Is Scrum Master Certification Hurting Our Industry?

Having created a methodology that tightly integrates Scrum concepts, I tend to be a strong proponent of Scrum. But being a strong proponent doesn’t extend so far as to promote all the hype — I’m also a very strong believer in the value of formal education and the need for experience. After seeing the negative consequences of Scrum Master Certification, I’m hard pressed to see any benefits to it.

I’m not challenging the value of Scrum as a practice. I’m challenging the value of Scrum Master Certification. In fact, I’ll go so far as to suggest the certification program is hurting our industry by attributing competency where there often is none.

For example, the Scrum Alliance web site proclaims that Scrum gives you the tools you need to “manage complex projects.” This week I met someone that just joined an established technology company. She’s well spoken, bright, and just got her Scrum Master Certificate. She also just graduated college — and with both of those glowing credentials in-hand, landed her first job: As a Project Manager.

She has no experience. Yet, her employer has hired her to manage a group of people, executing a technical project, largely on the basis that her Scrum Master certification gives her that qualification.

What’s the value in a certification program if it inaccurately represents the capability of the people it certifies? Most Scrum Master certificates are earned after attending a two day seminar, sometimes with interactive exercises. There is no examination, although there is an “assessment” of about 25 questions — but without a pass-fail score, you get certified regardless of how poorly you do. There is no review of relevant experience. There are no requirements of past performance. You can get a Scrum Master Certificate without relevant professional experience or training.

Let’s compare this program with PMI’s PMP certification process. The PMP requires at least — even for an experienced project manager — years of experience and education, and weeks, if not months, of preparation:

  1. The application requires detailed validation of years of project management experience, and even more experience and exposure to relevant work.
  2. While PMI doesn’t audit every student they do audit, and experience must be vetted and verified.
  3. The examination is 200 questions and typically requires weeks of study (most PMP preparatory courses are 13 weeks in duration, as an average).
  4. The examination is administered in a secure environment, with no supporting materials. If you don’t know it, you won’t pass.

Even more stringent requirements exist for PMI’s Program Management credential: Included in the vetting process is a 360 degree review by 12 of your peers. As with the PMP certification process, if you fail any one part, you don’t get certified.

PMI requires that certified practitioners maintain their credentials with ongoing education annually. If you don’t demonstrate an effort to stay current, you lose your credential.

All of this earns you the right to put “PMP” (or “PgMP”) after your name. But if you don’t have the past experience (or if that’s too much trouble), you can drop in on a local Scrum Master course and walk out certified tomorrow. But certified to do what?

Scrum is not a project management methodology. It’s a process control structure that only works when combined with a methodology, such as PMP. It says so right on the first page of Ken Schwaber’s Scrum textbook. In that context, Scrum shines because it brings efficiency to a potentially bulky project management methodology. Scrum can be wonderfully useful, when used right.

So, here I sit, inwardly aghast as I meet Ms. Project Manager, with her freshly minted college degree, a Scrum Master Certificate, and no experience to her name, and I wonder: Is the Scrum Master certification program misleading an already beleaguered industry? According to KPMG and Standish, our success rate over the past 10 years was only 30%. Maybe this is part of the reason.

Does a two-day seminar and mandatory certification in a professional-sounding credential hurt, more than it helps?

Taking a seminar on Scrum is definitely a useful exercise. I think the Scrum Alliance needs to stop misrepresenting what Scrum certification really means to its practitioners, and the business world at large. I’d like to see Scrum professionals coming out of the seminar saying, “Wow! I sure learned what a long way I have to go before I’m ready to manage a project on my own!”

6 thoughts on “Is Scrum Master Certification Hurting Our Industry?

  1. This is a really great article. I am someone who graduated around 2 years ago and gained a CSM certification soon after. I did so because of my interest in Scrum (I wanted to receive some formal training) but I remember the first thing we were told by my coach was “we are certified to be dangerous, and this is no substitute for experience.” I think this should be the opening and closing line of the CSM training course.

    The issue with the CSM course/accreditation I believe is twofold. Firstly the title should be changed to something like ” Basic Scrum Trained” as this is what you are, trained in what Scrum is at a basic level. Secondly, the examination at the end needs to change. It is a basic multiple choice exam (as is the PSM 1 exam) which is not sufficient. You should be required to write some essay answers to show you have really listened.

    A CSM title should only come after extensive research/practice and thorough testing. Since gaining my CSM I have learned more from the rest of the community in discussions and further reading as well as experience at work than a 2 day course could ever teach.

    For me it will be at least another year of gathering technical competence before I believe I am ready to be a Coach or Scrum Master.



  2. I share your concern about the CSM being misinterpreted.

    However, a ScrumMaster is NOT a Project Manager, and does not claim to be, so hiring one based on a CSM is not a failure of the certification program. Only someone who really doesn’t know what Scrum is, and doesn’t know what CSM is, could possibly hire a CSM as a project manager.

    Secondly, you seem to be asserting that Scrum would work with, and needs, to be associated with a “methodology” such as PMP. Sorry, but PMP is not a methodology. PMP means Project Management PROFESSIONAL. It is a personal rating, not a way of doing things. As it happens the typical PMP has a lot of unlearning to do before they can do Scrum well.

    I agree that the CSM is a very basic introduction and would be better cast as such. However, piling on unwarranted misinterpretations about Ms CSM’s situation and the PMI, doesn’t seem to me to be going to help.




    1. Hi Ron,

      You may be getting a bit lost in the trees. I probably could have made this more clear in my writing, but my point is simply this: I’m running into situations, more often of late, where “Scrum Master” certification or “Scrum” in general, is being applied as a complete project management and development methodology. I’ve talked with senior managers who believe CSM certification somehow qualifies a manager to execute an entire project. I’ve spoken with relatively untrained, CSM-certified “agilistas” that are utterly convinced they have all the training they need to run large-scale projects (this is mostly because “agile is the new way” and all the stuff that came before was made obsolete with the Agile Manifesto). I find both situations equally misguided, and I attribute both to the Scrum Alliance’s misrepresentations (unintentional or not) about what Scrum and CSM is.

      You are right in pointing out that PMP is not a methodology — it’s a certification in a methodology (specifically, the PMI’s PMBOK standard, which is a methodology of project management). Sorry if I wasn’t clear about that. However, the PMI does promote PMP certification as evidence that the practitioner is adequately prepared to manage large scale projects — and, at least in comparison to CSM, I’d have to say that’s a largely more accurate statement and by-and-large one that I’d be more inclined to take stock in.

      Unfortunately, for those of us that know the PMI-PMP testing process well, we also know that it’s been watered down a bit over the original inception. Consequently, it’s much easier to get a PMP certification than it used to be. This is a mixed bag, in my mind: I prefer and value the more rigorous training, but also appreciate that PMI wants to make it more accessible. I think they may have gone too far though, as there seem to be a lot of PMP-certified project managers that don’t know what they’re doing. But that’s a story for another time.


  3. Interesting post; the IT department I work in, a regional office of a national healthcare organization, is purported to be a program/project delivery group, but none of the current management have actual life cycle project management experience. Thus, they are very impressed with certifications, which they regard as more important than experience. A recent hiree (who jumped ship after getting a better offer) was hired principally on her PMP and Scrum certifications. Looking at her resume, it was short on actual experience. I’ve worked with at least half a dozen people in this organization who have acquired PMP’s in the last 3 years, who exaggerated or outright lied about their experience and it was clearly not vetted. Their job title is project manager, but the tasks they perform are not up to IT industry standards for the job, they are really coordinators. None of them, for example, had ever managed a budget, or had a project team matrixed to them. But they all passed the exam, and are now PMP’s. A recruiter for SMCI in Los Angeles told me she gets PMP’s all the time with little experience and she tells them she can’t help them.


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