Pursuing A Professional Certification In Scrum

A personal reflection on choosing to embrace agile, how to evaluate Scrum certification courses, and what value being a Professional Scrum Master has brought to my day-to-day job.

Professional certifications have become increasingly popular in this age of career switchers and the freelance gig economy. A certification can be a useful way to advance your skill set quickly or make your resume stand out, which can be especially important for those trying to break into a new industry or attract business while self-employed. Whatever your reason may be for pursuing a professional certificate, there is one question only you can answer for yourself: is it worth it?

Finding first-hand experiences from professionals with similar career goals and passions was the most helpful research I used to answer that question for myself. So, here’s mine; why I decided to get Scrum certified, how I evaluated my options, and if it was really worth it.

A shift in mindset

My background originates in brand strategy where it’s typical for work to follow a predictable order, each step informing the next. This made linear techniques like water-fall timelines, completing one phase of work in its entirety before moving onto the next, and documenting granular tasks weeks in advance helpful and easy to implement. When I made the move to more digitally focused work, tasks followed a much looser set of ‘typical’ milestones. While the general outline remained the same (strategy, design, development, launch) there was a lot more overlap with how tasks informed each other, and would keep informing and re-informing as an iterative workflow would encourage.

Trying to fit a very fluid process into my very stiff linear approach to project planning didn’t work so well. I didn’t have the right strategies to manage risks in a productive way without feeling like the whole project was off track; with the habit of account for granular details all the time, I struggled to lean on others to help define what we should work on and when, and being okay if that changed once, or twice, or three times. Everything I learned about the process of product development came from learning on the job and making a ton of mistakes—and I knew I wanted to get better.

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

I was fortunate enough to work with a group of developers who were looking to make a change, too. Being ‘agile’-enthusiasts, this group of developers were desperately looking for ways to infuse our approach to product work with agile-minded principles (the broad definition of ‘agile’ comes from ‘The Agile Manifesto’, which has influenced frameworks for organizing people and information, often applied in product development). This not only applied to how I worked with them, but how they worked with each other, and the way we all onboarded clients to these new expectations. This was a huge eye opener to me. Soon enough, I started applying these agile strategies to my day-to-day— running stand-ups, setting up backlogs, and reorganizing the way I thought about work output. It’s from this experience that I decided it may be worth learning these principles more formally.

The choice to get certified

There is a lot of literature out there about agile methodologies and a lot to be learned from casual research. This benefitted me for a while until I started to work on more complicated projects, or projects with more ambitious feature requests. My decision to ultimately pursue a formal agile certification really came down to three things:

  1. An increased use of agile methods across my team. Within my day-to-day I would encounter more team members who were familiar with these tactics and wanted to use them to structure the projects they worked on.
  2. The need for a clear definition of what processes to follow. I needed to grasp a real understanding of how to implement agile processes and stay consistent with using them to be an effective champion of these principles.
  3. Being able to diversify my experience. Finding ways to differentiate my resume from others with similar experience would be an added benefit to getting a certification. If nothing else, it would demonstrate that I’m curious-minded and proactive about my career.

To achieve these things, I gravitated towards a more foundational education in a specific agile-methodology. This made Scrum the most logical choice given it’s the basis for many of the agile strategies out there and its dominance in the field.

Evaluating all the options

For Scrum education and certification, there are really two major players to consider.

  1. Scrum Alliance - Probably the most well known Scrum organization is Scrum Alliance. They are a highly recognizable organization that does a lot to further the broader understanding of Scrum as a practice.
  2. Scrum.org - Led by the original co-founder of Scrum, Ken Schwaber, Scrum.org is well-respected and touted for its authority in the industry.

Each has their own approach to teaching and awarding certifications as well as differences in price point and course style that are important to be aware of.

SCRUM ALLIANCE

Pros

  • Strong name recognition and leaders in the Scrum field
  • Offers both in-person and online courses
  • Hosts in-person events, webinars, and global conferences
  • Provides robust amounts of educational resources for its members
  • Has specialization tracks for folks looking to apply Scrum to their specific discipline
  • Members are required to keep their skills up to date by earning educational credits throughout the year to retain their certification
  • Consistent information across all course administrators ensuring you'll be set up to succeed when taking your certification test.

Cons

  • High cost creates a significant barrier to entry (we’re talking in the thousands of dollars here)
  • Courses are required to take the certification test
  • Certification expires after two years, requiring additional investment in time and/or money to retain credentials
  • Difficult to find sample course material ahead of committing to a course
  • Courses are several days long which may mean taking time away from a day job to complete them

SCRUM.ORG

Pros

  • Strong clout due to its founder, Ken Schwaber, who is the originator of Scrum
  • Offers in-person classes and self-paced options
  • Hosts in-person events and meetups around the world
  • Provides free resources and materials to the public, including practice tests
  • Has specialization tracks for folks looking to apply Scrum to their specific discipline
  • Minimum score on certification test required to pass; certification lasts for life
  • Lower cost for certification when compared to peers

Cons

  • Much lesser known to the general public, as compared to its counterpart
  • Less sophisticated educational resources (mostly confined to PDFs or online forums) making digesting the material challenging
  • Practice tests are slightly out of date making them less effective as a study tool
  • Self-paced education is not structured and therefore can’t ensure you’re learning everything you need to know for the test
  • Lack of active and engaging community will leave something to be desired

Before coming to a decision, it was helpful to me to weigh these pros and cons against a set of criteria. Here’s a helpful scorecard I used to compare the two institutions.

Scrum Alliance Scrum.org
Affordability ⚪⚪⚪
Rigor⚪⚪⚪⚪⚪
Reputation⚪⚪⚪⚪⚪
Recognition⚪⚪⚪
Community⚪⚪⚪
Access⚪⚪⚪⚪⚪
Flexibility⚪⚪⚪
Specialization⚪⚪⚪⚪⚪⚪
Requirements⚪⚪⚪
Longevity⚪⚪⚪

For me, the four areas that were most important to me were:

  • Affordability - I’d be self-funding this certificate so the investment of cost would need to be manageable.
  • Self-paced - Not having a lot of time to devote in one sitting, the ability to chip away at coursework was appealing to me.
  • Reputation - Having a certificate backed by a well-respected institution was important to me if I was going to put in the time to achieve this credential.
  • Access - Because I wanted to be a champion for this framework for others in my organization, having access to resources and materials would help me do that more effectively.

Ultimately, I decided upon a Professional Scrum Master certification from Scrum.org! The price and flexibility of learning course content were most important to me. I found a ton of free materials on Scrum.org that I could study myself and their practice tests gave me a good idea of how well I was progressing before I committed to the cost of actually taking the test. And, the pedigree of certification felt comparable to that of Scrum Alliance, especially considering that the founder of Scrum himself ran the organization.

Putting a certificate to good use

I don’t work in a formal Agile company, and not everyone I work with knows the ins and outs of Scrum. I didn’t use my certification to leverage a career change or new job title. So after all that time, money, and energy, was it worth it?

I think so. I feel like I use my certification every day and employ many of the principles of Scrum in my day-to-day management of projects and people.

  • Self-organizing teams is really important when fostering trust and collaboration among project members. This means leaning on each other’s past experiences and lessons learned to inform our own approach to work. It also means taking a step back as a project manager to recognize the strengths on your team and trust their lead.
  • Approaching things in bite size pieces is also a best practice I use every day. Even when there isn't a mandated sprint rhythm, breaking things down into effort level, goals, and requirements is an excellent way to approach work confidently and avoid getting too overwhelmed.
  • Retrospectives and stand ups are also absolute musts for Scrum practices, and these can be modified to work for companies and project teams of all shapes and sizes. Keeping a practice of collective communication and reflection will keep a team humming and provides a safe space to vent and improve.
Photo by Gautam Lakum on Unsplash

Parting advice

I think furthering your understanding of industry standards and keeping yourself open to new ways of working will always benefit you as a professional. Professional certifications are readily available and may be more relevant than ever.

If you’re on this path, good luck! And here are some things to consider:

  • Do your research – With so many educational institutions out there, you can definitely find the right one for you, with the level of rigor you’re looking for.
  • Look for company credits or incentives – some companies cover part or all of the cost for continuing education.
  • Get started ASAP – You don’t need a full certification to start implementing small tactics to your workflows. Implementing learnings gradually will help you determine if it’s really something you want to pursue more formally.
Stephanie Fois

Stephanie is a digital project manager in our Falls Church, VA, HQ. She’s a list-maker, a spreadsheet lover, and a believer that success is always a team effort.

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