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Becoming a PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP)

Gartner analysts predict that over 80% of software development teams will be using Agile development by the end of 2012. With that type of adoption, the PMI recognized that they needed to add an Agile certification to their list of offerings. In this tip, project managers who are considering Agile certification will learn more about the eligibility requirements, how to prepare and the benefits of earning a PMI-Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP) certification.

Eligibility for PMI-ACP

In order to be eligible to take the PMI-ACP exam, the PMI asks for at least a high school degree or the equivalent, 2000 hours (about 12 months) of project team experience within the last five years and in addition, 1500 hours (about 8 months) of Agile methodology experience in the last three years.  Additionally, candidates must have at least 21 hours worth of training in Agile practices. There is a fee of $435 for PMI members and $495 for nonmembers.

The Scrum Master Certification (SCM), put out by the Scrum Alliance, by comparison, requires only a two-day class. Though there's an exam, anyone who takes the class and test is granted the SCM regardless of score. 

Mike Griffiths, author

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of PMI-ACP Exam Prep, Premier Edition: A Course in a Book for Passing the PMI Agile Certified Practioner (PMI-ACP) Exam, says that the training received during the (SCM) class is by far the most common way that 14 of the required 21 hours are obtained by those who take the PMI-ACP exam. So, certainly these certifications are not an either-or type of situation.

Surprisingly, according to members of the Boulder Agile User Group meeting, many Agile employers look for the SCM rather than the PMI-ACP, even though the SCM is much easier to obtain. This may be partly because the PMI-ACP is new. However, it may also be because the PMI has a reputation of promoting a Waterfall or stage-gate methodology – a methodology that is often looked at as "anti-Agile." With such a history, it may be tough for the PMI to convince the skeptics that his/her new certification isn’t tainted with remnants of traditional mindsets.

Preparing for the exam

Such skeptics may be surprised to learn that the PMI Agile Steering Committee which worked to develop the PMI-ACP includes many of Agile greats including Agile Manifesto signatory Alistair Cockburn, Agile Coach Mike Cottmeyer and Scrum Alliance Board Member Michele Sliger. The PMI hosts an Agile community of practice (CoP), allowing Agile project managers to network, learn and share Agile practices with the PMI community.

Griffiths says that the PMI Agile CoP provides good insight for people studying for the exam. He also notes that the exam continues to evolve. The Steering Committee looks at what questions aren't doing well on the exam in order to refine and improve, a practice that is touted in Agile circles. "It's going to be a lot more dynamic than some of the other PMI certifications,' says Griffiths.

Unlike the certifications put out by the Scrum Alliance, the PMI-exam does not limit its questions to Scrum practices. The exam has 120 multiple-choice questions covering the Agile Manifesto and Agile principles, and all major Agile methodologies including Scrum, XP and Lean Kanban.

Eleven Agile reference books were used in creating the exam:

  1. Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great. Esther Derby, Diana Larsen, Ken Schwaber.
  2. Agile Software Development: The Cooperative Game – 2nd Edition. Alistair Cockburn.
  3. The Software Project Manager’s Bridge to Agility. Michele Sliger, Stacia Broderick.
  4. Coaching Agile Teams. Lyssa Adkins.
  5. Agile Project Management: Creating Innovative Products – 2nd Edition. Jim Highsmith.
  6. Becoming Agile: ...in an imperfect world. Greg Smith, Ahmed Sidky.
  7. Agile Estimating and Planning. Mike Cohn
  8. The Art of Agile Development. James Shore
  9. User Stories Applied: For Agile Software Development. Mike Cohn.
  10. Agile Project Management with Scrum. Ken Schwaber.
  11. Lean-Agile Software Development: Achieving Enterprise Agility. Alan Shalloway, Guy Beaver, James R. Trott.

There are classes that can be taken to help prepare candidates for the exam, highlighting the sections of these reference books that are most relevant. The PMI also offers papers, books and e-Learning opportunities to help prepare for the exam. However, preparation courses are not a requirement of the certification.

Consultant Henry Dittmer who has a PMI-ACP has this to say about how he prepared:

"I took a PMI-ACP course, which I think provided a good overview of Agile in general and with some specificity to frameworks like Scrum, XP, Kanban and such. This breadth of coverage in the class, reading many of the recommended 11 source books, and taking various online exams proved to be more than sufficient to pass the exam."

Benefits of a PMI-ACP certification

The benefits of any certification can be a subject of controversy. Probably the most common reason people pursue a certification of any sort is to build up their resume and get their foot into the door of a potential employer.

Is it worth it? Will it help an Agile professional gain additional credibility or career growth? Dittmer answers:

"The ACP certification is too new to have reached critical mass in the market. However, PMI is a respected organization, has a large market presence and is recognized by most organizations, and has built credibility with the PMP certification. Additionally the ACP certification requires more discipline than CSM, CSPO, or CSD; although best to my knowledge about on par to the CSP. I am both ACP and CSM/CSPO certified frankly to address clients knowledgeable in either space."

Given the more rigid experience requirements, the PMI-ACP should offer more credibility than those certifications that only are based on training. And certainly the initiative required to obtain a PMI-ACP will demonstrate professionalism and validate the practitioner's understanding of Agile principles and practices.

Though the PMI-ACP is new, it does seem to be gaining popularity. It may initially be met with some skepticism, however it appears the PMI has taken the necessary steps to provide an Agile certification program that the industry will respect as one which truly validates the knowledge of an Agile professional.

This was first published in September 2012

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