Certified to Start

“I don’t think you need a certificate to truly legitimize you or authenticate you as a designer. I think real innovation and creativity can come from everywhere.”

– Mark Parker

Within the Agile community there are those who obsessively collect certifications like stamps and those who love to hate on certifications like pariahs. In between, is everyone else trying to figure out why all the fuss. Here’s my personal opinion – certification is necessary but not sufficient.

Let’s start peeling back the layers of the certification onion.

What does certification entail?

According to the Oxford dictionary, certification is “the action or process of providing someone or something with an official document attesting to a status or level of achievement”. For Agile certifications, it entails varying elements of:

  1. Acquiring explicit knowledge through an instructor-led class
  2. Passing an exam based on what was learned in the class
  3. Logging a minimum number of hours in the real-world practicing what was learned in the class
  4. Face-to-face interviews with certification reviewers

Foundational certifications such as the Scrum Alliance’s Certified Scrum Master (CSM) or Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO) require only class attendance and passing an exam. Elevated certifications such as Certified Scrum Trainer (CST) or Certified Enterprise Coach (CEC) focus more heavily on demonstrated experience in the real-world and the interviews. Once certified, re-certification on a regular basis (e.g. every 1-2 years) usually requires earning a minimum number of education or development units (e.g. SEUs, PDUs) and paying a fee.

How is certification different from licensure?

Certification is voluntary. One does not need to be certified in order to practice as a Scrum Master or a Product Owner. However, if you want to train others and grant them a credential such as CSM or CSPO, then the certifying body such as Scrum Alliance would require you to be certified with them such as a CST. In contrast, by law, practitioners of licensed occupations such as doctors, lawyers and airline pilots must have a license in order to practice. Licensing is mandatory and yet is it sufficient?

What’s missing?

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of Certification

There is plenty good with certifications.

As a Cub Scout, I remember the excitement and pride every time I earned a merit badge on my uniform. The badges encouraged us to explore areas of personal interest while at the same time teaching valuable life skills like reading, cooking, navigating and teamwork. They helped establish a strong, practical foundation for life. The more interests I had, the more badges I earned incenting me to acquire more interests and badges. No wonder gamification appeals to so many! If we think of the badges as mini-certifications of sorts, the good part of this certification was that each Cub Scout’s certification journey was their own based on what interested them the most. There was no prescribed path for all to follow. And because there were so many badges to choose from, our curiosity to explore was nurtured.

When I travel, it gives me peace of mind to know that the pilots flying my plane are not only certified but licensed as well. In this case, relying on certification and licensure is definitely a good start. But what happens when a situation arises that wasn’t covered in the textbooks? When US Airways flight 1549 landed on the Hudson River in New York City on January 15, 2009, nothing in the textbooks could’ve prepared the pilots and flight attendants for that situation. They needed to rely on tacit knowledge gained through observing and experiencing what was happening at the time to respond in kind.

Certifications can become bad.

The three most common complaints I hear about Agile certifications are:

  1. “The hiring people (HR, Managers) are only checking to see if the candidate possesses the right three letter acronym (TLA) credentials!”
  2. “The certifications are money-making schemes”
  3. “He’s pre-occupied with adding credentials rather than enjoying the journey”

When filtering resumes, if HR’s keyword search tools are optimized on TLAs then there could be a bevy of un-certified but excellent Agile practitioner candidates that could be missed. Remember, you don’t need the CSM or PSM credential to practice as a Scrum Master. When reviewing candidates, if you’re not inquiring beyond the simple existence of a TLA credential, how will you differentiate candidates with the same credentials? No two CSMs are the same.

Certifications aren’t free. There are people and administration costs for the certification programs. So, I don’t begrudge the money I pay for my certifications and re-certifications. What does concern me and others is when certification fees become the only source of funding for and the sole purpose of the certifying bodies. At its worst, chasing the money will cause certifying bodies to forget the ‘why’ behind the certification. I experienced this first hand with a certification that had expired. I received an email two months after expiry stating that I could still renew the certification if I paid the fee. I appreciated the offer and what would have made it even better is if they reminded me of the value-add they were providing the community and the value I would get from the certification. But that was not the case. No wonder, the perception of money-grabbing certifications exists.

Many graduated certifications such as the Lean Kanban University’s Kanban Management Professional recommend a minimum period of time elapse between certification tiers. Time that should be spent trying to apply what was learned and coming up with questions and perspectives to make the next certification tier more relatable. Those that choose to skip this part of their learning journey and rush through their certification tiers will have a sub-optimal experience.

Certifications get ugly when they hide ineptitude.

Big Eyes

My wife watched a biopic recently called “Big Eyes”. It told the story of American artist Margaret Keane and her husband, Walter Keane. Some of us would be familiar with her works if we saw them. She was famous for drawing portraits and paintings of people with unusually big eyes. Her works became phenomenally successful and popular in the 1950s and 1960s. The problem was her domineering and conceited husband, Walter, a fledgling artist took credit for her paintings. They carried on this ruse for years until Margaret found the courage to file a lawsuit against Walter. This led to a public “paint-off” between the two to prove who was the real artist behind the paintings. Margaret completed her sample work in 53 minutes. Walter withdrew feigning a shoulder injury that prevented him from painting. Margaret was vindicated. If we think of each painting as a certification of the artist’s skill, then Walter’s ability to hide behind his wife’s paintings represents the ugly side of certifications. Do you know of any Agile practitioners who hide behind their paintings?

Focus on Running the Race and Owning Your Certification

Certification will provide a solid grounding in the explicit body of knowledge that exists. It takes effort and those that succeed should be applauded for their hard work. But certification will only get us into the starting blocks at the beginning of a race. We need to run the race. A race that will augment the explicit knowledge of certification with the tacit knowledge of experience.

Applying Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning, here’s what the racetrack could look like.

Bloom's Racetrack

Certification requires rote memorization and understanding to get into the starting blocks. You need to run the rest of the race by:

  • applying what you’ve learned
  • analyzing and evaluating the outcomes and
  • ultimately creating new learnings

With each lap of the race, you begin the learning cycle anew. It’s like reading a good book more than once. Each time I re-read a book, I always discover some detail I missed the previous times. Details that enhance my appreciation of the book.

And speaking of books, what if we were to use a book to represent certification. Buying the book would represent getting your certified credentials. Now what? In the words of Max De Pree,

“Buying books is easy; owning them is not… As a child, I often watched adults study books and learned one of my first lessons about reading. They wrote in their books. Intent and involved readers often write in the margins and between the lines. Good readers take possession of what they are learning by underlining and commenting and questioning. In this manner, they ‘finish’ what they read.”

Be a good reader and own your certification!

Final Thoughts on Certification

Memeing Mark Levinson’s “Scrum is simple and incomplete”, foundational agile certifications are basic and incomplete. Certifications are a start. How you complete them is up to you. Here are some ideas:

  • What if ALL certifications including foundational ones were to require practical real-world experience before granting the credentials? This would balance explicit knowledge with tacit knowledge.
  • Ask hiring people to look beyond the credentials and ask what the candidate has done with it? How have they owned it?
  • How about “roll-your-own” Agile certifications based on a smorgasbord of interesting topics? If it can work for the Cub Scouts, why not experiment and give it a try?

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