First, I want to say a couple of words about myself. I come to these three exams relatively late, already having more than 20 years of practical experience as a project manager, program manager, and technical trainer. I chose to be certified after I start to teach quite a few agile courses, to make sure that my vision aligns well with Agile community standards.
Let’s start with the most popular and the easiest of three – “Professional Scrum Master 1” by scrum.org. This certification is all about one straightforward thing – whether a person read, understood the Scrum Guide, and can find answers on 80 simple questions in 60 minutes. So, you have to know and understand the Scrum Guide, but literally, nothing else. I didn’t run a lot of Scrum before taking the exam but did other Agile methods. All preparation took just two days. The recipe is simple. Read Scrum Guide once, took an open assessment, realize that you have to reread the Guide, and ask yourself why Scrum guide is written this way. Realize that every single word in the Scrum guide has its purpose. Then you fall in love with the simplicity and beauty of Scrum. Pass exam at 97% mark.
So, this certification tells us that the person has read and comprehended the Scrum Guide. Since then, it is my ultimate recommendation for every Scrum Master to validate their comprehension of the Scrum Guide with the PSM 1 Exam.
PSM 2 is way harder. It is about the ability to solve 20-30 practical situations applying the Scrum Guide and the principles behind it. I doubt that it is possible to pass PSM 2 without practical experience behind.
My two key component of preparation to PSM 2 were:
1) Get the PSM 2 course. It would give you nothing about the exam or how to answer the questions. Instead, you have to pay attention to what PST is doing. And ask them a lot of questions watching how they respond and understanding why they do it this way.
a) They don’t teach, they coach and facilitate. PST is an excellent example of the role model for a Scrum Master. When you go through the exam, don’t ask yourself what you would do. Instead, ask yourself what your PST would do and how he or she would answer this question.
b) Review what they taught on the course and find how exactly every method supports Scrum pillars and promotes Scrum values. That would help you a lot to develop the logic which is required to answer the test questions. And, what is more important, to use later when you work as a Scrum Master.
2) I invented one simple mental trick for this particular exam. I considered that all situations happen in an ideal Scrum environment. Whatever does not fit into such an “ideal Scrum” should be viewed as an impediment and handled as an impediment.
These two points helped to pass PSM II at 94.5%. I found what I missed later. Now point three, that I would use if I pass the exam today.
3) PSM 2 is not about the pure “Scrum Master in a team” role. It is also about higher levels of Scrum Mastery, such as corporate coaching and company-level servant leadership. I discovered the Professional Agile Leadership course and assessment when I already passed the exam. Now I would strongly recommend taking the PAL course or, at least, open PAL assessment as a part of the preparation for PSM 2. It covers the rest.
This certification tells us that a person certified comprehended Scrum and can apply Scrum principles under time pressure. I would only consider a PSM 2 certified person as a Scrum Master for a critically important project. Unfortunately, only one of fifty (yep, 1 of 50) PSM 1 decides to pass and can pass PSM 2. So, most of us have to be satisfied with PSM 1 or CSM.
Now let’s speak of PMI’s version of Agile certification – PMI-ACP.
You cannot compare it with PSM certifications for many reasons:
1) PSM is about Scrum, only Scrum and nothing but Scrum. ACP is about the whole variety of Agile methods, including XP and hybrid approaches such as Disciplined Agile.
2) PSM is about the Scrum Master role only. ACP is about practicing in all areas, from agile contracting to agile delivery.
In other words, while ACP is not very deep, it is extremely wide.
The best way to prepare for ACP is to study Mike Griffiths’ Exam Prep, and then take practice with tests recommended by the book. These tests are even more demanding than the actual exam, so you’ll be well prepared. Even after years and years of practical experience, I would say that there were nuances and applications of Agile that I didn’t touch before. So, I would suggest reading Mike Griffiths’ book for anyone who wants to understand Agile. Practical application may (and will!) require more reading and learning, but I’ll have an overall understanding and right direction. About 30 days of studying was enough for me to pass ACP with “above target” in all areas.
The exam itself is full of situational questions, requiring understanding and practical application of the Agile principles. However, the questions aren’t that complex and tricky as PSM 2 questions.
Side note: never ever try to use ACP materials to prepare for PSM exams! ACP has a lot of hybrid approaches, which is heresy for Scrum.org adepts. You’ll fail the PSM exam miserably if you try to apply the same logic as for ACP.
So, if I have to sort these three certifications, would say:
1) PSM 1 is the easiest. People who cannot pass PSM 1 shouldn’t even try to impersonate a Scrum Master.
2) PMI-ACP challenges skills more than knowledge and covers the whole specter of Agile methods and areas of application.
3) PSM 2 is the hardest of three, tests skills more than ACP, but is limited to Scrum Master role in Scrum.
I hope that my article would be helpful for those who pursue Agile certifications as well as for those who need to make decisions to hire people. I would appreciate any feedback and opinions. Also, if you are a person who is looking for a certification, please feel free to contact our company for coaching and consultation. If you are a business owner or HR specialist, please do not hesitate to rely on our expertise in the evaluation of the candidates.
P.S. What about open book PSM against closed book ACP?
I see no problem with open-book when I consider candidates. First, they are allowed to use the book when they work, aren’t they? We should be more concerned about their understanding than their memory, shouldn’t we? Moreover, I suggest them to refer to the book whenever it is possible. The timing and high pass score (85% against 65-70% typical for closed-book exams) made it impossible to pass the test for an unprepared person.
P.P.S. What about independent validation of the experience via PMI?
I agree that PMI spends significant efforts to keep employers confidence in their credentials. However, when you choose a scrum master to entrust your valuable teams and projects… Do you want a person who has to be validated to be trusted? If you tell yourself, “well, I cannot believe this person unless they show me credentials,” you maybe should not him and her at all. At least not to be a Scrum Master.
I instead consider PMI credentials as the sign that a person understands and knows how to play big-corporate-rituals. I found that some “pure” Scrum people are too idealistic and naive to survive among lions of corporate world wilderness.