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Coming Soon: Agile Certification

Scott is a DDJ Senior Contributing Editor and author of numerous IT books. He can be contacted at www.ambysoft.com/ scottAmbler.html.

Lately, there has been a significant amount of discussion about certification on agile mailing lists and at various agile events. Certification is a divisive topic—many people are clearly against it, some are ambivalent, and a small minority is clearly for it. Given the choice, I would prefer that we didn't certify agile practitioners, but in the end, I'm a pragmatist: Like it or not, certification of agile practitioners is not only coming it's arguably already here.

Done right, good certification programs do seem to help raise the overall quality of certified professionals. Certification also provides professionals with a body of knowledge to fall back on, putting us in a position to say, "This isn't an acceptable approach," when others try to force us to do questionable things (for example, to commit to a fixed scope, fixed price, and fixed schedule project). In many fields, in particular both physical and landscape architecture, the only way you can land a really interesting project is to be certified. Without certification, you're only qualified to hold a supporting role on a major project. Finally, a rigorous certification program is a significant step for IT to actually become a respected profession—do you know of any other profession without a decent certification program in place?

Many agilists are reticent about certification (see Table 1), but I think that many of us still suffer from a "black or white" mindset on this issue. There is no such thing as a perfect certification process—some people are going to become certified that probably shouldn't have been, some people are going to abuse the certification process, and some organizations will not understand the limits of certification. Then again, some people will use certification to learn new skills, some people will use certification to communicate their real-world experience effectively and thereby gain employment commensurate to their actual ability, and some organizations will improve how they manage their staff. The potential benefits of agile certification certainly outweigh the costs.

Argument Response
We don't know enough to base a certification on This sounds sneakily like big requirements up front (BRUF) to me. Surely, we could have the courage to certify people on things that we do know something about now and have the courage to evolve the certification approach tomorrow when we know more?
Certification doesn't prove anything This is clearly false: Certification proves that you passed the requisite certification process. The bottom line is that the certification process can be as rigorous as we choose to make it. Certification will never be perfect, so just like other professions, we will need to trust but verify when appropriate.
Doctors are certified, but some are still bad Yes, there are no guarantees. But, would you go to a doctor who wasn't certified? Certification can help to weed out some of the people who really aren't qualified to do the job.
Companies will hire someone based solely on the fact that they have certification Yes, this is a really questionable approach. However, no matter what we do some HR departments will manage to find really stupid ways to work. The rest of us can still benefit from a good certification program.
I know a lot of really good people who aren't certified And I know a lot of really good people who are. So what?
You learn skills a little at a time, not as quantum strata measured by different levels of certification That's absolutely right, but varying levels of certification give people goals to work towards and help to provide a general way to distinguish between people's abilities.
There are a lot of really bad people out there with their XYZ certification And there are a lot of really good ones with it. All things being equal, aren't they better off with the knowledge gained by certification?

Table 1: Addressing the arguments against certification.

The Agile Alliance (AA) and Agile Project Leadership Network (APLN) are both considering certification (www.agilealliance.org/show/1796):

It is the position of the board of the Agile Alliance that employers should have confidence only in certifications that are skill-based and difficult to achieve. We also believe that employers should not require certification of employees.

To explore certification, the APLN recently started a learning and recognition program; its discussion forum is the [email protected] yahoogroups.com mailing list.

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