What to make of Scrum Master certification?

Let me start out by saying that I think Scrum is an extremely valuable framework for development projects and that my intent is not to be disparaging to the Scrum Master or Agile Coach roles. Quite the contrary. We all know that certifications make us more marketable and increase our earning potential, these are the main drivers for pursing the path for any certification. At issue is the designation and process for Scrum Master certification. The training is beneficial but as a certification it is lacking in both depth and prestige when compared to other professional certifications. If I can quote Ken Scwaber, one of the founders of Scrum and The Scrum Alliance, “Scrum is easy to use but difficult to master”.  The Scrum Master certification is a starting point and while often compared at a parallel level to the Project Management Professional designation of PMP, they are very different levels. Grant it the roles are very different, with one being “part of the team” (Scrum Master) and the other “directing the team” (Project Manager). We’ll look at the certification and requirements for both.

Training

The two-day mandatory Scrum Master training classes are very useful to obtain introductory knowledge. The course does well with taking the knowledge and enabling you to apply its concepts in a very effective, fun and interactive way. The trainers are equipped with a higher certification of Certified Scrum Trainer (CST) which requires specific hours of training and coaching along with continuing education requirements. They are right to include everyone in order to understand how Scrum works and how best to use it in your organization. It’s not just about the process. Those entrusted with training the masses first need to be a Certified Scrum Master (CSM), followed by Certified Scrum Practitioner (CSP), and lastly becoming a Certified Scrum Trainer. In terms of stature, the scrum workshop is more akin to the 3-5-day Project Management Professional (PMP) boot camp/prep courses. At the end of the PMP training you get a certificate of completion, whereas with the Scrum workshop, you end up with a certification if you pass the exam a few days afterwards.

Exam and Certification

There is no minimum experience requirement to attend the training and the test is a very brief thirty-five question, open book exam that is easily aced.

Speaking from someone who has worked hard over many years to cultivate project management and business analysis knowledge and experience and studied many hours to prepare for demanding and rigorous certification exams, the Scrum Master Certification (CSM) doesn’t stack up. Even though the roles of Project Manager and Scrum Master are fairly comparable in the technology industry. In my mind, the Scrum Master certification is more closely aligned with the entry-level Certified Associate Project Management from the Project Management Institute (PMI). The CAPM requirement is 1,500 credit hours or 23 hours of project management training. The difference in credibility is that the CAPM is a lengthier exam and formally administered.

There is a Certified Scrum Professional (CSP) designation which does follow a more traditional certification process with validation of experience (2,000 hours over two years) along with a higher degree of demonstrated knowledge. Starting at this level, there is also a requirement of Scrum Education Units (CEU’s) much like Professional Development Units (PDU’s) for the PMP. Two years still does not seem like enough time to achieve a mastery level. Most long-time Scrum Masters have not made the leap to this secondary designation for lack of need as the Scrum Master certification is in high demand and the CSP has not gained the same attention.

Mastery

With the especially lofty title of “Master”, the CSM certification does not make you, or qualify you as a master of anything. You’ve mastered the material and concepts covered over the two days and that’s it. This puts you at the same titled position of those that have been practicing Scrum since it’s inception. Therefore, flooding the market with Scrum Masters and with false expectations for recruiters and hiring managers. Not to mention, the lack of fairness when comparing experience with more seasoned Scrum Masters or Agile Coaches.

In order to qualify to sit the PMP exam, you are vetted by the governing body, Project Management Institute. You need at least 3-5 years’ worth of experience (depending on your formal education level), and 4,500-7,500 hours leading and directing projects in addition to the 35 hours of class training.  While this process is lengthy, cumbersome, and somewhat frustrating, in the end it protects the validity and respect for the credential.

While a credential doesn’t fully illustrate a person’s capabilities, it does come with a built-in expectation of experience and solid foundational knowledge. If we take the CAPM (certified associate project manager) vs. PMP (project management professional) for example. If hiring for a Sr. Project Manager, you would look for a PMP over a CAPM as the experience would be reflected in the certification requirement. The certification in this case indicates the “proven level of experience”, the commitment to the profession, and understanding of overall foundational knowledge of the framework.

Perhaps, the Scrum Alliance will consider a couple of changes (1) Change the name of the certification from Scrum Master to Scrum Associate or other more appropriate title (2) change the output of the class to a course completion certificate and not a designated certification and/or (3) Require minimum experience and create a more robust exam to gauge the right level of knowledge and experience required to be a Scrum Master. Is 16 hours of training and a brief open-book exam, enough for a certification?

Any other thoughts on how to improve the value of the CSM Certification?

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