Agile Open Space: On Certifications

The AgileAustin Open Space has kicked off. I found the opening session positive, engaging, really fun to be there. I'm chuffed because I felt confident enough to suggest (convene) a few sessions. One responsibility of a convener is to capture notes from the session. This blog post is meeting that responsibility.

Y'see, one of the sessions I proposed was entitled, "Certified ScrumMaster??" I wanted to gauge people's opinions of the CSM certification: Is it valuable, is it real, or is it just résumé-padding fluff?

I got my answer. The groans, grumbles, and rolled eyes around the room confirmed my suspicions. In this crowd at least, it is worse than irrelevant. It is counter to and detrimental to the philosophy of the Agile community.

After the proceedings broke into less formal conversations, I caught up with some community members whom I respect and enjoy. They elaborated on their earlier non-verbal remarks. It is not difficult to get a CSM; you attend a two-day class. That's it. That sounds like just enough knowledge to be really dangerous.

Why do we even need certifications? What does a certificate indicate about my real skills, abilities, and past experience? No, I inherently reject any model that sets up a gate-keeper-style hierarchy to knowledge—a system that says, "We know things; you don't. Your ideas and perspectives are not as good as ours until we bless you and permit you to be one of us (and your check clears)." I don't accept religions that do this, nor governments, nor software project methodologies, for Pete's sake.

The true flaw in the CSM is the name: Certified ScrumMaster. Go to a hiring manager and ask which she'd rather have, someone with 3 years' experience as a Scrum team member, or a Certified Scrum Master [trumpet fanfare]. Those in the know, know that ScrumMaster is the role; you hear it without the space. But to those who are not yet well versed in Scrum, it sounds like Mastery of the Scrum process; they inject a space between the words.

The Training page on the Scrum Alliance website says it plain: "The journey to mastery begins with..." and "These courses [CSM and CSPO] provide a solid foundation to help you make the paradigm shift to managing a project using Scrum." [emphasis added] They state straight up that this is the starting point. But the name of the certification doesn't say that. The opportunity for misinterpretation will get people into trouble.

Why does it get my dander up? Personally, because it threatens to be Another Damn Thing I gotta do to stay in the game. Professionally, because agile projects can be magnificent, and certifications smack of the process-for-process'-sake mindset that turns software development into a tedium. Philosophically, because neophytes will incorrectly elevate the merit of opinions from a Certified ScrumMaster, no matter how little experience he may have, and dilute and muddle the tenets of Agile.

Mike Cohn the other night joked about the CSM culminating in a tattoo. I don't know, man, I might put more stock in that, if the tattoo embodied the Agile Manifesto. (Embodied—ha!) It would at least convey the right level of commitment.


Robin Dymond said...

I talked with Ken about the "certification" in the Scrum Master class name while having beers in 2004, after the conclusion of the course. At that point he said it was simply some social engineering to get corporate training departments to pay for the class. I think the CSM class has done one thing quite well: it has introduced lots of people to Scrum. It has also created a training community that are approved by a small group of subject matter experts. The CSM has become an approved and marketable brand. Does it turn people into Agile experts? No, but people do leave the training most often with a smile on their face and questions in their heads...

Sharon said...

Thanks for the extra insight, Robin. That rather supports my point, though. The "Certified" plus the "Master" in the name are deliberately misleading corporate decision-makers as to the content and outcome of the process.

Would you show someone how to work a gri-gri and then call him a Certified Belay Leader? What happens when I need a lead belayer for my first attempt at lead climbing, and I hire that guy? I don't know enough to know what I'm shopping for, so I'll trust someone who's certified as a leader. And then I'll probably die. Gruesomely.

To continue my metaphor, everyone who knew me will declare that climbing is incredibly dangerous and should never be attempted. The mythology around The Incompetent Belayer who Killed Sharon will grow, whispered from one to the next, published in in-flight magazines, until no one new takes up the sport of climbing and those outside it try to shut it down.

A little bit of Scrum knowledge is like giving a man enough rope. Ill-prepared, people get in over their heads, projects fail, and executives decide that Agile doesn't work. I think the CSM program, in its current form with its current name, is irresponsible.