Having Your Cake… Some Thoughts Around Scrum Certification

WRITTEN BY Mike Cottmeyer

To some extent, I think that Scrum is going through an identity crisis. Part of what has made Scrum so successful is its simplicity. We’ve got three roles, three ceremonies, and three artifacts. That’s a pretty refreshing idea to those of us that came out of much more heavyweight methodologies. Scrum has a simple elegance that is easy to communicate and easy to sell.

The Scrum community is full of some really smart people. If you’ve been building software for more than 10 minutes or so, you know that Scrum doesn’t tell you everything you need to know to be a good software engineer, a good tester, a good business analyst, or even a good ScrumMaster. It is up to us to bring our skills and experiences to the table and fill in the gaps. We figure out how to make it work.

So here is what I want to know… if Scrum is a simple framework… if it is so clear and precise that we can talk about Scrum-But and call out those people that aren’t doing it right… where is the definitive body of knowledge? Where is the documented set of stuff that is acceptable on most Scrum projects, most of the time? How do I tell the difference between when I’m bending Scrum to hide my own disfunction versus just filling in the gaps? Who gets to decide? Am I just supposed to know it when I see it?

This identity crisis becomes really apparent when we start talking about Scrum certification. What is there really to certify when the rules of Scrum are so simple? Not much. What about when we start offering specialized certifications like the Certified Scrum Product Owner? What does Scrum really teach us about being a good Product Owner? In my opinion, not a whole lot. How about a Certified Scrum Developer? That role doesn’t even exist in Scrum. Furthermore, does Scrum say anything about good development practices? Not at all.

Scrum can’t have it’s cake and eat it too. It can’t be a simple framework that is not prescriptive and then start certifying people on how to do all this stuff.

If we are going to acknowledge that there is actually a set of generally accepted practices that work well with Scrum, let’s start building our body of knowledge and open up Scrum to public debate. I just can’t get my head around certifying anyone on anything without at least a general definition of what we are certifying against. In the absence of some sort of accepted standard, ‘Certified Scrum’ anything is just a marketing gimmick.

What do you think, am I missing something?

leave a comment

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

28 comments on “Having Your Cake… Some Thoughts Around Scrum Certification”

  1. Peter

    Ouch! This hurts considering I JUST got my certification and learned a ton! But I guess you're right in some way… where is the foundational definition?

    My particular time with Sanjiv was excellent, he made Scrum practical and pragmatic. Personally, I believe a certification without discipline is worthless…

  2. Mike Cottmeyer


    That's the interesting dilemma. The TRAINING is valuable. No doubt. The challenge is that we call some of this "Certified Scrum" whatever. What does that mean. I would rather just have a course titled "Good Agile Practices the Complement Scrum", and leave off the certified anything.

    BTW – Sanjiv is awesome. He totally gets this. My post was not intended to comment on the quality of anyone's particular offering.

  3. Zachary Spencer

    Eh, certification in and of itself isn't the issue. The issue is that some people believe that certification makes them more qualified than someone without it.

    In reality, certification just proves you took a class and passed some kind of test.

    Is it valuable? Maybe. Depends on whether you learned anything in the class or whether you slacked off.

  4. Niels Verdonk

    Hi Mike,

    I recently completed CSM training from Mike Cohn and got a change to ask him some questions regarding the certification process you might find interesting.

    He shared with me they will announce a change in the names of the certification programs. He thought the name Certified Scrum Master was a legacy name but seems to sound to heavy for what it actualy was. The choice for the new name had not been made. He did tell me the new name for the Certified Scrum Practitioner, which was going to be changed to Certified Scrum Professional.

    So I think the Scrum Alliance is very much aware something isn't right and they will try their best to mend that. It seems to be a balancing act, given the fact that Ken Schwaber recently left the Scrum Alliance over a difference of opinion regarding the certification programs.


    P.S. The CSM training from Mike Cohn was still very valuable as well.

  5. Mike Cottmeyer

    Niels… Mike Cohn also clearly gets this. Again… I don't care what the Scrum Alliance calls the role… or the certification. I would just like to see the SA either define the entire agile body of knowledge, or stop certifying people based on their knowledge of it. If they want to certify people on product owner best practices, define a few of them so we can have a discussion. Maybe this is there and I am off the mark? Don't know… I just haven't seen it.


  6. Mike Cottmeyer

    Zachary… but here is the point of my post… how can the Scrum Alliance certify something that isn't defined as part of their process? I am actually a proponent of certification and testing. I just think it is a bit disingenuous to certify something you claim is not defined by your process. Anyway, interesting conversation!

    Thanks for the comment!

  7. Niels Verdonk

    There are two problems, Scrum is still very much evolving, and there is not always a definite answer to everything. But this also applies to Quantum Physics and people an apparently still graduate in it.

    The CSM certification just means you sat through the classes, so people should also take it as such. This is also the problem with lot's of other certifications, e.g. someone who got Prince2 certified isn't necessarily a great project manager, nor is a Certified Java Developer always a great developer.

  8. Mike Cottmeyer

    Niels… There are textbooks on quantum physics. If you take a course on quantum physics, you get a syllabus and are told what it tests on. If you get a degree in quantum physics, the program is accredited and the standards are there for the world to see. Schools are ranked publicly based on the quality of their programs.

    The Scrum Alliance is certifying people against no standard body of knowledge, against practices they claim are not even part of Scrum. Every trainer out there modifies their material to suit their own particular biases and approach to agile. I believe that many folks only put the Certified Scrum in from of their training because that is what people will buy right now.

    It is really a matter of intellectual integrity. Either dev practices are specified in Scrum or they are not. If they are not, what is a certified Scrum developer? If Product Ownership practices are not specified, what does that certification mean? We just need to decide what is in and what is out and publish a standard.

    Just my opinion ;-)

  9. Mike Cottmeyer


    It has been a while, but yes I have seen it. Are you saying that if I follow that link, I am going to find a set of best practices for Product Owners and Developers? A sort of standard syllabus for the CSx programs?


  10. Mike Cottmeyer

    Niels… and also… a PMP doesn't mean that you are a good project manager, but it does show serious commitment to your profession. Agree with PMI or not, that is a hard test. AND… it is based on a published, peer reviewed body of knowledge.

  11. Mike

    I think the majority of the people in the Agile community would be happy to pay for training, I went on Mike Cohn's Estimating and planning and it was great.
    I would like to think that the majority of people in the Agile community see CSM as "oh i can say the word burn down to you and you don't think of fire" etc. Meaning that they have had a reasonable grounding in Scrum so that without any more work experience you can talk to them around concepts.
    I would also like the thank the scrum trainers certified or otherwise who have helped to spread a way of working that has made my life so much better.
    However Scrum and Agile is not really about the process is it, it about the changes in attitude, ownership and respect and a willingness to change.

    Were it goes wrong in my opinion is when certification (training) moves from a genuine wish to increase understanding at a basic level to a way of controlling how people think and getting them to pay to remain thinking that way.

    Daily I see tweets about inspecting and adapting, yet certification seems to be about conforming to a set of knowledge that needs to be continually refreshed. I am not saying that people should do what they like with Scrum but some things have to fit. I have worked in an org with 150 devs on full time teams and in an org with 6 devs working part time on 3 projects, the fundamentals are the same but some of the implementations differ wildly.

  12. Derek Huether

    Mike, I'm conflicted on the ScrumMaster certification. When I heard a vendor say they were going to use Scrum on my program and none of their team had actual experience with it or any kind of formal training, I had to play the certification card. Saying I had N years of experience leading Scrum teams wasn't enough. After I told them I was certified, they suddenly said they were using agile-scrum-but-with-some-waterfall-here-or-there. I'm including this for your readers, so they see where I'm coming from.

    I believe the SA did rush out the certification process before it was ready. I WOULD like to see a Scrum Manifesto or a Body of Knowledge published. It's SO simple. Just keep it simple and the rest can be left up to practical execution. But, with so many out there who will talk the talk but don't have the first damn clue about delivering value to the customer, I will have to continue saying I'm certified.

    Best Regards,

  13. Mike Cottmeyer

    And there lies the rub… certification is demanded by our industry. Furthermore, trainers can't get butts in seats unless they offer the certification. We can't just offer a PO class or a Developer class, it has to be a CPO class or a CDev class, or no one will go.

    So I get the practical need for certification. I get the practical need for trainers to make a living. I think what I object to is the Scrum Alliance's willing to put a label or a brand on anything, regardless of if it is Scrum or not.

    That is why I called the post what I did. They want their cake and eat it too. They want Scrum to be a simple framework and then offer certification in things that aren't Scrum.

  14. Stavros Pitoglou

    I don't think there can be (or should be -but that's another discussion) such thing as an agile or scrum BOK.

    You said it yourself and it is true: "Every trainer out there modifies their material to suit their own particular biases and approach to agile". So, given that the topic of the core framework is limited, any attempt to take it to the next level of detail, in order to come up with a BOK, is more likely doomed to a fierce debate with no end.

    The CSM certification (like a number of similar ones), means from nothing to a lot. Does not declare much on your real professional value, just that you have taken some basic training, maybe you passed some test and you keep in touch with a community of experienced practitioners. Nothing more, nothing less. If someone thinks that it will pay off the money it costs them, let them do it.

  15. Mike Cottmeyer


    Your right, the BOK is a different debate.

    I actually am less concerned with the CSM training. CSM is clearly defined in Scrum, and what the CSM class teaches is pretty consistent with teaching principles of facilitation and servant leadership along with Scrum fundamentals. I think I am more concerned with other roles and topics that Scrum is not prepared to address.

    Thanks for the comment!

  16. Dave

    "[Where] it goes wrong in my opinion is when certification (training) moves from a genuine wish to increase understanding at a basic level to a way of controlling how people think and getting them to pay to remain thinking that way."

    Bingo. That's certification in a nutshell, whether it's Scrum certification or anything else.

  17. Anonymous



    There is no standard Scrum implementation. You decide, and you know you are bending Scrum when your tailoring to context is not in line with the Scrum values. You know this stuff. Why do you continue to take potshots at Scrum?

    Please stop pretending that you are not.

  18. Mike Cottmeyer

    Dave, I am not as convinced that certification is designed to control how people think. I am comfortable with certification when it is a statement of baseline knowledge. Certification doesn't say much about what you can do, more what you know.

  19. Mike Cottmeyer


    I am a little surprised by your reaction to this post. I am not bashing Scrum. I like Scrum, I use Scrum, I teach Scrum. My problem with Scrum isn't even with ScrumMaster certification. I have my CSM, it was a good course done by VersionOne's Lee Henson.

    That said, Scrum is NOT PRESCRIPTIVE. That is it's beauty. What the HELL are we DOING certifying PRACTICES that are NOT A PART OF SCRUM. i am not yelling, more emphasizing the fact that scrum really says NOTHING about PRODUCT OWNER or DEVELOPER or TEAM. If we are building courses to help these roles that is fine.


    That is my issue, it has nothing to do with WHAT SCRUM IS. My beef is more with the opportunistic way we use Scrum's success to market our courses. Just my take… people are free to disagree… just PLEASE understand my point.

    Thanks for the comment ;-)


  20. Clinton Keith

    Thanks for the article.

    A few points to make up front.
    – Scrum is a framework, not a methodology.
    – I'm suprised to hear an agile consultant use the phrase "best practices". Shame! ;)
    – The Scrum guide does define roles and practices. CSx courses are taught to this. What you want is a book that defines things down to the n-th detail and that won't happen. Scrums application changes in the environment it's applied.

    Certainly, the ScrumMaster term causes problems (I agree with Mike Cohn). There is a legacy there of years of certification to consider as well. However, within the definition of "certification", CSM does fit. SM Certification is the start of a very long path that cannot be learned in a book or class alone.

    The greater issue is that the success of Scrum has made it a target. The more notable agile voices have become Certified Scrum Trainers. Others have decided to rail against the successful business model that, even with flaws, has done more to promote agile values more than anything else.

    The demand is there. The customers see value. The SA is improving the certification requirements and expanding education and the value of further well-defined roles.

  21. Mike Cottmeyer

    Okay Clinton, lot's to address with your comment.

    I typically call Scrum a framework too, don't disagree… you point to me though is semantics and not critical to the point I am trying to make.

    Are you saying that as consultants we cant talk about best practices. Is a daily standup meeting a best practice, how about a retrospective? Be careful how you think about this, Scrum is full of best practices.

    I don't want Scrum to define things to the nth detail. THAT iS MY FRIGGIN' POINT. But I don't think it is ethical to provide certification around things that are NOT DEFINED IN THE METHODOLOGY. The very fact we have folks offering CSPO and CSD courses means that SCRUM IS SPECIFYING PRACTICES. If not, what are we certifying.

    If the course name CSM is causing problems, change it. Personally, I have never had a beef with CSM certification. My post dealt with certification around things that are NOT INCLUDED WITH SCRUM.

    I am glad that Scrum has pushed agile into the mainstream. That DOES NOT MEAN THAT SCRUM IS BEYOND REPROACH. Scrum does not get a pass with me and has to be intellectually consistent rather than financially opportunistic.

    Finally, does the fact that folks like Alistair Cockburn and Ron Jefferies are Scrum trainers validate Scrum or the fact that providing a CSM is essential for their business model? Those are very different issues. Just because Scrum is successful does not validate it is right or that it doesn't need to evolve.

    Thanks for your comment!

  22. Clinton Keith


    It's not just semantics. Incorrectly naming things indicates an underlying misunderstanding. The difference between a framework and a methodology is critical.

    "Best Practices" don't apply in any environment of continous improvement". There are "better practices" for sure. "Best" means "no better".

    The PO and developer (specifically team) roles are defined in Scrum. The CSD is designed to provide ancillary education of practices (like TDD) for the Scrum developer. There will be an announcment of its details soon if you are interested in actually learning about it.

    Who is saying that Scrum is beyond reproach? The trainer list is congested with ways to improve training, certification and everything Scrum. Cockburn and Jefferies have contributed much to that discussion and have been helping drive major improvements and soul searching to every aspect of improving the world or work.

    Question their motivations if you'd like, but honestly examine your own too. Emotions seem to be outweighing the facts here.

  23. Mike Cottmeyer

    Clinton, my main point as simply as I can put it is this…

    Scrum is a simple framework, devoid of practices

    Having a certified developer track, no matter how well done, to me, is inconsistent with Scrum

    I don't think it is right to certify things that are not part of your framework/methodology.

    Nothing personal, just my opinion. If we are acknowledging that in the Scrum world 'certification = two day training course', so be it. That is just not how the rest of the world uses the word certification.

    Will you be at the Scrum Gathering next month? Maybe we can go grab a beer and have it out. Would be a much better forum that arguing via blog responses.

  24. Clinton Keith

    Mike, we're both agreed Scrum is a framework, though not quite devoid of practices (daily scrum, sprint, retrospective, etc). I think you meant "discipline practices" and you're right.

    We can argue the merits of certification all day, but I'll quote Uncle Bob:

    "I think that the agile movement has enjoyed a significant boost because of the interest generated by the CSM program. There are more companies doing Agile today because of CSM. So if anybody owes a debt here, it may be the Agile community owing a debt to the CSM program."

    I fully agree with this (I don't always agree with everything he says).

    We should hold off judgment on the CSD until more is released. My initial thoughts were the same as yours until I heard what was being planned. The "developers" (or team) are Scrum role. Perhaps calling it "certified" is not the way to go, but let's have that talk in a month. Bottom line: what will help more teams be more agile?

    Unfortunately the Gathering is being held at the same time as the Game Developer Conference, so I can't attend this time. Are you going to Agile2010? I hear the beer in Nashville is the best! ;)

  25. Dan Huynh

    It’s really interesting to read this article 5 years later.

    Mike, I’m wondering what your thoughts are today. Has SA done much to address this issue?