With the rise of agile, there’s a growing demand for scrum masters with the qualifications to help teams perform at their best.
And sure: no piece of paper can substitute for real-world experience. But it can show employers you’ve taken an active role in your agile education. As an employer myself, I can tell you that candidates with scrum master certifications often come out on top.
So let’s talk about how to get certified—and the best types of credentials to go for.
If you already have a good idea of scrum and the definition of a scrum master, jump ahead to the breakdown of scrum master certifications and costs. Otherwise, the following quick rundown of scrum will give you the context you need to understand the different kinds of scrum master certifications available today.
What is a scrum master? Why do companies need them?
Scrum is a framework for software development. It describes a desired outcome—continuous, incremental product improvement—and offers the team structure and planning guidelines suited to handle the task.
But there’s no hierarchy of titles, as there were in waterfall. Everyone is in charge of regulating their own workflow, and as a whole, the team works together to complete the sprint as fast and well as possible. At the end of each sprint (a one- to four-week working period), the team ships incremental improvements.
So who does what?
Though there are no titles in the traditional sense, there are assigned roles: the scrum master, the product owner, and the development team. Each team member has a crucial responsibility.
For the purposes of this post, we’ll summarize that the product owner prioritizes the tasks of development, development team figures out how to approach and deliver on the tasks, and the scrum master takes charge of making sure the tasks are realistic. If improvement doesn’t happen or problems appear, the scrum master takes a leading (but objective) role in helping the team figure out their next move.
There’s a lot more to it. Learn more from this deeper dive on the scrum master’s role within the team.
Why get a scrum master certification?
Agile wasn’t a thing 20 years ago. Scrum master certifications have sprung up in response to the need for folks who really know their stuff in this relatively new landscape.
And as I said, certification can put you on the map for employers sifting through dozens of applications. From candidates themselves, I’ve heard a few reasons for pursuing it:
- I don’t want to give companies an easy reason to put my resume in the “no” pile.
- I’ve got management experience elsewhere and want to enter software development.
- I have been practicing scrum, agile, or kanban for years, and want to fill in some knowledge-gaps or signal my experience in some concrete way.
- I’ve already completed foundational scrum training and I’m ready to move on to advanced.
Sound like you?
Whether it’s a foot in the door or a step up the ladder, a certification will help you establish yourself within the greater scrum community. You can even meet and exchange ideas with fellow scrum experts from all over the world.
How to get certified as a scrum master?
There are a few formal certification programs out there. In this section I’ll lay out the industry’s three most widely recognized certifications, how they differ, and what you need to know before getting started.
1. Certified Scrum Master® (CSM®) from Scrum Alliance
Scrum Alliance is a nonprofit that has certified more than 750,000 individuals in its quest to grow and educate the scrum community.
Along with the Certified Scrum Master certification (CSM), the organization offers credentials for product owners and developers—as well as more advanced certifications for scrum masters including A-CSM and SCP-SM. But CSM is the intro course.
Steps to become a CSM:
- Register for and attend a 16-hour course. These courses are taught by certified trainers and require in-person attendance.
- Complete a 50-question CSM test. The test takes 60 minutes and requires 37 of 50 correct answers (74%) for a passing grade.
- Accept a CSM License Agreement and create a Scrum Alliance membership profile.
What’s the best way to prep for the CSM exam?
- Review materials from the two-day course and the Scrum Guide.
- Take mock CSM exams online.
- Course fees: average $800-1300. This includes two free attempts at the test but not travel or lodging.
- Test fees: included with course fees. However, if you fail the test twice within 90 days of completing the course, you pay $25 to take it again.
- Renewal fees: $100 every two years.
What else do you need to know?
The course cost is largely based on the popularity of the instructor: each has a different pedagogy. But all students take away an equal understanding of scrum fundamentals and how to implement them within the team and the company.
2. Professional Scrum Master™ Certification (PSM I) from Scrum.org
Scrum.org offers three Professional Scrum Master certifications: PSM I, II, and III. But even earning the entry-level PSM I is no small feat.
There are no required courses to pay for or attend—just an exam. But many people who take the PSM I choose to attend in-depth seminars in preparation.
The assessment itself has 80 true/false, multiple choice, and multiple answer questions and you don’t have long to complete them. So although the test is open book—people can take it when and where they want—there isn’t really time to browse for answers.
Steps to become a PSM I:
- Register for the PSM I assessment. You will be emailed a password that doesn’t expire until you take the test.
- Complete the assessment. You have 60 minutes from the time you begin and need to answer 68 of 80 questions correctly (85%).
- If you pass, your PSM I certification will be visible through Scrum.org.
What’s the best way to prep for the PSM I exam?
- Read, re-read and understand the Scrum Guide.
- Take the Open Assessments offered by Scrum.org until you score 100% consistently. Learn from the feedback provided on incorrect answers.
- Course fees: none required, though enrolling in either the Professional Scrum Foundations or Professional Scrum Master is recommended.
- Test fees: $150 per attempt.
- Renewal fees: none. Scrum.org certifications are lifelong.
What else do you need to know?
The instruction you receive during a PSM I training course is standardized. This means that there is less variation among instructors than CSM courses.
3. PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP)® from Project Management Institute
Becoming an Agile Certified Practitioner through the Project Management Institute requires prior experience, unlike the previous two certifications. Also, continuing education is necessary to maintain a PMI-ACP.
To be eligible to sit for the exam, applicants must have 2,000 hours of general project experience, an additional 1,500 hours working on agile teams or with agile methodologies, and 21 contact hours of training in agile practices.
But it’s worth it. A PMI-ACP certification demonstrates broad understanding of agile, scrum, and other neighboring methodologies like lean and kanban, extreme programming (XP), and test-driven development (TDD). Even though the PMI-ACP is not scrum master-specific, it is recognized and valued within the scrum community.
Steps to become a PMI-ACP:
- Complete the PMI-ACP Exam Prep Course. This satisfies the requirement for 21 contact hours.
- Submit a PMI-ACP application. The PMI will review and respond within three to five business days.
- Complete the exam within one year of approval. You will have three hours to complete 120 questions, of which 100 are scored.
What’s the best way to prep for the PMI-ACP exam?
- Review the PMI-ACP Handbook.
- Access PMI-ACP prep courses, study guides, podcasts and videocasts. Many are free.
- Answer sample questions and take mock PMI-ACP exams.
Cost breakdown for becoming PMI-ACP:
- Membership fee: $139 for new members. Membership must be renewed annually, but it offers discounts on test and renewal fees.
- Course fees: To earn 21 contact hours, you have the option of online, live, and hybrid classes. Online courses tend to be more affordable, but either way, you should budget a few hundred dollars to meet this requirement. Pricing varies according to any extras, like course materials, you need.
- Test fees: $495. Or $435 with PMI membership.
- Renewal fees: $150 every three years, or $60 with PMI membership. To renew, you must accrue 30 professional development units every three years.
What else do you need to know?
Clearly, there are more strings attached to the PMI-ACP than to the other scrum master certifications. If you have worked and plan on continuing work in agile, though, none of these requirements are especially onerous—and your company might pick up the tab.
Which scrum master certification is best?
For folks who want to adopt or even help develop agile practices, each scrum master certification offers its own path to education, professional development, and connections with the global scrum network. But which path to take?
Compared to the PMI-ACP, the CSM and PSM I are much easier to acquire. Don’t forget, though, that the latter two open doors to more advanced certifications—and don’t necessarily preclude someone from eventually taking their PMI-ACP. Both credentials are excellent stepping stones on the path toward scrum mastery.
The best way forward is to learn more about each certifying body. Read their blogs, listen to their podcasts, see what sort of future they envision. Whose values best align with your company and goals? What other companies use their certifications?
The organizations in charge of these credentials prioritize different aspects of agile. And remember: scrum master certification is as much about joining a specific community as it is about gaining a visible cert.
Which might leave you wondering: is there any reason not to?
Here’s what I’d say to a manager looking to justify the investment.
The case for scrum master certification
Yes. I am aware of the haters who say certifications are bunk.
There are more than a few online screeds written by folks who are dissatisfied by the scrum credentialing process that’s evolved in the last decade. Best summed up as, We got along just fine without it!
Of course it wasn’t always this way. But neither were things like medicine.
As any field progresses, new roles and knowledge banks are formalized. It should be no surprise that scrum, a process framework dedicated to constant improvement, has quickly engendered a formal community and system of education.
After all, you get out of scrum what you put into it. Without a standard way to put repeatable scrum ideas into practice, you won’t get great results. There’s too much at stake for your scrum team to rely on anything but a common language when navigating the challenges of agile.
Also, the reality is that scrum goes against the grain of top-down management. If companies adopt scrum in piecemeal fashion, or fall back on traditional principles midway through a sprint, the team loses its ability to adapt and change.
Then the product backlog becomes more of a ball-and-chain than a road map, and the company is back to where they started: dreadfully behind schedule. Which brings us back to the importance of someone with the explicit role of keeping the scrum team oriented.
How to negotiate the unique pressures faced by individual scrum teams isn’t something you can learn from a book. That said, certifications provide a good starting point and the necessary background knowledge for scrum masters to then get their hands dirty within a team.
Agile is not easy, and that’s why the scrum master role has emerged. But so has the opportunity to gain the knowledge, skillset, and confidence necessary to get results from each and every sprint.
And when trouble rears its head, a certified scrum master has access to an active community of knowledge and support.