Note: Agile Alliance does not endorse any specific type of certification. This post is for information purposes only and represents the opinions of the author.
Are you considering getting an Agile certification?
The list of certifying organizations can be daunting. Before jumping into this, consider what factors comprise a good certification program and how it fits your goals and objectives.
I’m focusing on Agile Certifications, but what follows generally holds for most professional and occupational certifications. A good place to start is The Institute for Credentialing Excellence. I’ve listed a few of their key criteria.
Evaluation criteria for certification organizations
- What’s the focus of the program? Does it provide an independent assessment of your knowledge or skills required for competent performance?
- Specify the content of the program. Does it reflect the current occupational or professional practices?
- Training requirements and prerequisites. Does the program provide the intended learning outcomes and list the class prerequisites?
- Assessment. What form does the assessment take: formal examinations, instructor assessment, or demonstration of competency?
- Credential maintenance. Is there a time component to the credential? What’s necessary to maintain it: fee-based, additional courses, or professional activities such as attending conferences?
- Identification and student tracking. Can a potential employer verify you’ve completed the certification?
What are your evaluation criteria?
Which certs provide the biggest bang for the buck in the marketplace? For working professionals, their most valuable commodity is their personal capital. Consider how much free time you have and your available resources. Here are a few points to consider:
- Consider the advantages of staying within one certifying organization. This will help with maintenance costs and allow you to go deep with one organization rather than broad with many organizations.
- What is the cost of acquiring and maintaining the certification? Some can be quite expensive, requiring attending instructor-led classes with annual maintenance fees or continual education units.
- Do the certifications offer an option for self-study with only an examination fee?
- Do you meet the experience criteria to be considered for the certification? Some certifications have an extensive evaluation process requiring years of board-approved professional experience.
- Will your employer pay for certifications? Free is good.
- Do you have the discipline for a self-study option, or does a structured learning environment suit you better? Both have merits. We all learn differently.
So what kind of certification organization works best for you? For this discussion, let’s split them up into several categories. These are my own categories and you may find a fair degree of overlap with the pros and cons. The main takeaway here is don’t overlook one set of alternatives for another.
- Non-profit institutions
- For-Profit institutions
- Academic or Trade Schools
- Company-Specific Certifications
Non-profit institutions like the Scrum Alliance are mission-focused, intending to raise the standards of the Agile community and professionalism in general. As such, they tend to be cheaper.
Typically these organizations offer a variety of resources, including a host of certifications, white papers, training, blogs, and even conferences. There are significant advantages to joining a community of interest. If you are contemplating getting multiple certifications, consider staying within the same certification organization. That may save you cost and effort.
- Widely accepted by industry and government
- Training provided by affiliates offers a wide range of locations and dates
- Cheaper than other options
- Self-study and examination fee options are usually available
- Usually has initial membership fees and maintenance fees
- Continuing education unit requirements may also be required
- Check on any restrictive prerequisites for their advanced certification
For-profit institutions differ from non-profit ones in terms of their intent and price. Since they are designed to make money, prices will be higher. They will also vary in their focus.
Scruminc, for example, is strictly Scrum, while others like Kanban University are only Lean Kanban. Others offer a proprietary framework, such as SAFe.
Geography may play a role as well. Some are available through international organizations while others are specific to the United States.
Similar to Non-profits, investigate your options carefully. Check on the availability of training and the depth of their product offering.
- Specialized certifications may suit your needs better
- Training may be widely available depending on the certifying organization
- Self-study and examination fee options may be available
- An international certification may be more suitable for your country
- May not be widely accepted by industry and government
- May be fairly expensive compared to other options
- Training may not be available in your area
- Advanced certification may have restrictive prerequisites, such as several years of experience
Academic or trade schools
Consider local colleges, universities, trade schools, and adult learning centers. This option may provide more suitable location, scheduling, and expense. You may be able to check with your human resources department for reimbursement.
- Focused on the needs of your industry
- Offers post-graduation support for mentoring, job referrals, or provide refresher courses
- Recognizable institutions with credentials provided upon request
- Probably a stand-alone certification
- May be too narrowly focused for your purposes
- The program may have a short duration or be discontinued due to the lack of instructors
Some certificates are focused solely on specific products, such as Microsoft’s Azure, or Atlassian JIRA. These are niche products. If expertise in a specific tool is beneficial, then consider them.
Some vendor-specific certifications are quite rigorous, which may increase their market value. Consider, as well, that certification with one tool may have minimal appeal if your organization has already invested in its competition.
- Competitive advantage with those using its products
- Based on your specialization may be highly valued by your clients or organization
- Targeted skills mean a minimal on-site learning curve
- Offers marginal advantage if your shop doesn’t use that technology
- Acquiring them may incur a greater effort than other certifications
- May have limited training facilities, locations, or available dates
This is not something you typically see. If your organization meets the criteria stated above, it fits the definition of a certification program. When applying for a job, consider what training is available.
- Free and on company time is a good thing
- Does it offer a competitive advantage within your organization?
- Acquiring targeted skills will reduce the learning curve for new projects
- May not be generally recognized, especially by competitors.
- May be crafted for your company to target specific policies or a highly modified framework
- The quality of the content and instruction will vary greatly
I’m not going to discuss strategy too much because that’s highly dependent upon your personal goals and desires. Consider what these different paths will cost you. It’s not simply a question of money. More importantly, consider the limited time you have available for professional development.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- Will you be focusing on one Framework, such as Scrum? Or are you going to diversify with multi frameworks by adding Lean or scaled Agile?
- Will you be focusing on one job category, such as a Scrum Master obtaining Certs I, II, & III vs. a multi-disciplined approach and picking up additional certs as a product owner, a developer, or an Agile coach?
- Are you staying within one certifying organization or seeking out several based on the products provided (say the Scrum Alliance, Scrum.org, the Project Management Institute), or are you cherry-picking between many?
- Are you planning on specializing in propriety certs such as SAFe, JIRA, or Microsoft products?
A few closing thoughts
If your institution sponsors getting certifications, then definitely consider getting one. If your profession highly prizes one over another one, then consider the marketplace advantages for getting one. If you just want one because having three letters after your name looks cool, or you learn best in a structured environment, then why not?
Remember certs can only augment. They can never replace skills. They aren’t substitutes for experience with tools, techniques, or a deep understanding of a topic. Consider the time it would take to gain a certification vs. the time it would take to practice those skills or take a deep dive into a topic. Consider the expense and maintenance cost of maintaining certification. If you plan on getting several, consider what the certification organization has to offer and the costs involved in maintaining their certs.
While there are many certification organizations to consider, here are just a few to help you begin your research if you’re completely new to all this. The list below is in alphabetical order.