How to choose a scrum certification

Product development teams are increasingly taking an agile approach to work. Agile teams embrace iterative development, frequent release cycles, and ongoing feedback from internal and external stakeholders. In practice, agile looks different for different teams. However, folks who practice scrum — one of the most popular frameworks within agile — have defined roles, events, artifacts, and certifications.

For instance, scrum specifies the role of scrum master — a coach who helps the development team stay on task and aligned with proper scrum processes. Many scrum masters obtain scrum certification to more deeply understand scrum practices and how to apply them across a team.

Becoming certified is not compulsory for all scrum master roles. But it can bolster your knowledge of scrum, help you facilitate better scrum events, and prepare you for a leap forward in your career. Let's explore the history of scrum certification and the options available so you can determine if it is the right next step for you.

The history of scrum and scrum certifications

While the concepts behind scrum were introduced in the 1950s, it was not until the 1980s that scrum as we know it took off. In 1986, business professors Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka published a pivotal article in Harvard Business Review titled "The New New Product Development Game." They compared the old way of product development to a relay race. They reimagined it as a rugby game with small, cross-functional teams passing knowledge back and forth and collaborating as a holistic unit.

A decade after Takeuchi and Nonaka shared their rugby approach, software engineers Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland, along with other original signers of the Agile Manifesto, sketched out the ideas that would evolve into the scrum framework. Schwaber and Sutherland went on to publish the online Scrum Guide in 2010. To facilitate a broader implementation of scrum principles and standardize scrum education, Schwaber and Sutherland each developed training and certification programs.

These days, there are several options when it comes to scrum training and certification. And it is no surprise why. With the popularity of scrum across industries comes an increase in demand for scrum masters and other professionals who are well-versed in scrum principles. Just look at LinkedIn alone, where a quick search for "scrum master" returns more than 120,000 job listings.

Although there are plenty of options for scrum trainings, program quality varies greatly. A free online course may look appealing but will likely not be comprehensive or taught by professionals. We will focus here on the two most popular programs, but check down below for a list of other quality options.

Certified Scrum Master™ (CSM) and Professional Scrum Master™ (PSM) are the two most widely-recognized scrum credentials. The first was developed by the Scrum Alliance, a member-driven nonprofit organization started by Ken Schwaber and a group of co-founders. Schwaber eventually left the Scrum Alliance to found his own group, Scrum.org, that offers PSM credentialing.

Both certification programs include multiple levels — two for CSM and three for PSM. (See summaries in the table below.) The main difference between CSM and PSM credentialing is that CSM requires trainings plus an exam, while PSM requires an exam only. This does not mean that PSM is any less rigorous — rather, the Scrum Alliance packages training with assessment while Scrum.org allows you to choose how you will train and prepare for the exam.

Here is a breakdown of how the scrum certifications compare:


Certified Scrum Master™ (CSM)

Professional Scrum Master™ (PSM)

Certifying organization

Scrum Alliance

Scrum.org

Training methodology and levels

  • Taught by certified trainers and coaches

  • In-person and online options

  • Two levels: CSM and A-CSM

    • Prerequisites for A-CSM include completing your CSM certification and logging at least 12 months of scrum master experience.

  • Coursework not required, though Scrum.org does offer training programs

  • Three levels: PSM I, PSM II, PSM III

    • PSM I demonstrates that you have a solid understanding of the scrum framework and its accompanying terminology and processes.

    • PSM II reflects a more advanced mastery of scrum principles, including the ability to apply those concepts in complex real-world situations.

    • PSM III certifies a deep understanding of scrum and the ability to apply this framework across a wide variety of teams and organizations

Certification exam

Yes

Yes

Time

  • In-person: 2-3 days

  • Online: 2 days

  • PSM I: 60-minute exam

  • PSM II: 90-minute exam

  • PSM III: 120-minute exam

Cost

  • In-person: Starting at $1300 USD

  • Online: Starting at $795 USD

  • PSM I: $150 USD

  • PSM II: $250 USD

  • PSM III: $500 USD

Recertification

  • Every two years

  • Requires 20 "Scrum Education Units" (SEUs) — each is equivalent to one hour spent reading, attending events, and taking courses

  • No renewal or recertification required

Additional scrum certification options

Of course there are certification options beyond the two largest organizations. Here are three additional programs for you to consider:

Registered Scrum Master (RSM)
Offered through Scrum Inc., this program is known for its interactive, hands-on training. It includes in-person and virtual options. Certification requires training and an exam.

Agile Certified Practitioner® (PMI-ACP)
Offered through the Project Management Institute (PMI), this certification also includes training in kanban, extreme programming (EXP), lean, and test-driven development (TDD). Prerequisites include a secondary degree, 21 contact hours of agile practices, 12 months of project experience within the past five years, and eight months of agile project experience within the past three years. Similar to the PSM certification, PMI-ACP certification consists solely of an exam. You must renew your PMI-ACP credentials every three years and complete 30 professional development units each certification cycle.

SAFe® Scrum Master Certification
Offered through Scaled Agile, this certification focuses on team- and enterprise-level scrum facilitation. It includes in-person and virtual courses plus a final examination. You must complete ten continuing education hours every year to maintain certification.

Getting certified

With all of the certification options out there, how do you know which one is right for you? There may not be one right answer, but use these questions as a guide:

  • Do you already have experience as a scrum master, or do you need a program geared toward folks who are new to scrum?

  • Would you prefer in-person or virtual training?

  • Do you enjoy hands-on learning or would you rather learn from materials at your own pace?

  • Do you want to focus solely on scrum or are you interested in gaining skills in other agile frameworks?

  • Are you already a member of an agile network that offers a certification program?

Talk to colleagues or your manager to get insight on which certification is most valued at your organization or within your industry. Sharing your certification plans will demonstrate your commitment to growing your skills. And it is possible that your department will fund your training — so be sure to ask.

Once you have settled on the program that best addresses your work experience and professional goals, go boldly after it. Commit to a timeline for completing the training and examination. Then feel proud of what you accomplished as you add to your resume and apply new learnings at work.

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