I’ve gotten lots of questions from students in my Agile Project Management training along the lines of “What certification should I get?”. It’s understandable that there’s a lot of confusion about this because there is so much change going on in this area. As a result, it can be somewhat of a moving target to decide where to take your career direction. I’d like to share some of my thoughts on that subject.
Why Is There so Much Confusion?
This subject is particularly confusing right now because Agile is having a huge, disruptive impact on the project management profession at this time. In many cases, Agile has eliminated the typical role of a project manager for small Agile teams and that has left many projects managers unsure of what their career direction is. Here’s an article with more detail on that:
Is a Certification a “Ticket to Get a Job”?
First, we need to understand some fundamental things about certifications. A lot of people seem to view a certification as a “ticket to get a new job“. For example, almost anyone can get a Certified Scrum Master (CSM) certification if they can pay the money to sit through a 2-day training course. And, various training companies have done their best to promote this idea in order to sell their training courses. There are literally hundreds of what I call “exam-cram” courses out there that are designed to get you through a certification exam and little more than that. I don’t think that’s healthy – it does a disservice to the profession and to the people getting those certifications.
I think a better way to view a certification is evidence that you can do a job with an acceptable level of knowledge, skills, and actual real-world experience. That’s the way most project management certifications such as PMP and PMI-ACP are designed. You can’t even qualify to take the certification exam unless you have actual real-world experience. Unfortunately, that’s not universally true in the way many certifications are designed and implemented in the real world, but that’s a better way to look at certifications in my opinion.
My Recommended Approach
Here’s the approach I recommend to my students:
1. Figure Out Your Most Likely Career Direction
Get a good base of knowledge to make a sensible decision of what you think is the best career direction for yourself. That is not an easy thing to do because the whole area associated with Agile; and, in particular, Agile Project Management is rapidly evolving and the roles in this area are also changing and evolving. It can be a moving target to try to plan your career direction in this environment. Career planning, in general, can be a very difficult thing to do; and career planning also requires some level of agility:
- In some cases, it is impossible to figure out an exact career direction for yourself that will last well into the future because there is just too much uncertainty in the environment
- All you can do is start heading in the right direction and make a course correction later if necessary
- The worst thing you can do is not get started at all because the future direction is so uncertain
My online training course “What Is the Future of Agile Project Management” is specifically designed to help project managers understand the change that is going on and the impact it is likely to have on their careers:
2. Work on Developing More Knowledge
Next, work on developing more knowledge – Knowledge is power and it is important to make informed decisions. Once you’ve made a decision on your most logical career direction, work on developing some more knowledge that is specific to that career direction. The rest of my Agile Project Management training courses are designed to help you develop that knowledge.
3. Acquire Some Real-world Job Experience
There is no substitute for real-world experience – No matter how much training you have and how many certifications you might have, there is no substitute for actual real-world experience. That is particularly true in the area of project management. Good project managers have built up a natural instinct for doing effective project management based on many years in “the school of hard knocks”. Any project manager who has never been “burned” in a problematic project or one that has failed realizes how valuable that experience is because you will learn a lot from it.
4. Decide What PM Certification is Most Relevant to That Role
Finally, after you have done steps 1-3 above, decide what certification is most relevant to that role and get a certification to show that you have the appropriate knowledge, skills, and experience to do that job. That also can be difficult because the project management profession is in a state of flux at the moment and the current certifications may not really match a real-world job role:
- PMP is still heavily-oriented around a traditional, plan-driven approach to project management
- PMI-ACP is a general test of Agile and Lean knowledge and is not oriented around a specific job role at all
- Up until recently, PMI has treated Agile and traditional, plan-driven project management as separate and independent domains of knowledge with little or no integration between the two. PMI is working hard to close that gap but there is still a long way to go
For a well-integrated approach, I think a project manager should have the knowledge of traditional plan-driven project management covered by PMP as a foundation but his/her knowledge should not be limited to that. For the moment, until PMI develops a more integrated certification structure, many project managers will benefit from both PMP and PMI-ACP.
A lot of people seem to want to short-circuit this process and just go out and get a certification and treat that as a “ticket to get a job”. I think that can be superficial and unrealistic without doing steps 1-3 above first.
What About Agile/Scrum Certifications?
There are a lot of Agile/Scrum certifications out there, so a logical question a project manager might ask is “Should I also get an Agile certification?”. Most Agile certifications are built around a specific role. For example:
- CSM and PSM are for Scrum Masters
- CSPO and PSPO are for Product Owners
There are also some significant limitations in these certifications. Both of those certifications are mainly limited to the “mechanics” of how Scrum works. That’s a good foundation of knowledge to have but it really doesn’t go far enough, in my opinion to give people a deeper understanding of the principles and values behind Agile. When you attempt to apply Agile to unique situations and try to blend it with some level of traditional, plan-driven project management, you have to know much more than just the “mechanics” of how it works.
Where Does the PMI-ACP Certification Fit In?
PMI-ACP is a good certification. I was one of the first people anywhere to get a PMI-ACP certification in 2012 shortly after it was originally launched and it is not an easy certification to get. It does take a lot of preparation and you can’t even qualify to take the exam unless you have some actual real-world experience working in an Agile environment.
My “How to Prepare for PMI-ACP Certification” course is specifically designed to help project managers prepare for this exam. However, it is not a typical “exam-prep” course. The way it works is that the PMI-ACP course goes over all of the requirements for the PMI-ACP exam and cross-references those requirements to where in the primary seven Agile Project Management courses that material is covered in more detail. To get the benefit of the PMI-ACP course you have to take the complete Agile Project Management curriculum of seven primary courses:
- Agile PM 101 – Learn the Truth About Agile versus Waterfall
- Agile PM 102 – What’s the Future of Agile Project Management?
- Agile PM 201 – Understanding Agile at a Deeper Level
- Agile PM 202 – Introduction to Agile Project Management
- Agile PM 301 – Mastering Agile Project Management
- Agile PM 401 – Advanced Agile Project Management
- Agile PM 402 – Enterprise-level Agile Project Management
I’m not a big fan of people “chasing after certifications”. I think that can be very superficial. Certifications can serve a valuable purpose:
- It’s a good way to test what you know and don’t know. That is particularly useful if you do a lot of self-study to develop your skills
- A good, well-designed certification can be effective proof that you are fully qualified to do the job. An example, is the CFP (Certified Financial Planner). It is a very well-respected certification, it’s a very difficult exam, and people study for years to prepare for it.
All of the Agile Project Management training courses I’ve developed are designed around helping people take a sensible approach to exactly this problem. You have to realize that it’s not just a matter of taking an “exam-prep” course, going out and taking a certification exam, and then immediately getting a job. My courses are not really designed to be “exam prep” courses – they go beyond that and try to focus on the knowledge and skills to do the job in the real world. You can find more information on my complete training curriculum here:
If you have any questions about your own career direction, feel free to send me an email and I’ll be glad to help:
Send email to Chuck
You can find related articles on the topic of “The Future of Project Management” here:
You will find much more detail on this in my Online Agile Project Management Training.