Solving the Agile Certification Problem

I studied electronic engineering in college and my lab partner had a 4.0 GPA compared to my paltry 2.06.  I’m ok with that, I needed to work full time midnights to support my extravagant life style finding last-day-for-sale hot dogs and Kraft dinner.

Whenever lab time rolled around he couldn’t put together a basic circuit to save his life.  His strength was his strong memory, theory knowledge, and the ability to speak abstractly enough about the topics we studied so his reward was good grades.

But he couldn’t DO the work.

Mark Zuckerberg mentioned in a recent interview ( ) that some of his best hires had no programming experience and one of the employees who wrote the Facebook photos application was an electrical engineer, not a software engineer.

I’m not going to go into great detail about the good and bad of the various types of Agile certification, all I’m proposing is that we in the Agile community figure out a better way to build skill within the community and a better way to provide organizations with the right skills they need to be successful.

Look to the Skilled Trades Community

In order to become a Certified Electrician (in Ontario anyway) you need to complete 9000 hours in an apprenticeship program which is a mix of on-the-job (80 – 90%) training and in-class (10 – 20%) training.   Of course there are a long list of regulations, courses and governing bodies that make becoming a Certified Electrician quite complicated.  The point is you need to demonstrate hands-on experience and pass a test all the while getting time to practice with skilled peers.

My Goal for this ‘Certification’ Program

  1. to help organizations find the right person or people to help them transition to Agile (process coach?  technical coach? scrum master? management consultant? – typically organizations need many different people with different skills)
  2. to help people in the Agile community improve their skills and knowledge through peer feedback and evaluation
  3. to help engaged coaches find people with specialized skills to help them with clients (After all, there are many fantastic and knowledgable people you probably have never heard of and aren’t considered ‘thought-leaders’)

A Proposed Solution

I’m proposing a social Agile community that is peer-driven and comprised of a set of community-nominated subject matter experts and thought leaders that can help elevate the levels of standards around Agile practices.

Think of something like Linked In profiles specific to Agile practices and experience along with an apprenticeship program.  I’m not sure exactly how to solve the certification problem without making a new certification so I’m thinking of a level system whereas people move up levels similar to role-playing characters.  Plus that would be kind of neat to make it fun wouldn’t it?

I see a level system with multiple tracks as there is a wide variety of skills needed to help an organization be successful with Agile.  That ranges from people skills, management skills, Agile process skills, hands-on technical skills in programming and testing and more.  Each track would have multiple levels.  Maybe this is getting complicated, I figured I’d throw it out there to start a positive discussion instead of just bitching about what’s wrong with today’s certification.

Possible Tracks:

  • Organizational Coach: works on multiple levels within the org (think CSC)
  • Team and Process Coach: works with teams, specializes in processes (think CSP, CSM, PSM)
  • Software Craftsman: kick ass programmer and tester for the lack of a better phrase (think CSD)
  • Product Owner: think CSPO
  • Agile Trainer: facilitator, workshops, training, games (think CST, Innovation Games master etc)

This is just a rough idea, some people may specialize in one track, others might just be freaking awesome and reach all levels in all tracks.  Again, this proposed solution is to help the community build skill and help organizations find the right person (people) to help.   Perhaps the Perfection Game is played during each Level to give candidates skills to work on to move up to the next level.  Think of it as employee performance reviews except these would actually be useful and motivating.

Level 1:

face to face committee panel interview:   This would test candidates knowledge of Agile processes, theoretical situations and some type of simulation to allow candidates to demonstrate working knowledge.  It assumes little or no hands on experience.

Basically a panel interview replaces the multiple choice exams used today.  After all, some of the people I went to CSM class with clearly were there to get the acronym and didn’t demonstrate passion or interest in what they learned and they received the same credentials as me.

Level 2:

– Face to face committee panel interview: deeper level of knowledge explored compared to Level 1

Involved in local Agile community: goes to conferences, contributes to online discussions, demonstrates a deeper level of passion about their craft

Level 3: (peer evaluated through paired engagement, published articles or books, conference speaker etc)

Apprenticeship: N hours of paired or shadowed engagements

Author/Speaker: published books or articles showing commitment to community

Level 4:

Apprenticeship: finished N hours of apprenticeship

– Nominated as thought-leader and/or subject matter expert

These are just rough ideas, some other thoughts:

  • Thought leaders are nominated by the community, some will have global influence, others may have local influence.  For example, to do the apprenticeship in Toronto, there would be local, nominated people available so candidates don’t need to travel
  • Peer-driven, community member profiles:
    • Shows candidates ‘Level’
    • Courses you attended (CSM, PSM, NLP, ICF etc) – basically any course or education that is relevant to your track.
    • Recommendations: peer recommendations like Linked In however you can only be recommended if you have paired with another peer at a higher level (not sure about this, thinking of some way to make a recommendation meaningful)
    • Experience: think resume or actual Linked In profile
    • What makes candidate perfect: areas to improve instead of a ‘strength and weakness’ idea.

Why I Think Something Like This May Work

  • There is more motivation for me personally to have the respect of my peers, getting feedback through interviews and apprenticeships instead of faceless tests helps me improve which helps the community.  There’s a natural incentive for me to move up levels and it’s more difficult to game the system than simply pass a bunch of tests and get a bunch of acronyms after my name.
  • Demonstrates to people outside the Agile community we are serious about improving our craft and help them understand that motivation, determination and passion are more important than formal education alone.
  • Builds community and gets people collaborating for the good of our professions
  • Weeds out unscrupulous people

Challenges and Questions

  • over time politics and other bullshit might get in the way, after all, we’re human
  • lack of financial model.  who’d pay for the apprenticeship? who’d pay for though-leaders to take time away from paid work to sit on a panel?  should there be yearly union dues or membership fees or some type of subsidy to help folks who can’t pay out of their own pocket to participate?
  • risky for candidates – if your peers think you suck it could be quite humiliating plus it can take away your livelyhood.  Personally, I’m willing to risk it to put pride back into my craft.
  • risky for thought-leaders – when I took my CSM the instructor gave final say on whether or not you earned it.  Will there be enough respect to hold people back if they aren’t ready or don’t have the skill?
  • is this group of ideas just too fluffy to resonate with our industry?  What do they really want?

This is far from perfect and far from a well thought-out solution, all I know is after I took my CSM I had knowledge and that was about it.  After I worked as a full-time employee as the ‘Scrum guy’ I knew way more in practice.  After I felt like I failed miserably at my first independent gig, I knew way more.  After I started participating in coaching circles, going to conferences and pairing with other coaches I feel that’s where the learning really started and now I have broader skill-sets that I feel really can help me be more effective.

My hope is that this post sparks ideas with people in the community so we can collectively figure out how to move forward for the good of ourselves and our craft.

What do you think?