Interview with Madhur Kathuria

Madhur Kathuria has coached nearly 300 teams for almost 75 clients across the US, Europe, South East Asia, Malaysia and Thailand. In this interview he talks about some of the cultural challenges for agile adoption. Read it here.

Interview with Elena Yatzeck

Elena was Chief Agilist for JP Morgan Chase Treasury Services and is now a VP of Corporate Compliance Tech. Find out how JP Morgan Chase reconciles agile with compliance and risk management demands. Read it here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Are Certifications Important For Agile Transformation?

One of the greatest impediments for agile transformation is obtaining the new skills that are needed. (In the article “The Top Impediments To Agile Transition”, skills are identified as impediments 13 and 17.) It is therefore important to understand the role of certifications in recruiting for (or training for) the required skills.

Are there certifications for the skills that are most important?

The first question to ask is what skills are needed?

In my personal blog post today, “To Be Certified – Or Not?”, I share some of a discussion that occurred recently in the LinkedIn group “CIO Network”. In that discussion, many participants posted that the critical skills that are needed for IT workers are not technical, but rather are “soft”. These were variously described as “foundational skills”, “employee skills”, and “natural learner” skills. They tended to focus on the ability of people to learn new things quickly, to get the job done, to work well with others, and to have a strong work ethic. These are things that cannot easily be certified.

What about technical skills? – such as Certified Scrum Master? PMI-ACP? Coaches and “scrum masters” with these certifications are often brought in to help teams to learn agile methods, and to work with managers to help the transition to more agile friendly business processes. The latter type of coaches are sometimes referred to as “agile transformation coaches”.

The core rationale for bringing in certified coaches and scrum masters is that they have a well defined set of knowledge that can form a baseline for the organization as it transitions to agile. This rationale rests on the assumptions that:
1.    The certification is indicative of the person’s actual knowledge.
2.    The certification is relevant to the Agile practices and values that the organization needs.

Are these true?

It is not clear to me that these things are generally true. For example, if someone has an Agile certification, it is usually either Certified Scrum Master (CSM) or PMI-ACP. I have taught Scrum – as a two day course – (even though I am not Scrum certified) and I can tell you that in two days, one can only obtain a glimpse of what Agile is about. Further, Scrum emphasizes things that are very different from other methods such as eXtreme Programming (XP), Kanban, and Feature Driven Development (FDD). As such, someone having a CSM certification does not really tell me anything useful: it does not indicate to me that they are sufficiently mature in their perspective and experience to be trusted as a teacher of Agile methods.

The PMI-ACP course is a little different in that it is not specifically focused on Scrum, but the PMI-ACP course that I took was very Scrum centric. (I am not ACP certified because I did not do the paperwork.) The course was three days, and while it was a really excellent course – developed by the people who developed the PMI-ACP course – someone taking only that course would still very much be a “newbie” with respect to Agile. That said, ACP requires one to have actual experience in order to qualify: I contend that that experience is the real value.

Agile is not something that you can learn in two or three days. To really understand Agile, you have to have a pretty substantial career of software development behind you. In fact, I feel that it was my own experiences during the 1980s – before Agile existed – that enable me to truly understand Agile. During that time, I saw what worked and what did not work, and I therefore see Agile as a rejection of what did not work, and a return to what did. I see Agile not in terms of strict practices such as standups, but rather in terms of a set of values: focusing on what really matters and not on things that don’t actually matter, working incrementally in small chunks, elaborating a design as you go, and having continual communication among team members. A course in an Agile methodology can help one to think these values through in the context of that methodology, but one could just as easily do that by reading a book. What matters is the background of experience that helps one to put Agile into the proper perspective, so that it can inform one’s judgment.

Is certification relevant to the practices and values that the organization needs?

Organizations that bring in certified Agile coaches are essentially choosing to base their Agile adoption around Scrum. This is because Scrum certifications are by far the most dominant. Even the PMI-ACP is quite Scrum-centric. Yet, I have found that Scrum is not always the best approach for organizations with legacy processes and skill silos – at least not as a first step. If you bring in people who are certified in Scrum or a Scrum-centric concept of Agile, then be sure to also bring in some people whose primary focus has been XP, Kanban, FDD, or some other Agile approaches: that will add balance to the discussions about how to implement Agile.

All of these methodologies – except for XP – focus primarily on process, yet much of Agile is very technical. Agile coaches often refer to the “technical practices” of Agile: these are things that are emphasized by XP, and by DevOps: things like automating software builds, automating software testing, and automating deployment. (Yes, I know that DevOps is about more than just the technical practices.) These technical skills are in relatively short supply, and yet they are critical, because without automation, it is very difficult to meet the two week iteration cycle that is so prevalent in Agile projects. Without automation, what tends to happen is that testing gets chunked up – turning the Agile iteration into a mini “waterfall” project. DevOps is impossible without automation – and some say that DevOps is the “new Agile”. Automation is critical for Agile; yet the technical practices of Agile are not supported by certifications: tools such as Jenkins, Cucumber, Selenium, Vagrant, Chef – these things are not covered by the Scrum Master or ACP certifications. Further, seeking skills in specifically these tools is foolish, because these are only a smattering of the tools out there, and that mix of tools will surely change by this time next year. It is far smarter to find people who are experienced with a range of these tools, and who are adept at learning new tools. Thus, you want to find self learners – and self learners are often too impatient to sit through a certification course. Some of the best people who are self learners – people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Larry Ellison, and Mark Zuckerberg – did not even wait around for their college degrees before they sought to implement their ideas.

Do certifications help you to get the best people that you can get?

Many people who have Agile certifications claim that those certifications have been beneficial for them, by adding focus to their work. They found that the certification process helped them to think through their prior experiences and put them into perspective, and provided a conceptual framework for thinking about issues. That clearly has value: while I personally would prefer to obtain that by reading and trying things on my own, not everyone is like that, and if certification works for someone, that is all that is important. What gives the certification value though, is that the person has substantial prior experience so that the certification learning content has context: it helps the learner to organize their knowledge. I therefore propose that a two or three day certification course does not itself represent substantial knowledge of its own: it merely provides a framework for prior knowledge.

If you accept this proposition, then you must conclude that certification does not provide any kind of metric about the quality of someone’s knowledge. Certification does not prove advanced knowledge: it only proves that someone has been introduced to the most rudimentary concepts. It should therefore not be a criteria for finding the best people: only for finding the lowest common denominator. Consider this anecdote: In the article, Why Einstein Was Not Qualified To Teach High-School Physics, Charles Wheelan shares this story:
“My wife Leah graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth. She was a computer science major with an emphasis on math. She worked in the software industry, built a company, and then sold it. She seemed, in every respect, perfectly qualified to teach middle-school math. She found a job at a school adjacent to a public housing project on Chicago's South Side. On about day three of that job—after she had met the students, decorated the classroom, and started teaching—the principal informed Leah that she did not have a ‘middle-school math endorsement,’ which the State of Illinois requires.”

Are we doing the same thing with Agile certifications?


  1. Excellent topic -- it's relevant and I discuss this with clients often. The two most popular "Agile" certifications you mention are a 'dime a dozen'. I often teach and coach professionals who are already CSM and PMI-ACP certified, but they realize that there's something missing in their "toolbox" that's needed to navigate and/or live within a real Agile transformation. Aside from the diverse skills, tools and unique mindset needed, one must have many years of experience to be really good at this. So how can we "test" for this? No certification program is perfect, but the two most-compelling designations currently in this space are from Ken Schwaber's organization ( - the Professional Scrum Master Level II (PSM II) and Professional Scrum Product Owner Level II (PSPO II). These are very difficult designations to earn and are written essay exams that rigorously challenge one's skills, knowledge and experience around the values, principles, practices and (most importantly) the mindset required for a successful pursuit of organizational Agility. I have had CSMs and PMI-ACPs come to me for training & coaching because they have been unable to earn their PSM II - they ask me, why? Because the mindset and experience aren't there, and that takes time. And these are bright people who understand Agile & Scrum, and they have the potential - but without that deep experience and belief system in place, they aren't equipped (yet) to earn a PSM II. IMO, this is one of the best ways (currently available in our space) to "test" for this. Only ~ 230 of these designations are held globally, and out of that, a precious few actually hold both designations.

  2. Great comments Daniel. I also agree that the use of essays would be a critical element of any useful agile certification regime. For most of the issues that one encounters in agile, there is no "right" answer: everything is contextual. Agile is first and foremost about judgment - not prescription. And judgment requires professional maturity.

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