Scrum Certifications — Don’t overlook PSM


When working with organization, mostly when giving Scrum training, I often get asked about certifications. And while I fundamentally disagree with the obsession that certain P&O departments have with certifications, they do have a certain merit.

In the Netherlands there seems to be a focus on the CSM (Certified Scrum Master) certification by the Scrum Alliance. And generally that is the one my students ask about. And I agree CSM is very good indeed. The trainers need to be certified to give the training so they tend to be really good. I have worked with a number of Certified Scrum Trainers and they are great. So, no objections against CSM at all. But, I tend to prefer a lesser known certification: PSM (Professional Scrum Master).

Where CSM is a certification by the Scrum Alliance, PSM is offered which was founded by Ken Schwaber. Ken is one of the original forces behind Scrum so this is not a shady organization. Even though these are two different certifications, they have a lot in common:

• Fundamentally test knowledge (theoretical) of Scrum, plus some insight into the philosophy behind Scrum and the way to use it
• Are granted based on an on-line, open book, multiple choice exam
• Do not really require practical experience (but it helps)

So, they seem to be roughly interchangeable in what they certify and how they do it. But there are a few differences:

• CSM requires a course by a Certified Scrum Trainer, the exam is almost an afterthought. Typical costs are around $2000 per person. This means the level of the training is great, but it gives less flexibility. PSM has no such requirement, you can use any training you want (at your own risk) or take the exam if you think you already know all there is to know
• CSM requires 25 out of 35 questions to be answered correctly (71%), PSM requires 68 out of 80 questions to be answered correctly (85%)
• CSM has no time limit and can be continued at any time. PSM has a time limit of 60 minutes and questions need to be answered in a single session,
• CSM exam is included in the Scrum course, PSM exam is charged separately ($150)
• CSM is valid for 2 years and then requires renewal ($250), PSM remains valid

So, CSM is clearly more expensive. But is it better? Not in my mind. The exam for PSM is harder so you need to be at a higher level of competence to get PSM. It is true that you are dependent on the level of the trainer when going for PSM, which is almost guaranteed with CSM. But there are a lot of good trainers around. And if you can’t find one, contact me!

So, if I were in a P&O position, I would rather hire a PSM than a CSM. But to be honest, neither of those guarantee that the holder of the certification is a good Scrum Master. There is a real difference between knowledge of the theory and using that effectively in the real world. This is why am a big believer in experience-based certifications such as the Agile Master certification by the Agile Consortium, but that is something for a future blog.