The Scrum method – which is part of the Agile style of project management – has been used in software development for many years and is gaining popularity in industries like marketing and financial services. It uses short, defined periods of time, called sprints, to get a project done in pieces.
Scrums are led by Scrum masters, who do not wield control over project team members like a traditional manager who has hiring, firing and salary power. They have to use different methods.
“Their only tools are persuasion, insight, teaching and coaching,” says Timothy Korson, senior partner at QualSys Solutions and the lead Scrum instructor for Georgia Tech Professional Education. “When a team is convinced of the way to do something and can see for themselves, it’s a lot more powerful than just doing what the boss tells them to do.”
Traditionally, a project manager is responsible for the success or failure of a project, says Larry Apke, expert Scrum master at Pacific Gas & Electric Company and chief Agile officer at The Job Hackers, a San Francisco-area nonprofit he co-founded that provides free training for unemployed people. “In the Scrum team, the people doing the work are the ones responsible for the work,” Apke says. “That’s one of the main differences.”
A Scrum master certification is important for anyone who plans to work in that role, no matter the industry.
“I can’t imagine a serious company putting someone in a Scrum master position without their certificate,” Korson says.
A certification often becomes a baseline for employers, like a bachelor’s degree.
“These certifications don’t tell me whether you can do the job or not,” Apke says. “But you can’t get a job without them.”
There are several Scrum master certifications available and plenty of disagreement about which ones are most important. For entry-level certification, some favor the better known Certified ScrumMaster, or CSM, certification. Others pursue the newer Professional ScrumMaster, or PSM, or the Agile Certified Practitioner, or ACP.
There are also more advanced certifications available from most of the same organizations that offer entry level ones.
Here is a look at the variety of certifications offered for Scrum master:
The PSM certification was developed by Ken Schwaber. He was a co-creator of the Scrum framework in the mid-1990s and helped start the Scrum Alliance before leaving in 2009 to start Scrum.org and create the PSM.
The only requirement of the PSM is to pass the test, but it isn’t easy and usually requires preparation classes taught by certified instructors. There are three levels: PSM I, PSM II and PSM III. The PSM I certification signifies that you have demonstrated a fundamental level of Scrum mastery, according to Scrum.org.
Apke, who leads PSM training classes through The Job Hackers, says the PSM is more rigorous than the CSM and is becoming better known in the business world. “For me, there is a lot more value in the PSM,” Apke says.
There are more than 340 professional Scrum trainers worldwide who can help you prepare for the test. They use the same courses and materials, which helps maintain consistency. Training classes by Scrum.org also include a free practice test.
The PSM I test costs $150, and there is no renewal requirement from Scrum.org. However, there are opportunities to advance your knowledge, including:
- The PSM II, which tests your ability to apply the Scrum framework to complex, real-world problems. $250.
- The PSM III, which tests your understanding of Scrum and whether you can coach and mentor people or teams adopting Scrum. $500.
Other Scrum.org certifications include:
- Professional Scrum Product Owner, which has three levels.
- Professional Scrum Developer.
- Scaled Professional Scrum.
- Professional Agile Leadership.
The CSM is the best known of the entry-level certifications. It was developed by the Scrum Alliance in 2002, seven years before the PSM.
Before you take the CSM you must:
- Attend a course led by a Certified Scrum Trainer, or CST, or receive one-on-one coaching from a Certified Agile Coach, or CAC.
- Receive 14 hours of online or 16 hours of in-person training with a CST, or 25 hours of interaction with a CAC.
Costs of the course, coaching and tests vary, ranging from about $700 to $1,300. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, there are many online options and some at a discount. By signing up for a course, you receive course materials and a two-year membership to the Scrum Alliance.
The CSM has the most rigorous curriculum and vetting process for certifying instructors, says Korson, who is a CST.
“From the Scrum Alliance, you will get a trainer who is very experienced,” Korson says. “Each one is allowed to use their experience to craft their own material.”
Once you pass the course and earn your certification, you need to earn 20 hours of Scrum Education Units to maintain your CSM certification, which must be renewed every two years. There’s also a $100 administrative fee.
Advanced certifications available through Scrum Alliance include:
- Advanced Certified ScrumMaster.
- Certified Scrum Professional ScrumMaster.
- Certified Scrum Product Owner.
- Certified Scrum Developer.
- Certified Scrum Professional.
Agile Certified Practitioner
The Agile Certified Practitioner, or ACP, certification is offered through the Project Management Institute, or PMI, the top association for project managers and best known for its Project Management Professional certification.
According to PMI, the ACP is the organization’s fastest-growing certification because of the rise in Agile project management. The certification covers Agile approaches such as Scrum, Kanban, Lean, test-driven development and extreme programming.
The ACP certification is likely more important in organizations that have a more traditional project management structure and are moving toward agility, rather than Agile-based organizations, Korson says.
Before you can take the ACP, you need to have a secondary degree, 21 hours of Agile training, 12 months of general project experience in the past five years, and eight months of Agile experience in the past three years.
The exam is $435 for members and $495 for nonmembers. To keep your ACP, you need to earn 30 Professional Development Units, or PDUs, every three years in Agile topics.
Scaled Agile Framework, or SAFe, is a leader in enterprise – or large-scale – agility and offers several certifications, including the SAFe ScrumMaster, or SSM.
The course differs from more conventional Scrum master courses and certifications because it focuses on the Scrum master’s role within the entire organization, instead of just facilitating a team. Participants will learn how to plan and deliver on the program increment – which has to do with the objectives of Agile teams during their sprint cycle and is a vital part of a SAFe organization.
To get the certification, you must participate in a two-day course. It’s best if you are familiar with Agile concepts and principles, understand software and hardware development and are aware of Scrum, Kanban and extreme programming.
Courses range from about $700 to $1,200 and are available online.
Participants receive course materials, a study guide and practice test. When you earn certification, you receive a one-year membership to the SAFe Community Platform and other digitally based benefits, such as learning resources.
Participants must take at least 10 PDUs each year to renew the certification.
Additional courses include the SAFe Advanced Scrum Master, which also requires a two-day course before an exam.
The type of Scrum master certification for you depends on your role in your organization and team. It might also be contingent on the funds available at your company or personally.
Ultimately, it depends on what the organization you’re with wants you to get – and is willing to pay for – or what your prospective employer prefers.
“If you are a project manager and your organization is moving more toward agility, they’re going to send you to some Agile training of their choice,” Korson says.
The Scrum Alliance has a strong reputation in the industry, Korson says. Its variety of certifications can be valuable for managers on various levels, and the CSM can be seen as just an introductory course for Scrum leaders.
He recommends that every member of a Scrum team earn the CSM certification. This will help them understand how Scrum works and what is expected of them.
Scrum leaders should pursue the Advanced Scrum Master certificate, he says.
“If you are a Scrum master you need to know not only what a Scrum master should do, but how to do it,” Korson says.
If an organization is fully dedicated to Agile project management, managers could pursue the Certified Scrum Product Owner certification. The Scrum Alliance’s Certified Agile Leader certifications are available for executives, such as ones who need to change policies and procedures in a company moving to Agile project management, Korson says.
The cost of Scrum master certifications depends on whether the certification test is based on a course or priced on its own.
For example, the CSM and SSM certifications both require participants to sign up for a two-day class that can cost several hundred dollars to more than $1,000. The costs for the CSM add up over time, as renewal is $100 every two years plus ongoing coursework.
The ACP costs almost $500 for nonmembers and $435 for members.
The PSM is the most affordable in the short and long term – it costs $150 for the test, and does not require renewal.
“I would never tell anyone paying with their own money to get a CSM when they can get a PSM,” Apke says.
The fast track to certification is to enroll in a two-day course that precedes a test.
For example, the CSM has no prerequisites, so anyone can sign up for the course and have a chance to pass it. In contrast, you need to show project management experience – especially in Agile – to take the ACP.
Anyone can take the PSM, but pretest coursework is a good idea because it’s difficult to pass the test without preparation. Scrum.org offers a two-day course that includes a free practice test, and there are other training opportunities.
For people in career transition, The Job Hackers offers a free six-week class, three hours a week to prepare for the PSM. Apke says most participants would be ready for the test after the first three weeks. They’re also asked to study outside of class time, including practice exams.
The PSM certification “is not a huge investment but your return can be big because you won’t get a Scrum master job without it,” Apke says.
Salaries for Scrum masters vary quite a bit across the country, based on cost of living and local demand for the position. For example, a Scrum master likely earns more than $100,000 in Silicon Valley, and an expert Scrum master might attain twice that amount, Apke says.
Companies in larger cities, such as Chicago, might also pay Scrum masters around $100,000, with higher rates for more experience
Experience is vital: An entry-level Scrum master could earn 25% less than the average, while a highly experienced Scrum master might earn just as much or more than the average.
If you want to build a career as a Scrum master, at least one certification – if not several, possibly at higher levels at the same organization – is ideal.
“It’s an imperfect way to do it, but certainly the right thing to do for your career if you’re employed and want to make more money and move up in your career,” Apke says.
The need for Agile and Scrum will increase as the number of knowledge workers continues to climb. “This is where Scrum excels,” Apke says.
Employers require certifications if employees are looking to – or need to – work in Agile project management.
“You’ve got to at least have the basics,” Korson says.
If you want to start a career as a Scrum master, it’s best to look around your company to see which areas are looking to start Scrum and get trained. It’s very difficult to get hired as a Scrum master from the outside, Korson says.
Software development is the most common industry that uses Scrum. According to Korson, others include:
- Anything that software touches, such as cameras, automobiles and copiers.
- Financial institutions, such as ones that want to change to team-based sales from individual sales.
- Marketing, such as at integrated agencies.
The principles of empowering a team, and getting and providing rapid feedback are applicable to many industries, Korson says. But not all of them use Scrum well – they might just adopt some of the terminology and structure but don’t make changes that empower teams and change procedures.
That’s why it’s so important for the leadership of a company to get trained on Scrum principles as well, he says.