Entry-level Agile certifications don’t mean as much as you think

Many job openings for Agile coach and Scrum Master positions require entry-level certifications, but what do those certifications mean anyways? In this post I explain why I believe entry-level certifications are a poor tool to use when evaluating someone for a position or when assessing someone’s knowledge about Agile values, principles, and practices. I explain the top trait job seekers should have if they want a new role as a Scrum Master or Agile coach, and I explore a few things hiring managers should look for when assessing candidates for Agile coach or Scrum Master positions.

What is an entry-level Agile certification?

Here are some characteristics of entry-level Agile certifications:

  • It’s introductory. It’s targeted at the very beginning stages of someone’s learning journey about Agile values, principles, and practices.
  • It was given because someone attended a course that was 2 days or less. They may or may not have had to pass an exam to receive the certification.
  • More than 95% of people pass the certification exam on the first attempt.
  • There is no real-world experience required to receive the certification.
  • Obtaining the certification requires little, if any, self-study.
  • The certification offers a money-back guarantee if someone doesn’t pass the certification exam.
  • There are unlimited retakes until you pass the certification exam.
  • The certification primarily tests book knowledge and not the real-world application of Agile practices and values.

As you’ve noticed, I’m not naming any certifications. I’ll leave it up to you to determine what certifications fit the above criteria. Some entry-level certifications are much higher quality than others, so some certifications might not have all of the above characteristics.

Why entry-level Agile certifications don’t mean much

The predominant belief in the industry is that entry Agile certifications mean something significant. Almost all job postings for Agile project managers, Scrum Masters, and Agile coaches require that only people with one of the entry certifications apply, and many people place their 3-letter entry-level Agile certification after their name on their resume and on LinkedIn. But most entry-level Agile certifications don’t tell you much about a person’s knowledge, skill set, or beliefs about Agile values, principles, and practices:

  • Entry-level Agile certifications don’t indicate that a person has any real-world experience
  • Most don’t even indicate whether someone understands basic Agile values and principles.
  • Many framework-specific certifications, like some low-quality Scrum certifications, don’t even indicate whether someone knows Scrum at a ‘book level’. All they indicate is that the person showed up to a class and got a few questions right on an exam.

I’ve interviewed a number of people for Agile coach and Scrum Master positions and helped organizations identify internal individuals who will thrive while leading agile transformations both at the team and organizational level. I’ve learned that those who tout their entry-level Agile certification typically don’t have the skills necessary to do the job because they haven’t learned much (if anything) about Agile practices since they got their certification. Or the certification gave them an over-confidence in their skill set when they didn’t really understand or absorb the values behind the Agile movement in the first place. I’ve interviewed individuals with 3-letter certifications from a leading Scrum training organization that couldn’t list even half of the basic components of Scrum (side note – if you are thinking about applying for a Scrum Master position, please try to master at least the basics before showing up to an interview if you want any chance at landing the job).

In short, I’ve learned not to pay any attention to entry-level Agile certifications during the interview process. It’s particularly a red flag for me when someone draws attention to their own entry-level Agile certification. Those individuals very often are guilty of one shocking thing that many agile coaches are getting wrong.

Does this mean people shouldn’t earn entry-level Agile certifications?

No, not at all.

Well, maybe it’s not worth it for some of them. Seriously, use your favorite search engine to research the reputation of the certification you have or are thinking about getting before investing your time and money into it. Many of them aren’t worth it. Some of them may even take away credibility from your resume just like having a degree from a diploma mill would.

However, some entry-level certifications are worth it. What’s the benefit of getting a quality entry-level Agile certification?

  • It’s a great launching point to learn more about Agile development. You should recognize that it’s just that – a launching point, and you should celebrate that as an exciting start into a new area of learning that can unlock many new possibilities for you!
  • It should help you learn the basics of Agile development and the values and principles behind it or a specific framework or practice that will enable agility.
  • It may indicate your desire to learn and grow (but that only matters if you actually continue learning beyond your certification).
  • For better or worse, many jobs require an entry-level Agile certification. It will at least help get your resume looked at with some organizations if you’re thinking about changing your career.

When should you get an entry-level Agile certification?

You should get an entry-level Agile certification when you care more about the learning you’ll gain by working your way toward the certification. Sometimes when I start reading a book, I focus more on getting to the end of the book just so I can say I’ve read it (I’m looking at you, Thinking Fast and Slow). Every single time I have that mindset, I don’t absorb much from the book. But when I’m able to shift my focus to the new knowledge I’m getting out of the book, I am able to slow down, enjoy the read, and absorb much more of the book every time.

Agile certifications are the same. You should seek an Agile certification if you are focused on the knowledge you will gain in the process becoming certified. You should be ready to think about things differently and see the world through a new lens.

In Professional Scrum Master classes that I teach, I tell students that I’m not there to help them pass an exam. I am there to help them learn the fundamentals of Scrum, the Scrum Master role, and how to begin to apply those things within their organization. By learning about the values and principles behind Scrum and the practices of applying it, they may be able to pass the certification exam. But I’m not going to teach to an exam. I’m going to equip students with the knowledge necessary to get started on their learning journey.

When we evaluate people who want to join our team at Responsive Advisors (we’re hiring!), one of the top things we look for is their hunger and ability to grow. If you want to be appealing as a candidate for an Agile coach or Scrum Master position, be ready to demonstrate your hunger by sharing what you’ve learned recently and how you think it could help your new team.

If you are hiring, focus on experience, skills, learning, and culture fit – not on entry-level certification

I believe that one reason why there is still so much pseudo-reputation around certifications is that many organizations over-emphasize them during the hiring (or contracting) process. I’ve seen 3-letter certification requirements written into staffing contracts, which often leads to vendors finding the least-path-of-resistance to getting their people certified so they can win/fulfill the business (spoiler alert: those people usually aren’t qualified).

When we interview candidates at Responsive Advisors, we look beyond certification. We look at people’s hunger to learn and grow, their ability to relate to and influence others, and their cultural fit within our group. We thoroughly investigate whether they have worked in similar environments and what the results were. We particularly dig into what they have done to improve themselves and their knowledge since earning whatever certifications they may have.

If you are a hiring manager, please don’t count on an entry-level Agile certification to prove anything about the quality of your candidates. The best Scrum Masters and Agile coaches continuously learn. If your candidate can’t list more than a handful of books, blogs, and authors that have influenced their thinking, you might want to reconsider them as a candidate.

P.S. I feel like there are a few key points from this post I should clarify since I’m sure there are a number of different ways this post could be misinterpreted:

  • I did not say people should not earn or be proud of earning quality entry-level Agile certifications. An entry-level Agile certification is a great launching point that should be celebrated!
  • I did say there is an over-emphasis on entry-level Agile certifications in the hiring process of many organizations.
  • I did say entry-level Agile certifications shouldn’t be used when recruiting for corresponding positions. It’s like using only a written driver’s exam to evaluate if someone is qualified to get behind the wheel of a car.
  • I did not say organizations or trainers providing entry-level Agile certifications are shady in any way (although I did say you should investigate the quality of the organizations before earning a certification and putting it on your resume).
  • I did say there is value in attending Agile courses.
  • I did say there can be value earning quality entry-level Agile certifications.
  • I did say you should focus on the value of the learning you will gain as part of earning a certification rather than the certification itself.

P.P.S. If you think you have the experience, hunger, and skills to work with our advising team at Responsive Advisors, we’re hiring. Please check out our Careers page to learn more.

Jordan Job

Jordan is a Managing Advisor with Responsive Advisors and a Professional Scrum Trainer with Scrum.org. He specializes in agile change management, engagement management, and Professional Scrum adoptions.
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