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CSM® or PMI-ACP®? Which Agile Certification Is Right For You?

Those who go through the work to earn a professional certification enjoy a multitude of benefits.

Earning a certification builds confidence, makes you more competitive in the job market, solidifies understanding of a discipline, and establishes credibility with your stakeholders. Considering the effort, money, and commitment required to get certified, those rewards are well-deserved.

That sizable investment also means that most people must be discriminating as to which certification to pursue. Few have enough time, money, and energy to get more than one certification in a field, so a question we often get is, “Which one do you recommend?”

This article explores two popular agile certifications: Certified ScrumMaster® (CSM), awarded by the Scrum Alliance, and the PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP)®, awarded by Project Management Institute. Each certification and awarding organization offers different considerations that might go into choosing one over the other.

Highlighting the most salient “plusses” of each certification seems the best way to illustrate the value proposition for each certification. Of course, to highlight a benefit of one certification is not to say that it is unique to that certification. But to appreciate the benefits of each, it seems helpful to ask, “What does each certification say about you when your signature includes CSM or PMI-ACP?”

  • PMI-ACP: You Understand Scrum and Other Agile Methods
    Scrum is, by far, the most widely used agile approach, but it is not the only approach. The PMI-ACP addresses agile from a more holistic perspective and not specifically Scrum. When preparing for the ACP, it was helpful to understand about those other perspectives to see how agile principles are applied with different methods.
  • CSM: You Have Learned and Worked with a Certified Scrum Trainer.
    The biggest benefit of getting a CSM is that there is a very small, highly qualified number of individuals from whom you can receive your CSM training. Only Certified Scrum Trainers® (CSTs) can deliver a CSM course, and the qualifications for becoming a CST are extremely rigorous including vetting by Scrum Alliance peers in face-to-face interviews.
    CSTs all have considerable field and classroom with years of hands-on work in organizations with agile teams. Getting a CSM means you have learned from a Scrum professional who has deep knowledge about Scrum and has a lot of experience working with agile teams. That typically translates into hearty classroom examples of what agile looks like and how it works in the field when discussing concepts in class.
  • PMI-ACP: You Have Agile Education and Project Experience
    The experience requirements for the ACP are relatively strong. To apply for the PMI-ACP exam, you must have several thousand hours of experience working on projects. This experience includes general project experience, as well as project experience working on agile project teams or with agile methods and practices. Having a PMI-ACP means you have some context for understanding the various approaches to managing projects and you can speak to the benefits of agile and when it’s the right approach.
    The ACP also requires 21 hours of agile education and may be done either online or in-person. Those education hours may address agile philosophy, techniques, or principles, and there are no specific requirements for instructor qualifications, (unless it is an ACP prep course, in which the trainer must be ACP certified). So, in general the quality requirements for the agile education component of getting certified are more rigorous for the CSM.
  • CSM: You Are a Member of Scrum Alliance.
    Another benefit of a CSM is affiliation with Scrum Alliance. As a CSM, you are a member of an organization entirely dedicated to Scrum. There is, and always has been, no question that Scrum Alliance folks understand agile and that they are a leading resource pertaining to all things Scrum.
    This might not be as important if it weren’t contrasted with PMI, which has long been the keeper of the more traditional, plan-driven, “waterfall” approach to projects. In fact, one of the downsides of the PMI-ACP when it first came out was that many people disregarded it precisely because it was from PMI. That’s changing, however, and their evolving image reflects years of rebranding to put agile front and center in their publications and events. Nevertheless, some still see PMI as the one-stop shop for all things anti-agile. CSMs have never had that credibility gap as members of Scrum Alliance.

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  • PMI-ACP: You Passed A PMI Exam
    The PMI-ACP exam process is more intensive than the CSM. For example, the CSM exam consists of a combination of multiple-choice and true/false questions and you must answer 24 out of 35 correctly to pass. There is no separate fee to take the test; it’s included in the cost of the class. It is taken online and you have two attempts to pass the test within 90 days of class. If you do not pass within two attempts and/or 90 days, you may take the test again for $25 for each successive attempt. So, the barrier to entry for the CSM as it relates to the test is relatively low.
    On the other hand, the PMI-ACP certification, like all PMI certifications, is earned after going through the notoriously rigorous PMI application and testing process. The PMI-ACP exam is not nearly as difficult as the PMP, but passing it is more difficult than the CSM exam. Even the application process, while considerably easier than it used to be, still requires pulling together details about project experience, contact info, etc.
    The PMI-ACP exam is a three-hour, 120-multiple-choice question exam taken at a testing site. If you do not pass, you must pay another, relatively substantial fee. So, considering the difficulty of the exam and the testing process, it’s more of an accomplishment from a testing standpoint than the CSM.
    Of course, a test proves nothing other than you answered the minimum number of questions correctly to receive a passing score. A test doesn’t make anyone a better practitioner. But for most people, a PMI certification indicates that you have taken the certification seriously enough to make the investment to get through the process of passing one of their tests. PMI’s certification program is very well developed and has a long tradition, and there’s something to be said for that.
  • CSM: You Have Attended a Course Using Agile Tools and Artifacts.
    The courses for getting your CSM are rich with hands-on exercises and must be taught live, in person; there is no means of getting CSM certified through an online course. This speaks to Scrum Alliance’s quality program for its courses, and it benefits those with CSMs in that you will have had that classroom experience of working on an agile-like, co-located team and participated in Scrum activities and utilized Scrum tools to create Scrum artifacts.
  • PMI-ACP: You Are Committed to Continued Professional Growth in Agile
    Maintaining a PMI-ACP requires 30 hours of continuing education in agile within three years of passing the exam. There is a fee involved, as well, but it’s mostly about keeping your skills and knowledge sharp through training, reading, or some other learning activity.
    On the other hand, keeping your CSM only requires paying a Scrum Alliance membership fee two year after completing your CSM. Therefore, a CSM who got certified seven years ago can continue to use that designation as long as they continue to pay their fees – even if they haven’t participated in any agile professional growth since then. For that reason, the PMI-ACP sustains its certification value over time better than the CSM.

Something to keep in mind as you compare these two certifications is that both are scheduled to undergo changes in the coming months. Scrum Alliance is currently revising their entire certification program. At this point, many of the details are still unknown, but changes to the CSM may include things like being able to take a class online. It will continue to be an entry-level certification much like it is now. Other than that, we’ll have to wait and see.

What’s happening at PMI regarding the PMI-ACP is more certain. First, PMI has partnered with Agile Alliance to develop an Agile Practice Guide, coming out in September of this year (2017). This partnership clearly speaks to PMI’s intent to enhance its credibility in the agile world.

Also, the PMI-ACP exam will be updated in first quarter of 2018 to reflect the content in the new Guide. Given the history of PMI, their investment in putting agile at the forefront of their image, and the significant growth of that certification since it was first awarded in 2011, the PMI-ACP is likely to retain its value and continue to be a sought-after certification, both from professionals and the organizations that hire them.

So, the question as to which is better, CSM or PMI-ACP? There really isn’t a right answer. CSM after your name means you have learned about Scrum from a CST, who is a true, experienced, expert. You have participated in a class that utilized hands-on exercises so you have at least classroom experience with basic Scrum activities and artifacts. And you’re a member of the Scrum Alliance, an organization dedicated to helping professionals apply agile and Scrum practices, principles, and values to create healthy, happy work environments.

PMI-ACP after your name means you have 1000s of hours of project experience, some of which includes working with agile techniques and practices. You have passed a rigorous exam that took significant commitment of time, money, and effort to complete, and you understand the repertoire of agile methods, including Scrum. It also says that you either have or will be continuing to invest time, money, and effort to keep abreast of what’s happening in the field and to your knowledge and skills sharp.

It is almost always a safe bet that certification will give you an edge and be worth the investment. If you are considering a choice between the CSM and PMI-ACP, hopefully the perspectives shared here will help you discern which agile certification is right for you. Good luck!

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