Deceptive Word Games
Earlier I pointed out that one of the advantages of certifications is that they provide a mechanism for organizations to filter out potential job candidates, like it or not. One of my criticisms of the CSM scheme is that it may mislead people involved in the hiring process because they will assume that the CSM designation is meaningful. Naturally, the people involved with the CSM scheme have denied that this is a problem, so I decided to investigate the issue in the survey. Interestingly, of the non-CST respondents, 41 percent indicated that their organization's hiring managers understood what it took to "earn" the CSM designation, whereas 75 percent of CST respondents who answered the question believed hiring managers understood this. This to me is a significant difference. The good news is that only 14 percent of respondents indicated that their organizations require candidates for agile teams to be CSMs. However, in these organizations, only 52 percent of respondents felt that the HR managers understood how the CSM designation was “earned,” a clear indication that some organizations are potentially being deceived.
One of the many criticisms of the CSM scheme is the deceptive nature of some of the terminology surrounding it. First is the use of the word "certification." To be fair, the Scrum Alliance is clear that the only thing the CSM designation implies is that you attended a CSM training course. However, if this is the actual goal of the Scrum Alliance then the appropriate thing to do is to issue a certificate of attendance, not declare that the workshop attendee is now "certified." The words "certificate" and "certification" have very different implications.
The second, and likely more serious, problem is the use of the word "master." You clearly aren’t going to become a master of much after 16 to 24 hours of training (to put things in perspective, Starbucks baristas get 24-hours worth of training). Once again, to be fair, the Scrum Alliance literature is clear that you won’t become a master by taking their courses, but unfortunately their actions are different than their words. When the Scrum method was first described in the mid-1990’s, and in the first few Scrum books in the early 2000’s, the term “Scrum Master” was two separate words. Then the CSM certification scheme began, people started questioning the implication of the term "master," and the term was quickly concatenated to "ScrumMaster." CSTs are quick to point out that what people get for taking their CSM workshops is the Certified ScrumMaster designation, not a Certified Scrum Master designation, so therefore they’re not implying that you’re now a Master of Scrum. Okay, if we take them at their word, then why the deceptive terminology? Why is it ScrumMaster and not Scrummaster? Why is it still Product Owner and not ProductOwner? Why wasn’t the CSM abbreviation changed to CS to reflect the fact that there are only two words now? Something clearly smells here.
What’s interesting is that in the past whenever I’ve pointed these issues out, the pro-CSM folks will accuse me of playing word games. I find this to be a very strange reaction from a group of people who espouse the philosophy that you should point out when the emperor’s wearing no clothes. I suspect that the Scrum Alliance continues to play these word games because there are legal implications to the words "certified" and "master." At Agile 2009, a group of about twenty people, including myself and several of the original writers of the Agile Manifesto, gathered to discuss the industry implications of the CSM scheme. One of the manifesto writers, who I will not name to respect their privacy, was very clear that he believed that the CSM scheme was a class-action lawsuit waiting to happen, and many others agreed. Time will tell.
More Harm than Good
The CSM scheme has certainly done some good in the industry. It has clearly promoted Scrum, and thereby agile, so I applaud the Scrum Alliance for that. However, the agile community has clearly embarrassed itself by accepting the CSM scheme, and our “integrity debt” with the rest of the IT world will continue to grow as long as we tolerate it. Sadly, other Scrum certification efforts, some of which appear to be respectable given the criteria I described earlier, are arguably being tainted by the CSM scheme. Why should we trust certification strategies promoted by anyone who is currently involved with the CSM scheme, or who was actively involved with it in the past?
Another challenge is that many of the thought leaders in the Scrum community have been more focused on helping you part with your money through their various certification schemes, and not on evolving Scrum itself. The Scrum method has been relatively stagnant, even though there have been significant improvements in knowledge in other parts of the agile universe. For example, I’ve been writing about the Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD) process framework the past couple of years, a clear extension of, and improvement over, the Scrum process framework. There’s also some very interesting ideas being promoted within the Kanban community, which could just as likely come from the Scrum community had their been a greater focus on evolving Scrum.
Over the last year, I’ve tweeted about many of the ideas in this newsletter, and several times I was accused of being jealous of the success of the CSM scheme. I have not responded to date because of the 140-character constraints of Twitter combined with my reluctance to get into a flame war … Until now. To set the record straight, I was invited, amongst many others, to get involved with the CSM scheme at the very beginning. I thought about it and because of my concerns with the ethical implications of the scheme, and because of the clear reluctance of the organizer at the time to include any sort of test to validate whether people understood the material, I chose not to get involved. Furthermore, I could also have easily put together some sort of certification scheme around the Agile Modeling (AM) method at the same time. I chose not to, and continue to choose not to, be involved with questionable certification programs.
I’d like to end with a few important notes. First, my hope is that all Certified ScrumMasters (CSMs) will denounce the CSM designation if they haven’t done so already. You attended a workshop; it’s nothing to brag about. Also, if you work for an organization that still wants their agile staff to have the CSM designation then you should help ensure that whoever is inflicting that constraint fully understands what it takes to “earn” the CSM.
Second, my belief is that the Certified Scrum Trainers (CSTs), and the Scrum Alliance in general, can do a lot better. In reality, you’re the ones who need to denounce the CSM scheme and to declare it over. I appreciate that this will require significant short term fortitude because you will need to find another marketing plan for your training services, but in the long term, this will put you on a far more respectable path than the one you are currently on. You’re smart people who have a lot to share with the rest of the agile community, you don’t need to stoop to the level of the CSM scheme any more (and frankly, you never needed to do this).
Third, I’m impressed with the recently formed International Consortium for Agile (ICAgile) and their strategy surrounding agile certification. They appear to be on the right track and my hope is that they find a way to stay on it. Anyone offering agile training services should consider looking into this.
Finally, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — The Scrum community, and to a lesser extent the agile community in general, has embarrassed itself by tolerating the CSM scheme. Enough is enough. We can do better, and until we do so, our integrity debt continues to grow.
I’d like to thank Mark Lines of UpMentors for his feedback regarding this newsletter.
The 2010 Scrum Certification Survey Results, including the original questions as they were asked, the original source data (without identifying information for privacy purposes), and a summary slide deck of my analysis is available online free of charge.
My article The Certified Scrum Master (CSM) Certification: What People Actually Think lists all comments, good and bad, provided by respondents of the 2010 Scrum Certification Survey.
James Bach and Luke Hohmann’s Certification is Discrimination presents an intriguing argument against certifications.
Jon Kern’s blog Certification is a Good Thing discusses some of the issues surrounding the CSM scheme and agile certification in general. This was where he introduced the idea of the CSM designation being a participation trophy.
My June 2007 DDJ column Coming Soon: Agile Certification presents my detailed thoughts around what an appropriate agile certification scheme might look like.
In the Fall of 2010 Tobias Mayer, former Creative Director of the Scrum Alliance and one of the first CSTs, was interviewed about this thoughts about the Scrum Alliance. The interview presents an interesting look inside a rather opaque organization.
The Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD) process framework is currently described in my blog. A detailed whitepaper is coming soon.
I am impressed with the International Consortium for Agile (ICAgile) certification strategy as they appear to be on the right track. Time will tell.
I blogged about the concept of integrity debt, and how the CSM scheme clearly adds to our debt, in my Our integrity debt continues to grow blog posting.
A few years ago for April Fool’s day, I published a fictional article about my SCUM Certified Agile Master (SCAM) program. This article may provide some insight into how other agile certification schemes operate, you be the judge.
My paper Scaling Agile: An Executive Guide explores the issues surrounding agility at scale.
The Surveys Exploring the Current State of Information Technology Practices page links to the results of all the DDJ surveys which I’ve run over the years.
My Agility@Scale blog discusses strategies for adopting and applying agile strategies in the complex environments.
You can follow me on Twitter here.