Entry-level Scrum Master courses – Which one is suitable for you?

  • By Paul Beckett
  • Stories

Something I have been asked on many occasions is… “Which Scrum certification is best to go for?!“… a topic no doubt covered many times before, but here are my two pence (or two cents) worth.

Let me start by saying that a Scrum certification doesn’t make you a Scrum Master (for instance)… indeed when I recruit for Scrum Masters I am interested in experience and demonstratable skills… and the best way to develop skills is “to do”… but… a certification does provide a good foundation upon which you can understand how to “do correctly”.

There are many Scrum and Agile certifications! Foundation, Intermediate, Advanced, Scrum Master, Product Owner, Developer, Scaled, DevOps, Kanban, Coaching, other… the list goes on and on and on. You can even get certifications for being certified (but I think these might be a joke). The thoughts in this article attempt to address the general, foundation building blocks for someone wanting to develop a good understanding of the core of Scrum… the basics! This might be a person developing as Scrum Master or Product Owner, or as a Scrum Team member that wants to have a good grasp of the Scrum framework to help them be effective on a Scrum Team.

Looking at the market, there are four “popular” Scrum certification bodies that offer, what I consider to be, a core/foundation certification: 

  1. Scrum.org (PSM)
  2. Scrum Alliance (CSM)
  3. SCRUMstudy (SCM)
  4. EXIN (ASM) 

Yes, there are other Scrum orientated bodies, but for the purposes of simplicity I have focused on the ones that I see as the more popular ones that offer a core foundation/fundamental certification. 

Scrum Alliance offers CSM® (Certified ScrumMaster®)

The CSM  certification is probably the most widely recognised certification in the UK (so a very good one to go onto a UK based CV). For me, it is also one of the easiest to obtain (in terms of exam complexity). You need to attend a 2 day course (mandatory) which costs c. £700 to £1500 (including exam fee) before then going on to complete a basic multiple choice exam (if I remember correctly there are 50 questions and I think the pass mark is approx. 75%). 

The CSM is about Scrum foundation awareness and skills. The key benefit of CSM is that the mandatory in-person classroom course (or 25-hours formal coaching) develops the skills and thinking/mindset that other certifications (without in-person development) might not! Attending a CSM certification course really does expose you to some great learning facilitated by a Scrum Alliance Certified Scrum Trainer (CST). So, whilst I found the CSM the easiest to obtain (turn up to, participate in the course, and do the exam) the development exposure was great!!! I was lucky enough to do my CSM with Geoff Watts, one of the leading Agile trainers in the world… having a great trainer definitely helped me in developing further and getting the most from the course!

The Scrum Alliance development path opportunities, following CSM, are A-CSM (which requires a two-day course and goes deeper into Scrum Master skills) and then CSP-SM. The path to becoming a CSP-SM is an enriching and engaging one (I obtained my CSP-SM via Geoff Watts). In addition, Scrum Alliance offers alternative Scrum development paths such as CSPO, A-CSPO and CSP-PO for Product Owners.

Scrum.org offers PSM I (Professional Scrum Master Level I)

In my opinion, the PSM is “the daddy” of foundation Scrum certifications. Scrum.org was founded by the co-creator Scrum and the certification reflects this. The PSM focuses on knowledge held within The Scrum Guide (in fact most of the certifications use The Scrum Guide as a core reference) and you need to learn and fully understand/comprehend every line of The Scrum Guide, which is only 16 pages long, to hit the very tough 85% pass mark. 

Only 16 pages long, that is easy to learn and understand” I hear you say! No… just reading The Scrum Guide will not put you in a position to pass the exam… you will need to read books, blogs, articles, and undertake test exams to be sure to pass first time. Just like Scrum Alliance (CSM), Scrum.org offers a two-day course associated with the PSM I certification… but unlike CSM, it is not mandatory. I have not attended a PSM course so I can’t comment first-hand on them, but my perception is that they are of high quality and offer great learning opportunity from a Professional Scrum Trainer (PST).

The PSM exam is definitely the hardest of the four certifications I am summarising… and in my opinion is the best proof of foundation understanding of Scrum. When I recruit Scrum Masters, I want to see PSM and I personally favour PSM over CSM when looking at a candidate’s CV (but as I mentioned above… ultimately, I do look for much more than just certification). 

Another great benefit of PSM is that it is a low-cost way to challenge and develop yourself… as in theory, the only cost is $150 for the exam. So, a really good “North Star” focus if you are getting into Scrum and/or are looking to continuously develop when you can’t afford a course or time off of work.

Scrum.org development path opportunities following PSM include the PSM II and extremely difficult PSM III. Again, these advanced certifications don’t require mandatory courses but are very challenging and demonstrate strong awareness of Scrum.

EXIN offers ASM (Agile Scrum Master)

The ASM hits Scrum certification from a slightly different point of view. Like the others, it does look to provide the foundation understanding of Scrum but it also then looks to teach more of the “how to do Scrum”… how to deal with different Scrum stakeholders, how to roll out Scrum, etc. You will learn models such as ADAPT and “Split and Seed”. You have to do a course to certify for ASM (i.e. training is mandatory), but the course can be completed online (making it more accessible for those restricted for time). Assume c. £500 to £800 (including exam fee). 

In my opinion, to get the most out of the course and certification, it is absolutely essential to read and understand Succeeding with Agile by Mike Cohn (which I would recommend reading regardless of the ASM certification). This is the book that talks about “how to do Scrum” and much of the ASM curriculum and exam is based around it (along with other books).

The exam is 40 questions and only requires a 65% but despite the low pass requirement, it is not easy! Many of the multiple-choice questions are almost “subjective” – or at least they feel subjective. You really have to understand the models and theories that Mike Cohn and others write about! 

For me, the ASM is a good certification if you want to go wider but I wouldn’t recommend as first one you get (focus on CSM and PSM). There isn’t any development path past the ASM.

SCRUMstudy offers SMC® (Scrum Master Certified)

 SCRUMstudy also uses The Scrum Guide as it’s core source, but, and to the frustration of many Agilists, they have taken the simple and lightweight guide, and added one or two (and maybe twenty) elements to offer a free to download, comprehensive manual (referred to as SBOK® … Scrum Body of Knowledge) that breaks Scrum into well thought-out phases and processes. 

SCRUMstudy have attempted to “elaborate” on Scrum and effectively create  PRINCE2-like processes for Scrum… and if you apply a pragmatic lens, it does offer some great ideas of application of Scrum in an organisation… but care needs to be taken as the ideas may or may not be appropriate to a particular context. Furthermore, some of the ideas conflict with other opinions and Scrum references. Indeed, many Agilists will argue that SCRUMstudy have created a heavy and incorrect monster view on Scrum. But… if pragmatism is applied… the information in the SBOK can be useful. Remember… all models are wrong, but some are useful!

SCRUMstudy provide an interesting matrix as to their view on the benefits of the SBOK

The SMC certification reflects foundation Scrum knowledge AND understanding of the SBOK. So, remember it is about Scrum but within the context of the SBOK. In terms of depth and complexity, the SMC exam sits between the CSM (easier) and the PSM (harder) but is a lot less recognised from a CV point of view. Having a SMC certification on your CV would not influence recruiters.

However, the cost of the certification ($450) is good value for money because you get lots of good quality videos, the comprehensive SBOK, as well as the exam fee. Just remember that this is an elaborated version of Scrum and some of the ideas are not in keeping with The Scrum Guide.

SCRUMstudy development path opportunities following SMC are SCRUMstudy Agile Master Certified (SAMC™) and Expert Scrum Master Certified (ESMC™) however I do not see this path as deep as enriching as the path to CSP-SM or PSMIII. Consider SMC to be the focus if you opt for SCRUMstudy.

The Wrap-up…

So which one is suitable for you? Every one has pros and cons. Can you afford to do a two-day course? Can you afford not to do a two-day course? A course with a trained and experienced instructor, and the interaction with other trainees will bring learning you can’t get from reading books.

The CSM and PSM certifications are definitely the stand-out options… the CSM for its foundation building “experience”, and the PSM for its high benchmark exam.

For me, go for both the CSM and PSM. Perhaps self-learn for the PSM off the back of the CSM.

Good luck in your onward and never-ending journey towards Agility…