What is that agile certification really worth?

Agile certifications help benchmark a candidate’s familiarity with the agile framework. But what do agile certifications really say about a candidate’s ability to implement agile methodologies in practice, when it really counts?

agile certifications
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Agile has revolutionized how software development and project management get done, increasing demand for IT professionals versed in the methodology and its many flavors. To help vet candidates and give IT pros an opportunity to stand out, a number of agile certifications have arisen, each offering a unique approach to benchmarking IT professionals' knowledge and competency with the framework.

But do certifications, especially with a methodology like agile, truly prove competence and proficiency? How much should hiring managers rely on the “alphabet soup” of agile credentials to take the measure of a candidate’s expertise and experience? And, if you’re looking to pursue certification yourself, what value do companies truly place on agile certifications in the workplace?

"Certifications get a bad rap. The arguments against certification exist for almost every certification, whether that's Java, Oracle, Microsoft — and now agile. It's not something my clients are specifically asking for; they just want to know if teams can build good software," says John Doucette, vice president of consulting operations at custom software development company Magenic Technologies.

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Certification doesn't guarantee success

For Doucette, an agile certification can show that a candidate has taken time to study the best practices around the methodology, but having developers on staff that possess agile certifications won't guarantee success of an agile project, he adds.

"Agile project success has less to do with whether or not developers are certified and much more to do with whether or not the entire organization is making the culture shift towards an agile mindset all the way from the lowest-level developer up to the CEO," Doucette says.

Taking time as an organization to understand, adopt and apply agile principles and practices is what it's all about, he adds; agile certification, scrum masters, agile coaches and the like are not going to be effective on their own unless there is companywide buy-in of the principles and practices behind the methodology, Doucette says.

Agile is difficult to benchmark

There's nothing wrong, theoretically, with an attempt to build a benchmark for skills in general, but agile in particular is really hard to gauge because there are so many intangibles within the methodology, says Scott Staples, president and global head of business groups at IT management consultancy Mindtree.

"Things like teamwork, leadership, adaptability, the ability to multi-task, the need to understand and distill business needs into software requirements, planning, an ability to reflect on failures, constructive criticism — these are all skills within the agile framework that are so hard to test," Staples says.

Within smaller companies and startups, these qualities tend to be more apparent, because with limited staff and tight budgets, everyone has to pitch in and work extremely hard as a team. Enterprises, on the other hand, have a harder time expanding agile into their organizations, because of scale.

Be SAFe

"Larger enterprises are where we see the struggles with agile, especially well-established and legacy enterprises who are trying to shift to a more agile way of doing things. It's difficult to work around entrenched hierarchies and let go of a command-and-control mindset," Staples says. In these cases, certifications can be valuable, because often teams and IT leadership will listen more closely if they feel they need “expert” advice, Staples says.

One such example is SAFe, or Scaled Agile Framework. SAFe provides a roadmap and best practices for adopting agile at an enterprise scale, and SAFe certifications cover every aspect of agile at scale, from architecture, integration, funding, governance and roles.

"We are really bullish on SAFe. SAFe certification, for us, is practically foolproof in that people cannot get certified unless they pass all the courses, prove proficiency with hands-on practicums and really demonstrate the knowledge in real-world situations. It's not an easy path, and showing that commitment and the mastery is really impressive," Staples says.

Any agile certification that doesn't require candidates to have some kind of hands-on, practical training or testing is detrimental, not just for the candidates, but for organizations that hire them and for the software development field in general, says Dave West, product owner at Scrum.org, which provides professional assessments, training in scrum and agile principles and certifications.

"You don't want agile practitioners who've never actually practiced agile being able to go in and take a test and then come out with just a paper credential. That doesn't help anyone and it degrades the profession and the methodology. There really has to be some component of hands-on training and proof that, when you're down in the nitty-gritty of development, that you can apply the methodology effectively, that you have a background in storytelling, or with Lean, or Kanban or pure agile or XP -- whatever your chosen flavor of agile is," West says.

And when it comes down to it, certification or not, the most important indicator of an IT pro's agile acumen are those real-world, proven, demonstrable results, says Staples.

"When we see a certification, like a certified scrum master on a resume, we say, oh, that's great, but we also want candidates to prove it to us. We ask a lot of tough, in-the-weeds questions that show us they can 'do agile' in practice, not just in theory. It can be a problem if people can come in with a paper credential, and then not be able to perform in a real-world situation. And that, in my mind, is a crime," Staples says.

That said, it’s helpful to have working knowledge of some common agile certifications, whether you’re still considering a move to an agile methodology or you’re already on your way. But remember — just as certification doesn’t guarantee that a candidate is proficient in agile, hiring professionals with certification credentials doesn’t automatically make your organization agile, says Doucette.

“Certifications like these are just an indicator that someone took the extra time to study the foundational principles of this methodology and were able to demonstrate that for a test. For an organization to be fully agile, you have to take the time to make a full mindset- and cultural-shift, upstream and downstream, or it’s not going to be effective,” he says.

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