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Making sense of Agile certifications

Agile expert Yvette Francino explains three types of Agile certifications to help software professionals update skills for career growth.

In today's world, competition for jobs is fierce. Whether you are a consultant, a corporate employee or a job seeker, as a software professional you need to ensure your skills are up to date. Is certification the answer? Certainly an Agile certification on a resume can be an advantage, but with the plethora of certifications available, which one carries the most weight with employers? In this article we will take a look at three types of Agile certifications, helping Agile professionals understand which certification makes the most sense for professional development and career growth.

Scrum Alliance certifications

Let's start with the certifications the Scrum Alliance puts out. These certifications show knowledge of Scrum, the popular Agile framework used in software development. Entry level certifications include Certified Scrum Master (CSM), Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO) and the new Certified Scrum Developer (CSD). These certifications are fairly easy to obtain. The only requirement is a two- or three-day class. There is no experience required, and even the end-of-class exam is a guaranteed pass. Though this certification is easy to obtain, it does provide valuable training for people who are interested in learning the Scrum methodology. And while employers would be wise to ensure candidates had Agile experience on top of one of these certifications, many resumes won't make it through an HR filter without a Scrum certification of some sort.

The Certified Scrum Professional (CSP) is the next level of certification the Scrum Alliance offers. To be eligible, a candidate must satisfy the following three criteria: 1) be a current holder of the CSM, CSPO or CSD credentials; 2) have at least 2,000 hours of Scrum-related work experience in the past two years; and 3) be a current member of the Scrum Alliance. If you meet these criteria and pay the $300 registration fee, you must then pass a 150-question exam. If you pass the exam, your credential will be valid for two years.

The most advanced certifications the Scrum Alliance puts out are the Certified Scrum Trainer (CST) and the Certified Scrum Coach (CSC). (There is some talk of the CSC splitting into two flavors: CSC-Team and CSC-Enterprise.) Consultants and trainers may benefit from these credentials. Only CSTs are able to teach the classes that would grant the entry-level CSM, CSPO and CSD.

The PMI Certifications

The Project Management Institute (PMI) provides resources, education and certification for project, portfolio and program management curriculums. Historically this organization has taught and promoted a Waterfall or stage-gate methodology approach. But recently it has added an Agile certification to its offerings, the Agile Certified Professional (PMI-ACP).

The PMI-ACP is most comparable to the mid-level Certified Scrum Professional (CSP) the Scrum Alliance offers. To be eligible, candidates must have at least 2,000 hours of project team experience in the last five years and an additional 1,500 hours of Agile methodology experience in the last three. Candidates are also required to complete at least 21 hours of Agile training and to pass an exam with 120 multiple-choice questions.

One difference between the PMI-ACP and the CSP is that, while there certainly is coverage of Scrum, the PMI-ACP is more agnostic, including questions about all Agile methodologies, the Agile Manifesto, and Agile techniques and principles. Organizations that are transitioning to an Agile environment and use a variety of Agile techniques may be more interested in candidates with the PMI-ACP, especially if they have employees who have other PMI certifications. On the other hand, pure Scrum shops may skeptical of candidates coming out of the PMI and may prefer candidates with the CSP.

Scaled Agile Academy

The Scaled Agile Academy teaches and certifies participants on a framework tailored for the enterprise called the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe). SAFe is the brainchild of Agile guru and author of Agile Software Requirements Dean Leffingwell. Though currently not widely recognized, this certification will help Agile professionals or consultants who specialize in bringing agility to enterprise-scale projects.

The curriculum starts with two two-day courses: "Leading the Lean Agile Enterprise with the Scaled Agile Framework" followed by "Implementing the Scaled Agile Framework: Launching Agile Release Trains with Agile Portfolio and Architectural Guidance."

The certifications include the SAFe Agilist (SA) for executives, managers and Agile change agents, the SAFe Practitioner (SP) for software developers, testers, project managers, product managers and other software development team members, and the SAFe Program Consultant (SPC) for internal Agile change agents and external consultants. Each of these has experience and training requirements and mandates that candidates pass a comprehensive exam.

Which certification is considered most valuable?

The question of which Agile certification carries the most weight was discussed at a recent a Boulder, Colo.-area Agile user group meeting. Though most felt the CSM was the most popular, this may be because it's been around longer and is better known than the other certifications.

Melissa Pickering, one of the group's co-leaders who helped lead the discussion answers this way:

I think most of us were in agreement that most employers look for CSM or CSPO on a resume when hiring someone into an Agile team in any role. It may not be the best indicator of how deep someone's knowledge is, but it is the most well known at this point, and many companies are still learning about what the advanced certifications can bring to their organization.

I also think there is the understanding that an organization is going to continue to train and shape an employee once they join, so they may be OK with an entry-level certification, combined with the right experience. In more advanced positions and companies that have been doing Agile for a long time, I think we'll see them shifting to require the next level of certification, such as Certified Agile Professional.

Co-President at Agile Coaching Institute Michael Spayd seems to agree but points out that there is no "right" answer to this question:

The CSP is becoming the most recognized, though honestly I don't know if people are really differentiating between the lower-end (CSM), which is clearly important to get you in the door in many jobs, and the high end (CSC), which is perhaps becoming a differentiator.

Overall, I think Carlos Casteneda's advice is most apropos: All paths are the same; the essential thing is that you find one with heart. That is a very personal decision.

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Crisp and objective article. Thanks.

Few more pointers are worthwhile to add. 

1. CSM (as rightly said in the article) is popular because of early movers advantage. Today, many organizations prefer PSM that is high quality and life time free certificate whereas CSM is easy and requires paid renewal every two years.
2. CSP is relatively better among the Scrum Alliance certification pack
3. SAFe is good. But the training and certifications are PPTs to death. The quality of trainers is questionable as most of them are academic. Instead read the excellent short book about SAFe (Get SAFe Now). Then you can enrol for SP to get the certification for resume sake.