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James is a consultant, author, and speaker. He brings a rare combination of business savvy, deep technical understanding, and an engaging presentation style to his work, putting him in demand around the world. James is a prominent figure in the Agile community: he is an inaugural recipient of the prestigious Gordon Pask Award for Contributions to Agile Practice and one of the first ten people to sign the newly-released Agile Manifesto in 2001. James keeps a blog at jamesshore.com and is co-author of The Art of Agile Development. James is a DZone MVB and is not an employee of DZone and has posted 60 posts at DZone. View Full User Profile

Why I Don't Provide Agile Certification

01.11.2010
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There's been a lot said about certification lately. I think it's a natural outgrowth of Agile's growing popularity. Unfortunately, I think it's also an outgrowth of the continued watering-down of Agile, which--if we're not careful--will lead to Agile becoming irrelevant.

So although there has already been a fair amount of outcry about certification, I think it's important for the health of the industry that we all continue to argue against it.

Actually, I Do Provide Certification

Diana Larsen and I provide training courses based on The Art of Agile Development (in fact, we're teaching two of them in June), but we don't offer certification.

Actually, that's not entirely true. Diana and I do provide a "Certificate of Completion" for anybody who wants it. It says "This certificate of completion of 14 hours in workshop is hereby granted to So-and-So." Basically, if we remember seeing you at the breakfast buffet and you didn't snore too loudly the rest of the time, you get a certificate. Yay you. Some people use it for PMP credit, or to get reimbursed for the cost of training, or whatever.

Now, if I was feeling dishonest, I could give that certificate a fancy name. Rather than a fairly plain, unadvertised "certificate of completion," I could announce that attendees would be "Certified Rigorous Agile Practioners!" or "Certified Agile Artists" or some silly thing. The requirements wouldn't change (show up, don't snore), but the name would, and all of the sudden Diana and I would sell more courses. This is how the Certified ScrumMaster courses do it, and boy, does it work. Certified ScrumMaster courses cost several hundred dollars more than their counterparts and sell out quicker, too. All you need to do to get certified is show up.

(Speaking of selling out, our June courses are really good. Go forth and register.)

Why People Like Certification

Certification can't be all bad, can it? Those Certified ScrumMaster courses do cost more than their uncertified counterparts. Somebody must feel that premium is worth paying for.

Employers like certifications because it allows them to filter through the tons of resumes they get. It's an easy way to feel like they're hiring someone who has some basic minimum of competence.

Unfortunately, that sense of confidence is misplaced. I've seen no evidence that certification can do that. For example, the Project Management Institute's PMP (Project Management Professional) certification seems to have quite rigorous requirements--they require their PMPs to take ongoing education classes, have a certain amount of experience, and so on. And I'm sorry to say that, although I've known good PMPs, it's also true that the worst project managers I've met were PMPs who should never have been put in charge of a project. They were also the ones most proud of their certification, and most unaware of their deficiencies. I don't know what the PMP means, but it does not mean "basic minimum of competence."

Meanwhile, employees like certifications because it allows them to get noticed. It's an easy way to stand out amongst the piles of resumes.

These two things combine to lead to a vicious cycle: the more people there are with a certification, the more that certification gets visibility, and the more employers think it has meaning. Once employers think it has meaning, they start filtering out resumes that don't have the certification, leading more employees to obtain the certification so they can get hired.

Eventually, companies start making the certification a prerequisite for employment. One company I worked with required that all their project managers have a PMP certification. They also had the worst-run projects.

Escaping Mediocrity

These are great reasons to like certification... if you're interested in being mediocre. There's nothing in there about "superior training" or "proven ability." Far from it. No, certification isn't about ability. It's about the easy way out: for employers, an easy way to filter resumes; for employees, an easy way to get noticed. And one thing I know for sure is that people and companies who want the easy way out are not going to be great. That's fine for the mediocre, I suppose, but you can count me out. I'm interested in greatness.

Worse, the bigger Agile gets, the more opportunists enter the field. They can smell easy money, and certification looks like easy money. Perhaps that's why fly-by-night companies like [redacted--they'll get no publicity from me] and [scum-sucking bottom feeder] have recently offered agile certifications. These courses are taught by people with no experience and no ability. They'll disguise their incompetence with increasingly formal and glossy bullshit, and before you know it Agile will be gone in everything but name.

And that's why I don't provide Agile certification. It's a trap for the mediocre. I'm better than that, and I hope you are too.

PS: The Agile Alliance has a position paper saying that "employers should have confidence only in certifications that are skill-based and difficult to achieve" It's a good statement, thoughtful and appropriate, and I agree with what they say.

PPS: If you absolutely must be certified, the best certification available is from Agile Certification Now.

Published at DZone with permission of James Shore, author and DZone MVB.

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)