Monday, April 2, 2007

Certification and Agile: Are We There Yet?

I've always been a little skeptical around certifications. Why? Because I am not sure that the certification process is focused on what counts (experience) but what is easily obtainable (knowledge). Seems I'm not alone in that feeling. The Agile Alliance came out with their own viewpoint last week. Here's what they said:

Now that Agile software development is becoming a mainstream practice, more and more employers need to staff teams that will perform it well. How can they know if a particular person will be an asset? One way might be to favor employees who are vouched for by some certification body. 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.

Certifications in our industry usually tell you that a person has been exposed to particular knowledge. Some certifications additionally tell you that she has passed a test on that knowledge. Knowledge is a wonderful thing, but businesses pay for performance. Performance requires skill. A skill is not as simple to acquire as knowledge: the learner has to perform the skill badly, recover from mistakes, do it a bit better, and keep repeating the whole process. Especially for the interrelated and interpersonal skills required of Agile software development, much of the learning has to take place on real projects. It is that learning that a certification should vouch for. Vouching for someone else’s skill requires close observation or questioning by someone already possessing it. For anything other than uninterestingly simple skills, that’s a lot of work–which means it’s expensive. Therefore, the only skills worth formally vouching for are those that require substantial effort to learn.

While a skill-based certification can shorten the hiring or promotion process, there are many skilled practitioners who are not certified. Excluding them from consideration would be a poor business decision. Moreover, the state of the practice moves on. Skills decay when unused. The question is not whether an applicant once possessed appropriate skill; it’s whether the applicant can do what’s required today. A certificate cannot substitute for the hard work of individual evaluation.

Certifications such as Certified Scrum Master and DSDM Foundation are knowledge-based and easy to achieve. We believe the courses that lead to them are good ones. We believe people who attend them get their money’s worth. But while the certifications may be evidence of good faith, useful knowledge, and a desire to learn, they are not in themselves evidence of skill. Higher levels of certification, such as DSDM Practitioner or Certified Scrum Practitioner, require project experience, a written project synopsis, and an oral examination. They are skill-based. Other organizations like the Agile Project Leadership Network are working on skill-based certifications. We applaud their efforts. Although, the position of Agile Alliance remains firmly that employers should not require certification of employees and that skill needs to be acquired by practice on agile projects not by training alone.

I think there is a place for certification in Agile as it has worked for other technical certification processes such as PMI, Sun, Microsoft, and others. It's good to see that Agile is maturing to a point where certification is becoming important in hiring skilled people. However, it's just too easy for anybody to become a Certified Scrummaster. Just a two-day course and are certified. This does not guarantee that you are skilled in Scrum, have experience with teams, and understand Agile principles and practices. Perhaps some of the higher levels discussed above will demonstrate those skills.

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