Everything You Need to Know About Becoming a Certified Scrum Master

In an ever-evolving job market, knowing which credentials will impress hiring managers is almost as valuable as your degree, experience level, and networking capabilities. Job seekers currently applying for positions related to software development and similar disciplines know how crucial it is to prove their knowledge and skills involving Agile and Scrum practices. During the past decade, demand for Scrum Master training and certifications has increased substantially.

To be effective, Scrum Masters need to understand Scrum concepts and practices extremely well, which is one reason why employers want proof of qualifications before hiring Scrum Masters. Certifications help solve the verification issue, and consequently are in demand. But which certifications are best for Scrum Masters? This article has the details you need to make an informed decision. We’ll explain why some organizations and certifications are valued more than others, offer advice about employer preferences, and deliver comparative details about prices, tests, and training options.

Origins of Scrum and Associated Organizations

It’s important to note that one of the primary reasons some organizations have more weight and credibility within the technology industry is because they have direct ties to one or more of the early developers of Scrum and Agile.
 
Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber worked together to develop Scrum in the early 1990s, which led to their 1995 paper titled SCRUM Software Development Process. Schwaber and Sutherland actually inherited the name “Scrum” from a 1986 paper written by Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka, who decided to use the term based on the game of rugby and the way team members work together from start to finish, passing the ball back and forth while moving up the field together. Using this approach in software development, small multidisciplinary teams could interact and improve their work together using objectives rather than a list of controlled tasks.
  
According to the Scrum Guides website, “Scrum has been adopted by a vast amount of software development companies around the world.” Scrum has also been used in education, manufacturing, marketing, operations, and other fields.
 
Scrum Alliance, Scrum.org, and Scrum Inc. are well-respected by Scrum Masters seeking certifications and additional training. Another highly regarded organization is PMI (Project Management Institute), which issues certifications related to Scrum and several other Agile subsets.
 
Other organizations, such as the International Consortium for Agile (ICAgile) and Scaled Agile Academy, are becoming familiar to more people, but they simply don’t yet have as much influence as the previously mentioned organizations do.

Key Factors to Consider When Evaluating Scrum Master Certifications

Employers often favor particular certifications. Understanding the reasons behind these preferences will help you sail through the screening processes when applying for a Scrum Master role. We asked a couple of experienced professionals for their advice.

Linda Cook, Scrum Master for a Blue Cross and Blue Shield regional office, obtained her PMI-ACP (Project Management Institute-Agile Certified Practitioner) certification from a PMI program offered through her employer. The training she received is more intense than other available programs, and the in-depth certification test can take up to three hours to complete, but the credibility associated with PMI makes this type of certification desired by employers. Cook recommends pursuing the PMI-ACP certification after you already have a couple years of Scrum experience.
 
Cook also has a CSPO (Certified Scrum Product Owner) certification from Scrum Alliance. CSPO is one of the certifications that industry experts recommend to professionals who have just started the process of building a list of Scrum-related certifications. People researching entry-level Scrum Master certifications often have questions about whether they should pursue CSM or CSPO certifications or both.
 
“Really, they relate to different roles,” Cook said. The Scrum Master role involves the technical side of projects, while the product owner role involves the business side. For example, Cook is part of a team that includes six to seven IT software development professionals, one product owner and one Scrum Master. At the regional office where she works, there may be as many as 20 of these teams, all working on different projects.

Plan to obtain your initial certification and subsequent certifications from credible organizations that offer quality training. The organizations mentioned earlier are well-respected, and offer a level of training that is worth far more than a mere certification test. That level of training will carry more weight with potential employers.
 
Robert Key, senior technical project manager for BlueHornet and senior associate faculty for the University of Phoenix, agreed and recommended reviewing which organizations and certifications have solid track records and are already well-known in the technology industry. Key has several certifications from Scrum Alliance and PMI, including CSM, CSPO and PMI-ACP, as well as Certified Scrum Professional (CSP) and Project Management Professional (PMP).

In addition to choosing certifications associated with credible organizations, Cook and Key offered the following points to consider:

  • Show your commitment to continuous learning: Companies will notice you are committed to continuous learning when you take the initiative to obtain Scrum and Agile-related certifications. This level of motivation is a personality trait that companies like to see in Scrum Masters.
  • Help strengthen team continuity: Comprehensive training and PMI-ACP certification tests establish a level of continuity among team members. Target the companies you want to work for and find a way to meet with a Scrum Master or IT team member from each company. The information you discover from these sources will help you decide what type of training and certifications to pursue. Plus, you’ll be strengthening your networking skills, which is another effective way to land a desired position at a specific company.
  • Be selective and stay current: Make sure your certifications demonstrate that you are strategically building your knowledge base in certain areas rather than simply collecting acronyms. You don’t want to portray yourself as someone that doesn’t have the focus needed to specialize in specific areas.

Comparison of Scrum Master Certifications From Well-Known Organizations

As you continue to evaluate certifications and the organizations issuing them, keep in mind what stage you are at within your career. For entry-level positions that require an appropriate foundation based on Agile and Scrum, many experts usually recommend either the CSM or CSPO certification from Scrum Alliance or the Professional Scrum Master I (PSM I) certification from Scrum.org. Typically these are the most recommended because they are the types of certifications many human resource representatives and hiring managers expect. 

Here is a comparative summary of the top certifications and courses for Scrum Masters, along with details about pricing, tests, and training options.

 

Scrum Alliance

The most well-known organization for issuing entry-level Scrum certifications and the original Scrum-focused group that started it all. 
 
Price – To receive your CSM or CSPO certification from Scrum Alliance, you’ll need to attend a two-day training course and take the associated test. CSM and CSPO courses are priced anywhere from $1,000 to as much as $2,000 for classes taught by a popular instructor, such as the sessions Jeff Sutherland teaches through his Scrum Inc. company. Courses for other Scrum Alliance certifications, such as Certified Scrum Developer (CSD), are more expensive and require more time.
 
Renewal – CSM, CSPO, and CSD certifications must be renewed every two years for a fee of $100, but there isn’t a continuing education requirement for these three certifications. If you have more than one of these certifications, you can renew them at the same time using what Scrum Alliance refers to as the “Combined Certified ScrumMaster and Certified Scrum Product Owner and/or Certified Scrum Developer” option. 
 
Other Scrum Alliance certifications have different renewal specifics. For example, to renew a Certified Scrum Professional (CSP) certification, you must complete 40 Scrum Education Units (SEUs) during the two-year renewal cycle and pay a fee of $250. If applicable, this fee also renews your CSM, CSPO and/or CSD certifications. 

For more information about SEUs, the certifications we mentioned, or to see the requirements for the Certified Enterprise Coach (CEC) and Certified Scrum Trainer (CST) certifications, visit the renewals section of the Scrum Alliance website.
 
Pros and Cons – The Scrum Alliance name and certifications are widely recognized, which creates an advantage for people who list the organization on their LinkedIn profiles or resumes. 

Scrum Alliance courses are taught all over the world, and its long list of instructors include several who come highly recommended. For example, Mike Cohn is a co-founder of Scrum Alliance and well-known within the industry. He is a popular instructor who teach courses for Scrum Alliance and his own business, Mountain Goat Software.

Scrum Alliance has undergone changes in the past few years in response to the criticism it received regarding how it used to issue certifications. Prior to 2012, Scrum Alliance didn’t require certification tests; everyone who attended a two-day course for CSM or CSPO, for example, automatically received their associated certification.
 
Some industry professionals disagreed with this form of certification because it produced colleagues who didn’t take the courses or certification seriously. Scrum Alliance has addressed these issues by introducing, what they call, “an assessment factor,” and by requiring course attendees to take an online test within 90 days to receive the certification.
 
People also have criticized the inconsistency of materials received in Scrum Alliance courses and emphasize that the training isn’t always as effective as when attendees are able to take the courses taught by the top-tier instructors. Instead, critics say Scrum Alliance should follow the example set by Scrum.org and standardize their courses.

Scrum.org

Although Scrum.org was founded eight years after Scrum Alliance and has issued thousands fewer certifications in comparison, Scrum.org is also very well-known and respected among industry professionals. Available certifications from Scrum.org include: Professional Scrum Master I(PSM I), Professional Scrum Master II (PSM II), Professional Scrum Product Owner (PSPO), Professional Scrum Foundations (PSF), and Scaled Professional Scrum (SPS).
 
Price – PSM I is the entry-level certification from Scrum.org. There are two ways to obtain it. One, you can study the materials Scrum.org recommends and pay $150 to take the PSM I Assessment within the 60-minute time limit. Or two, you can take the PSM course, which is directly linked to two associated certifications: PSM I and PSM II.
 
Make a decision about these two certifications in advance because it could affect the amount of money you pay overall. Although the PSM I test costs $150, the PSM II test is more expensive at $500. If you pay for and complete the PSM course (yes, there is only one course that covers material for both PSM I and II tests), you will be given a password to take the PSM I test at no extra charge and be eligible to take the PSM II test at a discounted rate of $300.
 
The PSM course is taught in several countries; the price to attend one of these two-day courses in the U.S. ranges from $995 to $1,695. More advanced courses, such as the three-day Professional Scrum Developer (PSD) course, are more expensive.
 
Renewal – There are no costs to renew Scrum.org certifications. According to the support section of its website, “Scrum.org certificates are lifelong and do not require any additional payments or renewals.”

Pros & Cons – Many within the industry prefer the training taught by Scrum.org because its courses are standardized to maintain uniform consistency. Scrum.org designs its programs to help you advance from a novice to an experienced user during a certain number of years. 

Scrum.org also assures customers that all Scrum.org instructors teach courses by following the same defined curriculum for each particular certification so that all attendees learn the same core content.
 
Another benefit of Scrum.org certifications is that Microsoft uses the PSM I assessment to validate knowledge as part of its Silver and Gold Application Lifecycle Management (ALM) competencies.

Project Management Institute (PMI)

Although PMI doesn't offer specific Scrum certifications, its PMI-ACP certification is popular among Scrum Masters and employers because it covers several Scrum practices, as well as other Agile approaches.
 
Price – The cost to take the exam is $435 for PMI members and $495 for non-members. PMI cautions against taking the exam lightly and advises, “Regardless of your experience and education, you should still prepare vigorously for the exam. Successful candidates will typically use multiple study aids including courses, self-study and study groups.”
 
Renewal – PMI-ACP certification holders must earn 30 professional development units (PDUs) involving Agile topics every three years to renew the certification.

Pros & Cons – Some Scrum professionals appreciate that the PMI-ACP certification takes into account the real-world experience they already have. Even so, the prerequisites for the PMI-ACP certification exam are very advanced compared to entry-level Scrum Master certification tests. 

To take the exam, you must have 21 contact hours of training in Agile practices, as well as 2,000 hours of general project experience. A current PMP (Project Management Professional) or PgMP (Program Management Professional) certification will satisfy this requirement but is not required to apply for the PMI-ACP. In addition to the 2,000 hours requirement, you must have 1,500 hours of experience working on Agile project teams or with Agile methodologies.

Other Certification Options

Several organizations primarily focus on Agile rather than specifically teaching Scrum practices. However, the following groups include a couple options for Scrum Masters to consider.

International Consortium for Agile (ICAgile)ICAgile provides Agile certifications that are designed to encompass various roles and expertise levels in Agile subsets, including Scrum. The organization offers various certification levels, which it categorizes as Professional, Expert, and Master.
 
Its ICAgile Certified Professional (ICP) certification has been gaining ground among people looking for certifications to add to their resumes and online profiles, but the organization doesn’t offer many courses involving information directly related to Scrum. Of the U.S. courses, we found the Agile Project Management with Scrum course listed with the ICP certification and a cost of $2,650 for a three-day course.
 
Scaled Agile AcademyScaled Agile Academy is focused on Agile operations at large software enterprises, and its courses and certifications reflect that focus. It refers to its knowledge base as the Scaled Agile Framework V4.0 (SAFe), which  is designed for “implementing Lean-Agile software and systems development at enterprise scale.”
 
Of the courses offered, the only one we could find that included a Scrum-related certification is the course named SAFe 4.0 Advanced Scrum Master course with SASM certification. The two-day seminar is priced from $1,395 to $1,495.

Considerations When Choosing a Scrum Master Certification

Now that Scrum Master certifications are popular and directly related to top-paying professions, scams and poor imitations have become part of the online landscape. This has resulted in several questionable groups promoting themselves by offering to help people obtain their certification for a fee.
 
Scrum Alliance is well aware of the problem and has included some guidelines and a comparison table to help people perform their own analysis. The following list includes the questions Scrum Alliance suggests you research before trusting any organization that claims to have the type of certifications you need.

  • How long has the organization existed?
  • How many individuals has the organization certified?
  • Are the certifications provided recognized by employers?
  • Are the courses and trainers near you?
  • Is there a progressive path of education, both certification-related and otherwise?
  • Is it an organization that puts practitioners over profits?
  • Are there opportunities to connect with others interested in Scrum?
  • What resources are there after you’re certified?
  • Does the organization give back to the Scrum community by sponsoring events and user groups?

Books and Other Resources

Another way to prepare yourself for certification tests and expand your knowledge base as a Scrum Master, is to review which books other Scrum professionals recommend.
 

Why Scrum Masters Use Smartsheet to be More Effective

Smartsheet is a spreadsheet-inspired task and project management tool with powerful collaboration and communication features. By providing a broad range of smart views – Grid, Calendar, Gantt, Dashboards – Smartsheet works the way you want. 

Our newest view, Card View, gives Agile teams a more highly-visual way to work, communicate, and collaborate in Smartsheet. Card View enables you to focus attention with rich cards, give perspective with flexible views, and prioritize and adjust work more visually.

Display information on cards including custom fields, images, and color coding to better focus your team’s attention. Categorize cards into lanes to organize your work more visually. Intuitively change lanes and filter cards to see the flow of work from multiple perspectives. Act on tasks and change status of work by dragging and dropping cards through lanes to immediately share decisions with the entire team. Start with a pre-built template for your  project type, or import existing projects directly from Trello. 

See how easy it can be to use Smartsheet Card View during your next Scrum meeting. Try Card View with your team for free for 30 days. 

Manage Your Project in Smartsheet

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