A Certification does not an Agilist Make

By Brian Lucas

This one is for Elaine of the golden hair.  Angels above blush at thy beauty.

“Socrates gave no diplomas or degrees, and would have subjected any disciple who demanded one to a disconcerting catechism on the nature of true knowledge.” – G. M. Trevelyan

The other evening, I had the chance to chat with an acquaintance who is a certified scrum master (CSM).  We started a rather deplorable, desultory conversation, until the subject turned to certifications.  He said another acquaintance of ours had emailed him and asked if he should get a CSM.  My friend, who is certified, swears by them, so he said yes.  I asked him, how he was expecting the certification to help our mutual acquaintance.  I know for a fact the seeker in question has never worked on an agile project (oh a few might have been labeled as agile, but weren’t in any real sense agile).  Worse still, I have spoken with him often enough to know he was a somewhat rigid thinker and very process oriented.  True agile thinking would be at odds with his philosophical makeup.  Of course, when I challenged the scrum master, he temporized, saying that it couldn’t hurt and wasn’t expensive[1].  Both statements are more or less true depending on your perspective.

Since the subject had been broached, I decided to probe further and risk annoying him (after all he was smoking a cigar[2] and I knew he wouldn’t get up and walk away until he had finished).  I asked him, how a scrum master certification makes you an agile thinker.  He immediately launched into the description of the nomenclature and process of scrum[3] with user stories, planning sessions, daily scrums, sprints, spikes, retrospectives, etc. while I sat patiently and quietly sipping my scotch[4] (my British readers would have been proud I was drinking it neat).  After he finished his dogmatic recital, I asked him the question again and added are you a better agile “thinker” today than when you started with agile projects years ago.  He paused to reflect (no doubt expecting I was laying a devious logic trap for him) and said, yes.  I then asked him if the process that he learned in his early CSM training had changed any. He admitted that it had not.  So I asked him a third time, how his CSM training had made him an agile thinker.  Unfortunately, he chose that moment to snub out his cigar and excuse himself[5].

Don’t get me wrong, I am not adverse to certifications.  However, despite their hype, certifications have a less than stellar significance today[6].  They never seem to quite live up to their advertising.  Generally, they show you have some knowledge about something, but not necessarily the understanding or the wisdom that’s needed to employ it successfully.  They often place a strong emphasis on terms or a particular process or method (let’s not get into the process versus method argument), but they don’t necessarily change the way you think.  Changing a person’s thought pattern or behavior takes time.  It is one of the reasons successful programs, like some that Dale Carnegie[7] offers, can take weeks.

Learning to “think agile” in an agile software development cycle is a lot harder than learning the terms and running 2 week iterations.  Those who come from a more process oriented mentality or are waterfall thinkers, often feel that agile is the same concept only in smaller and more frequent increments.  Others, who are opposed to change, usually deride agile as being totally out of control.  Neither view is valid.  Agile is about focusing on the essentials, working smarter and learning as you go.  It’s about real team empowerment, not a new way to manage people.  That’s one of the reasons hardcore project managers tend to not be good scrum masters[8].  Their basic inclination is at odds with the nature of their new function.

Speaking of function, for those who are in information technology (IT), remember the time before object-oriented programming became popular.  Do you remember how long it took you to actually develop good classes?  Classes that were functionally highly cohesive and loosely coupled didn’t happen overnight, did they?  Oh you probably learned the diagrammatic syntax in an hour or a day and the structure of a class, but how long before you were actually designing[9] a solid class?  Depending upon your philosophical bias, it could have taken you a year or more to gain an object-oriented proficiency.  Well “agile thinking” can have a similar gestation period.

As I have shown in my series Interviews with a Natural Agilist, some people are agile thinkers by nature, rather than nurture.  This leads me to believe that thinking agile or being adaptive is in fact more natural[10] than the heavily process oriented thinking in which we were indoctrinated during our business careers.  Even as children, we ate did our homework and then watched TV.  We followed the same class schedule, day after day, memorizing lessons by rote.  Later, we hung out at the pizza shop or the mall.  Somewhere along the line, the idea that regimented thinking was a good thing, was foisted upon us.  Yet we reward and admire those who think outside the box in inventive companies[11] like Google, Samsung, Intel, 3M, Microsoft and Bristol-Myers Squibb to name a few.  Wouldn’t it be better if we encouraged children to develop their own ideas and to actually think[12]?

The hardest part of agile[13] is coming up with the correctly sized, highly encapsulated and highest value user stories in a sufficient product backlog for a development team.  Users are in the hot seat for creating the initial user stories and generating a product backlog.  Many studies have shown that an agile development team’s velocity has a direct relationship to the amount and quality of the product backlog.  This sounds easy because users always want something.  In reality, it is actually quite difficult for users to create high quality user stories and generate a healthy backlog, particularly if they are new to agile.  One of the forces that drove software development into a highly regimented and documented process was the fact that users had a great deal of difficulty identifying their needs in a detailed, specific fashion.  Development teams ended up building software that the user might have asked for, but really wasn’t what they needed.  So to end the blame game, software development organizations created processes with sign-offs and decision gates.  All this did however, was to shift the blame “officially” back on the user.  It did not create better software.  Software development organizations and companies that follow this philosophy can’t hope to survive the next decade.  There is no room for playing the blame game in a dynamic agile marketplace.

My point is that if you want good velocity (assuming you have a good development team), you need good user stories in abundance.  In order to get good user stories, you need to have users that not only have business expertise, but can practice focused, critical thinking.  It is an interesting correlation that what makes a good object in object-oriented thinking is similar to what makes a good user story.  I have found that some of the oldest thinking is timeless[14] in this regard.  It takes time to develop this expertise.  It is important because it is the very beginning of the agile development process.  As the old saying goes – “garbage in, garbage out”.  I have seen agile teams with great velocity, turning out junk, because the user stories were ill conceived.

That’s why I like the term “Master Agilist”.  A Master Agilist (MAg) is someone who is so adept at thinking in an agile fashion, they can adapt to any situation.  From a software development perspective, they don’t have to be technology, business or process experts.  They can be either users or another member of the development team.  What makes them Masters is that they instantly know whether a user story is well conceived and crafted or not.  They also know, if it is critical or superfluous.  You can see the common characteristics of MAgs in my interviews with a natural agilist series.

In brief they:

  • Are instinctive analysts, always breaking down a problem and looking at it from many angles.
  • Have a strong ability to think abstractly and conceptually.
  • Are proactive thinkers and executors that abhor procrastination.
  • Understand the Pareto Principle and all its implications, recognizing core from trivia.
  • Are highly adverse to rote behavior, they need to know why something is done.
  • Are constantly learning and never are satisfied with what they know.
  • Plan in terms of simple experiments and gaining empirical knowledge.
  • Live for their dreams rather than be ruled by their fears.
  • Think about everything in terms of an agile philosophy whether its business or personal life.

So should we create a Master Agilist certification that supersedes any specific technique like scrum?  Or should we just acknowledge the limitations of certifications; have realistic expectations for them and recognize the need for a higher level of agile thinking.  What do you think?  Remember till next time, keep agile!


[2] A Padron Padrón 1964 Anniversary Series Exclusivo Maduro #5.

[4] MacCallan’s 25 year old

[5] Where are the William Jennings Bryan’s of the world willing to argue the wrong side brilliantly as in the infamous Scopes Trial in 1925. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Jennings_Bryan  C’est la vie!

[6] Microsoft despite efforts to import their programs are questionable see http://insidetech.monster.com/benefits/articles/1571-top-10-problems-with-it-certification

[8] Or any other title that you want to give an agile facilitator.

[9] I am going to focus on the design aspect of agile for now and not the development aspect of agile.  The former is far harder than the latter and is where most agile projects go awry.

[10] See Is agile a return to common sense? for a historical perspective.

[12] My golden rule when working with a new or inexperienced person whether or not in business is to gage their ability to think and reason and then actually get them to practice it. The old parable that if you give a person a fish you feed them for a day, however if you teach them how to fish they can feed themselves for a lifetime applies.

[14] Niklaus Emil Wirth, the father of Stepwise Refinement see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niklaus_Wirth.  David Parnas, the father of information hiding see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Parnas.  Edsger Wybe Dijkstra, the father of the principles of abstraction see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edsger_W._Dijkstra.

About Brian Lucas

In his life, Brian Lucas has been a coach, farm worker, forester, health care advocate, life guard, general contractor, mechanic, mixologist, musician/singer (in a rock group), salesman and teacher. Brian has worked as a project manager, technical marketer, methodologist, manager, software architect, systems designer, data modeler, business analyst, systems programmer, software developer and creative writer. These efforts include over a hundred hi-tech initiatives in almost every business and industrial sector as well as government and military projects. Among them, he designed and developed a quality assurance system for the first transatlantic fiber optic communications network, a manufacturing system for a large computer manufacture’s seven manufacturing centers, a data mining system for steel production, an instrumentation system for cable systems, defined requirements for government’s information systems and designed and developed human performance management systems. Brian has educated and mentored many over the years, designing programs to discover and develop talent. He has also lectured extensively to a variety of audiences. Brian is currently devoting as much time as possible to the innovation of business agility and human capital management along with the next generation of agile software development. As an amateur theoretical physicist he is working on joining general relativity and quantum mechanics through a multidimensional time corollary on string theory and negating the uncertainty principle with Louis de Broglie’s wave/particle hypothesis. He is also an avid blue-water sailor and wilderness backpacker. He enjoys billiards, boxing, chess, cooking, famous battle reenactments and war gaming, fencing, flying, gardening, horseback riding, martial arts (particularly Ninjutsu), philosophy and psychology, playing musical instruments (7 so far), poker, rapid-fire target shooting, reading (he tries to read a new book every night), painting with oils, scuba diving, skiing and recently writing novels.
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49 Responses to A Certification does not an Agilist Make

  1. Tom Gartner says:

    I have been in an agile development for over 12 years as a developer and then a scrum master. I have never seen the problem of agile development put more succinctly or logically. While I am absolutely a supporter of agile, if the kind of thinking Mr. Lucas identifies here was part of the original manifesto, agile would have been even more successful. My hat is off the him! He is a fresh voice and a giant intellect that is taking agile to a new level beyond our limited interpretation of it. Kudos!

    • Brian Lucas says:

      Thanks Tom, as always hindsight is 20/20. Although some people don’t get it even then and that is sad. I think that at this point for organizations to reap the fullest benefits of agile they must embrace it at a fundamental level. That is why I keep pressing this argument. I believe it is at the heart of enterprise efficiency in the knowledge era.

  2. Anthony says:

    Brian,
    Great topic!! I fully agree, Certification of any sort does not make you a master or qualifies you to be a “know it all” on any specific topic. To be certified is credential on your resume. How important is it? Would you want the fresh kid out of Med school to perform a valve replacement or the 15 year veteran who has the experience. They both may be “certified” who is more qualified?
    Are there any true “Masters” of anything… Aren’t all aspects of life forever changing, which makes life a constant learning experience?
    This constant change is what makes a natural Agilist more successful. He can adapt to any situation and overcome it. There is no class that can be given or test to be taken that will “certify you” for what life will throw at you.
    You need to be a “student” of any field you are in and more important life in general…

    • Brian Lucas says:

      The are so many instances of people with degrees especially MBAs bringing an organization to their knees with ideas that sound great on paper and when presented in a PowerPoint and fail utterly in practice. Most people that I have met and would readily call a MASTER are the first to call themselves an eternal student whose feet has only begun to walk the path of knowledge.

  3. Keith Williams says:

    Glad to see someone finally say this!!!! I’ve worked with too many CSMs that were completely worthless. Years ago I left a company that sent their prized project manager out to get certified in scrum. She got certified alright and then ran all the iterations just like a project manager. Anyone who disagreed with her ended up gone. Since then as a contract developer I’ve learned to build strong relationships with the users in case I get stuck with another bad CSM. And its happened more than once.

    • Brian Lucas says:

      Office politics will always bring a company down eventually. Since the beginning of the current knowledge age this process is accelerating. Companies need to begin now to reinvent themselves, flatten the organization structure by removing their hierarchy and empower teams if they want to be around a decade from now.

  4. Jack says:

    It’s been awhile since I commented Brian, but I have been a regular reader. This was a very timely article for us because we were considering additional formal training and certifications. What I understand from your article is that we would get more bang for the buck if we concentrated on helping our users to create better and more critically focused user stories. Did I get that right? Also do you have any suggestions on how to proceed. I want to take this opportunity to thank you for your blog, generously sharing your vast expertise and your patience with those of us that struggled with agile. -Jack

    • Brian Lucas says:

      Thanks Jack your comments always mean a lot to me. Give me a call and will chat about what your specifics are and how best to achieve your short term and long term goals economically.

  5. Wendel Hayes says:

    As a certified scrum master and trainer, I unfortunately have to agree with you. The training is not a complete solution and those who emphasize the process or the form over the actual outcome or substance are clearly missing the point. Still the certification has value if put in the proper context. It is unfortunate that executive management is so often clueless about technical realities they make irrational assumptions. I see the scrum training did not show the person in question cigar etiquette. One never snubs out a cigar, particularly a Padron, one allows it to extinguish gracefully in the ash tray.

    • Brian Lucas says:

      Wendel recognizing the truth is never unfortunate and I agree certifications have value in context. We need to address the funnel of agile user stories far better than we currently are. And finally you are right about cigar etiquette.

  6. Valerie Johnson says:

    Hi Brian: I take this message to heart. When I got my scrum masters certification, the CIO expected me to work miracles. Nothing else really had changed on the development team. But he had big expectations. One thing that I started doing that helped was to work with the user one on one to refactor the user stories once they were completed and again at the end of a release. It takes more time but it leads to better user stories and helps the use create a more cohesive backlog. I like the analogy with object-oriented thinking as well. I’ll have to brush up on the sources you mentioned in the footnotes. :V

    • Brian Lucas says:

      Valerie that is an excellent technique to refactor the user stories. It is one of the reasons I recommend keeping user stories very simple in the first half of iterations in a release. Assuming you have a 6 iteration release keep the first 3 iteration user stories very simple. Then use the 4th iteration to refactor those stories and develop the delta. Use iteration 5 to add the sophisticated user stories, I like to call “luster”. Finally in the 6th iteration use it as a hardening iteration for heavy continuity and performance testing.

  7. Nathan Karsch says:

    I wasn’t going to comment even though I liked the post. After reading some of the other articles, I decided I had to weigh in on what a great blog this is. There are a 1001 other low-level blogs filled with trivial nonsense about scrum. Most state the obvious. This is the FIRST blog I have seen that takes agile to a new frontier. If we all adopted Brian’s attitude about agile, we could start a revolution in business and industry. Having worked in the government sector for many years as a consultant, I would appreciate it Brian if you could address how agile and fixed government methods are compatible. Thanks for writing such a great blog. Nat

  8. Connie says:

    This was an eye opener for me, even though I got my CSM years ago. I have to admit its a valid point. If I knew back then what I know now about agile development things would have gone much smoother. It was actually a rough start. Thankfully the CIO was committed to agile. It seemed to take 2 years for me to get any real velocity from our agile teams. And better user stories were definitely a large part of that. I also like the analogy to object-oriented programming and have to say there is some validity in it since the person who was most helpful working with our users on user stories was our DBA who was actually big into designing O-O like structures in the database. Funny opening to the article as well, I thought it had a nice touch.

    • Brian Lucas says:

      Thank you Connie, I find analogies a good way to help people understand something they are not familiar with in terms of something they understand. As you point out having a committed executive sponsor is an important part of agile success.

  9. Rashid says:

    This is a good article that took some courage to post in light of all the hysteria about certifications. The author takes a reasoned and logical approach to the subject of how significant a CSM is and does it address the #1 problem with agile today.

  10. Name withheld by request says:

    I agree completely! We have far too many PMPs and CSMs running around here and they can’t do a damn thing really. Oh let me rephrase that they are great getting in your way. The PMPs think they know it all and the CSMs run around with stop watches telling you your taking too long. They are both process bigots. If they would fire all these MANAGERS, they could save a TON of money and we could actually make some progress. When is executive management going to figure out that these managers should be helping us not hindering us!!!

  11. Buckey says:

    I agree Brian a certification never really was worth the paper it was written on. It brings to mind the question and I don’t know the answer to it, maybe you do. Are truly agile enterprises likely to have more, less or the same amount of certifications than their non-agile counterparts?

  12. Jules Bergen says:

    Nice post! Brian are there some certifications that you feel are worth more than others?

  13. Flora Murchinson says:

    Brian how and where can both users and other members of the development team go to get more training on writing better user stories? Do you have any recommendations?

  14. Kurt says:

    I agree with you entirely Brian. I will take it farther even the SCM is a failed certification that doesn’t address the real needs of agile today.

  15. Alfred Eddington Sloan says:

    Telling the truth about the value of certifications is like being a salmon and swimming upstream. Someone has to do it, but I am glad it is not me. Unfortunately Brian I am sure you will find that when you tell a truth to someone who is unwilling to listen, like your friend, they will simply get up and walk away. Thanks for having the courage to broach this subject and tell the truth.

  16. GandalfG says:

    I agree this post lets some fresh air into this issue despite the cigar smoke! lol

  17. Bob Frantz, CSM says:

    Brian you nailed it EXACTLY when you said, “The hardest part of agile[13] is coming up with the correctly sized, highly encapsulated and highest value user stories in a sufficient product backlog for a development team.” I noticed you recommend Mike’s book on User Stories in your library and its a great book all agile teams including users and product managers should read it.

  18. Glen Pardee, CSM says:

    I agree completely with Brian. A CSM is not God nor the solution to a team’s lack of skills or abilities. Before someone says the word facilitator, just try and suggest that the user needs to be trainer in writing user stories and see how far you get!

  19. Shane-T says:

    A certification does NOT an agilist make! We are a midsize business and we had a perfectly good agile development process that we implemented ourselves from reading books on agile. I cut our development time to a third of what it had been and the users were very happy. We implemented it over time in our development group which numbers 10 people. We all worked together as a team. The overall IT staff is about 70. Then our CIO who was a good guy if not very aggressive technologically, decided to take an early. He was replaced by a college friend of the CEO’s, I guess I should say this is a private company. The new guy is a complete idiot who brought his prized project manager with him. She was a Certified Scrum Master alright and told us we were doing everything wrong. She took a working process and decreased productivity by at least half. Software defects also increased, but it is difficult to know hard numbers since she somehow runs the test team directly. But she has her PMP and CSM certifications hanging on the wall. We are all looking elsewhere for other jobs.
    I think these certifications are misused as often as they are useful. I have talked to many people in looking for another job and they all seem to say that people who get these kind of certifications tend to be more process and control oriented rather than flexible team players. I don’t know if that is true or not I don’t have that many years of experience and most of that was at the place I am trying to now leave. But I can testify in one case that certifications did not make the person agile!

  20. Jamal says:

    Hi Brian: I have limited funds and want to get certified in some area of IT that will help my career. Are there any certifications you recommend?

  21. Julie says:

    I agree with Brian’s point that certification in anything has not lived up to it’s expectation. I feel that while this certification process will never be ideal, it could be greatly improved. Some sort of open source effort might be the best way to solve this problem.

  22. E. Brown, Phd. says:

    Mr. Lucas your assumption that what you call agile thinking is natural to humans and process oriented thinking is learned is intriguing. Do you intent to pursue this hypothesis farther?

  23. Ellen Mathews says:

    I would not have had the courage to comment on this if other CSMs had not already done so. I felt woefully under prepared for being a scrum master in the real world after my certification. I got it early on in my career since the company I was working for paid for it. They had unrealistic expectations afterwards and thought that I would somehow know everything. The biggest issue that we did have as you wrote about was having the users write good user stories. Even when we helped craft them they didn’t seem to understand them. After three releases I left for another company that was further along in agile and it was much smoother. So I learned a lesson. I had the chance to work with a scrum master there who wasn’t certified, but he was doing scrum for over 8 years. He WAS a fountain of knowledge and just great to go to for practical advice and tips. All of which were not covered in any of my certification training. I am glad I got my certification, it helped me get my next job. It was not a panacea though.

  24. Marissa Golden says:

    Brian a technical question if you don’t mind. What are your recommendations for writing a good user story?

  25. Truant says:

    Hope the cert patrol doesn’t get ticked at you man! Your blog rocks and tells it like it is! I ain’t got time for CERT-IS-FACTION and I’m doing just fine in agile. Our team blasts out releases and the users know their stuff. No amount of creds will help if the players aren’t all there!

  26. Bridget Padley says:

    I am so reluctant to agree with your view here, since I am an CSM, but I must. Damn you! lol

  27. Wendy Grube says:

    Brian have you ever put together training programs of your own?

  28. Marty Finch says:

    You do know Brian that if any manager sees this they will never offer to pay for another certification! Not saying that’s a bad thing, but a fact of life.

  29. Gilly says:

    I agree no it doesn’t! More’s the pity!

  30. Freddy says:

    Good exchange! I am glad you posted this. Every certification I ever got wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. That doesn’t mean I am against them it just means I never saw them done right!

  31. Patrick Shay says:

    I think what you are saying is true for all certifications Brian. They help market you, they don’t actually help you with the work itself!

  32. Johann Geist says:

    What in lieu of a certification would you suggest Brian? I agree certifications are always wanting, but with what would you replace them?

  33. M. Haddad says:

    Somewhat a bold stance to take bucking the big certification. I have to agree you made a compelling argument!

  34. Heathclift says:

    I agree it doesn’t mean a thing! and its about time some one said it!

  35. Arlan Graves says:

    I have to weight in on this stream. Right now there is nothing better than a CSM program certificate. Admittedly it is far from perfect but what is the alternative. I agree that Brian has identified the big hole in the certification process and making it better is the elephant in the room that too few people are willing to talk about so thanks for airing this Brian.

  36. Frank says:

    I agree PMP or CSM just pieces of worthless papers.

  37. Rodan says:

    Not to trash PMP and CSM certificates, but I have know many a worthless person who have those certificates hanging on their wall.

  38. Connie Carge says:

    I agree with Brian entirely! I got certified before I really understood agile and I made far too many mistakes that I did not even recognize. I followed the format rigorously! Brian is showing us just how deep his understanding of agile is and his commitment to truth and integrity by posting this even though it could have gained him some backlash from those of us who are certified!

  39. Mundie says:

    I agree with Brian as well these certifications are not worth the paper they are written on. Sorry for all those who are certified.

  40. Ray Cogley says:

    I understand the point you are making Brian, and I do agree with it. I for one do not put any of the three certifications I hold after my name. I would though like to point out that the certifications are getting better all the time. I always provide feedback to the certifications bodies on what would make these certifications more meaningful. If you do not already do so, someone with your experience and ability should definitely do the same! It would help address the problem directly. Thanks for your article. I hope you post this comment!

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