMI must allow dictionaries not to discriminate non-native speakers.
Finally: If you are a practitioner, you are well prepared and you get nervous during the exam, follow my approach (see above) and I am sure you will pass…
Was it worth it?
Yes – it was.
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