Certification as Tribal Rite of Passage

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Many people assume that certification schemes have a primary purpose that is one of the following: either to make money for the organizations offering the certification; or to impress lazy or easily fooled hiring managers.

On the latter, I'm only stating more baldly what is implied if you read between the lines of the Agile Alliance position statement on certifications, published six years years ago now and still well worth rereading:

There are many skilled practitioners who are not certified. Excluding them from consideration would be a poor business decision. [...] A certificate cannot substitute for the hard work of individual evaluation.

Back in 2007 the Agile Alliance Board was, I think, too polite to frankly discuss the "making money" aspect; the Board noted that attendees of certification classes were probably getting "their money's worth" from the classes themselves, but avoided altogether the topic of certification as a marketing gimmick.

However, while both hypotheses may help explain the success of certification schemes flying under the "Agile" banner (which, sadly, keep popping up even today), I think they fail to capture something even more important.

Two recent incidents pointed me to what that might be. The first was a discussion with the product owner of a team that has been using most of Scrum for some time now. He was interested in taking formal training in that role, but insisted on a class that delivers a certification. The other is more of a repeated pattern - I keep bumping into colleagues of mine who have been working for a while as Agile Coaches, but are now or have recently been taking formal training as Coaches, in order to be certified; not from any organizations with Agile or Scrum in their names, either, but from various "schools" specializing in Coaching of one stripe or the other. (I have a more detailed post on Agile Coaches as a tribe coming up, but this isn't that post.)

Setting aside the financial motivation, which can only explain the zeal of those offering certifications and not the appetite of those pursuing them, it's clear from these examples that the goal of getting a certification cannot be only to hopefully impress someone in a position to hire you. The Product Owner I mentioned had a secure position in a large corporation and wasn't particularly looking for a new one. My Coach colleagues were already successful in selling their services.

What I suspect is that to such practitioners, a certification serves as a rite of passage, marking formal acceptance into a "tribe". (Keep in mind that I'm still using the term loosely, not as a anthropologist might, but as a broad category encompassing most everything that people say that starts with "I am a...". Nevertheless, ingroup/outgroup distinctions are a key aspects of tribes even so defined.)

For instance, I suspect that one tacit motivation of the Product Owner I mentioned is that, once certified, he can no longer be suspected to be "only filling the role" of PO - he will have definite social proof that he is indeed a full-fledged member of that recently emerged classification. Quite possibly, the major desirable effect of that is to feel more self-assured; to be better able to hold one's own in conversations with the sometimes unruly folks on development teams.

Similarly, my colleagues may have grown tired of hearing things like "just about anyone claims to be an Agile Coach these days, and what does that even mean?" - and may have sought certification in part for the benefits of being formally accepted into a group. Being able to say, even to oneself, "well I'm a real Coach unlike some amateurs out there", counts for something.


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