Vytas Butkus recently presented the value of of an Agile Coach to both the discipline of project management, as well as to the individual who wishes to enrich themselves from a career perspective. It’s a timely discussion, considering the wild and growing popularity of Agile as an approach, philosophy, and a practical way of delivering good software.

It makes perfect sense that as companies and program managers scramble to implement Agile approaches in their projects that the role of Agile Coach will be more and more valuable, since there is nothing like a gentle but firm push from a specialist to right a wayward ship, especially if in the haste to move to Agile from whatever companies were doing before, the transition was not entirely and carefully thought out. To further the maritime analogy, the need for an Agile Coach is very much like the need for a Harbor Pilot on the home stretch of a transoceanic journey to say, deliver the latest set of Nike’s from factories in China.  A Master of Oceans, 50,000 Gross Tons is more than capable of navigating the Pacific Ocean, but would never think to attempt to push through the Straits of Juan de Fuca and down into Puget Sound without handing over the helm to a specialist who knows the shifting sands of those brackish waterways as well as her own bathtub. And so the Master steps down humbly and follows the advice of the Pilot to the letter.

As Vytas implies, the project manager who has recently switched to Agile would do well to follow that lead and learn well from the Agile Coach. As he also mentions, it need not be a full time job. A little goes a long way – especially given the inherently efficient nature of the Agile framework.

As for the second part of the title ” … and How do You Become One?”, Vytas provides some practical advice,  from obtaining a certificate to stepping through the process by becoming a Scrum Master (considered the lowest run on the Agile ladder) on some projects, and working your way up. With time, you will be qualified to become a coach. It’s quite relative in this regard : If you have more experience than the project manager with Agile … you are the coach!

The Certificates and Those Behind Them

To elaborate on Vytas’ first recommendation, we can characterize the various certifying authorities to help you decide which may be the most conducive to what your own plans are as you work your way toward the Agile Coach designation in one official capacity or another. Whether or not you wish to obtain a certificate, it’s useful to get to know the certifying organizations if, for nothing else, the large number of resources and benefits you receive if you join the community itself.

Below are the main certifying bodies along with their certifications, and one should not only think of these as milestone certificates, but as the body of knowledge they represent as well as the people who are involved. Visit any of the forums associated with these organizations and you will see what I mean. If you are seriously considering obtaining a certificate, think less of it as a milestone, and more of an ongoing journey toward a deeper understanding of Agile principles.

  1. Scrum Alliance – Certified Scrum Master, Certified Scrum Product Owner, and Certified Scrum Developer. The Scrum Alliance is an organization founded 18 years ago, quite some time before Agile became especially “hot” and it can be argued that much of their activity and evangelizing over the years has contributed to the popularity of the principles used today.  The organization is quite active, with regional and global events occurring quite frequently. The organization offers three “tracks” from three different, and interesting perspectives – the “Scrum Master” (which is more of a Project Manager perspective), the “Scrum Product Owner” (those who represent the “business” stakeholders), and the “Scrum Developer” (for programmers and builders of solutions). This is a sensible approach, because as anyone knows who has spent time on actual software development projects, these divisional perspectives actually exist.  Philosophically, Agile is supposed to be warmly inclusive of all three camps, but often the business side is left out of the process. The Scrum Alliance formalizes that welcome approach and simultaneously unifies and distinguishes all three camps through separate certification tracks across a unified perspective.  If you really want to broaden your point of view and increase your capacity for empathy, you may consider getting all three! In order to become certified with this organization, you must obtain training from certified trainers, and the course prices range from around $1,000 to around $1,400. It has been said that the test, compared to the PMI and PSM tests is easier, and so some criticize the Scrum Alliance for creating a condition where a two-day paid-for course plus a relatively easy test produces a certificate with no proof of actual project management experience.
  2. Project Management Institute (PMI-ACP). The PMI is a hallowed organization that offers a portfolio of certifications, and they are by no means solely “Agile” as the Scrum Alliance is. However, their experience at developing standards over the years, and their comprehensive Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) allowed them to rapidly develop and deliver a highly respected certification named the “Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP).  This certification has become the fastest growing product in their catalog, and the organization itself recognized the power of Agile in it’s 2015 “Pulse of the Profession” report.  In contrast to the Scrum Alliance certifications, PMI certifications require a proven number of hours of actual project management experience before you qualify to take the exam.  In the case of the PMI-ACP exam, the requirement is 2,000 hours of project experience, plus 1,500 hours with projects that used Agile methodologies.  In addition there is also a 21-hour training requirement. The cost of the exam itself is $435 for members of the organization and $495 for non-members.  Most people seem to think that the PMI exam is much more difficult than the Scrum Alliance exam.
  3. Scrum.org (Professional Scrum Master 1). Scrum.org is arguably the least “commercialized” of the Scrum certifying organizations discussed in this post.  The two above have constructed multi-million dollar revenue-generating enterprises around certification and training, whereas scrum.org has not gone this route. Thus, the certification is certainly the least expensive to obtain. There is no prerequisite of experience or cost-based training, and the exam fee itself is $150.  There is also the PSM 2 and PSM 3 if you wish to continue the path of certification from this organization.  The organization has a passionate set of members who believe that the quality of the tests and body of knowledge is superior to the Scrum Alliance CSM path from the perspective of difficulty and real-world testing of knowledge and understanding of Agile and Scrum. There are even some posts on their site from people who have become certified in all three certificates (PMI, Scrum Alliance and Scrum.org) and even they say that the Scrum.org path actually taught them more than the others. Because the PSM1, 2 and 3 tests are relatively inexpensive, but relatively robust, it can be argued that if you are looking for some serious education about Agile and Scrum, that you may get the most bang for your buck, so to speak, with the Scrum.org route. Training for the PSM1, 2 and 3 exams is widely available at various costs. Udemy is arguably the best deal, since they courses are frequently discounted.

Ultimately, while a certificate is important for a job search, what is likely more important are the benefits of the community, which in all three cases you will find a rich and diverse group of people who are actively and avidly practicing Agile. It would not be appropriate or useful for me to recommend one of these three over the others, but I can say that joining at least one of the organizations and obtaining at least one of the certificates is certainly better than not, and will only enrich you from a professional, intellectual and practical perspective.  So .. research, study, join, and prosper!