By now I am guessing that most people have heard of the Agile Certified Practitioner, or PMI-ACP, the newest certification program from PMI. I was excited when I first learned of it because I have been very interested in agile methods and projects. Plus, frankly I like the idea of getting another credential which will help set me apart, especially in an area that is exciting and growing like agile.
Why did PMI create the certification? As a professional organization, they have a good track record with providing rigor around PM certification. They are credible and probably the best positioned to bring some standardization to what is now a relative young and inconsistent field. Prior to this there was not a single best agile certification. The most popular previous certification was probably the certified scrum master (CSM) and that is: 1) unique to scrum and 2) so easy to achieve to be almost meaningless in the industry.
Obviously another reason that PMI created the new PMI-ACP certification is to capitalize on the growth and popularity of agile. It would be hard for PMI to continue to ignore agile methods given the growth of agile and the increasing percieved divide between those agile methods and the PMBOK® Guide. As PMI noted on their website:
"The use of agile as an approach to managing projects has been increasing dramatically over the last several years. Gartner predicts that by the end of 2012, agile development methods will be used on 80% of all software development projects. PMI’s research has shown that the use of agile has tripled from December 2008 to May 2011. Furthermore, research demonstrates the value that agile can have in decreasing product defects, improving team productivity, and increasing delivery of business value. The PMI-ACP is positioned to recognize and validate knowledge of this important approach."
And there has been a perceived divide between agile and the PMBOK® Guide. Many agile enthusiasts would say that agile is the opposite of all things PMI: project managers, PMOs, and most of all, the PMBOK® Guide. PMI addresses this perception directly and points out that there is no true conflict between agile methods and the PMBOK® Guide:
"The PMBOK® Guide—Fourth Edition contains principles of project management and project management processes. These processes describe "what should be done during the management of a project." Agile methodologies are different in that they describe "how to do the things that should be done" – in short, “what” versus “how.”
A quick side note - the PMI certification spans all specific methodologies like XP, Scrum, FDD, TDD and others and focuses on the common principles across all of those. This is really important because if you have experience in just one aspect of agile, you will have a difficult time when it comes to the exam.
Requirements to Qualify for the PMI-ACP Exam
The PMI-ACP is similar to the PMP in requiring both experience and training to qualify to sit for the exam. You need 2,000 hours of PM experience, 1,500 hours of agile experience, and 21 contact hours of agile related training (cannot be self study) to be eligible to sit for the exam. If you are a PMP, you don't need to worry about the PM experience. The agile experience can be more difficult to obtain. You need to show 1,500 hours working on agile project teams. These hours are in addition to the 2,000 hours required in general project management experience and they must be earned within the last 2 years.
Planning for the Certification Process
Assuming you have (or will have) the experience you need to take the exam, I would strongly recommend that you develop a preparation plan for completing the application and then preparing for and taking the exam. Your plan should take into consideration the time you have available, your current level of experience with agile, and the breadth of your current understanding of agile. As noted above, the exam covers a wide spectrum of topics and if you lack a broad understanding of agile, you will have to plan for more studying.
I was pretty fortunate in that I had been exposed to agile in different projects and programs going back to 2003. But what really helped me was developing and delivering a training course on agile project management in 2008, which was largely based on Jim Highsmith and Michele Sligers books. I was also just recently part of the leadership for a large scale agile transformation, during which we had several training courses and brought in outside coaches and consultants. My own reading on the topic helped to round up my understanding.
My own preparation plan was very aggressive. I decided in mid-December that I wanted to get the certification and I thought I could do it in 30 days or less. I had spent enough time on the PMI website to determine that I was eligible to sit for it and then I just went ahead and filled out the application on line which took about 90 minutes. I did this before actually scheduling my exam (and paying the fee). I received notification within a day that my application was accepted.
When I initially tried to schedule the exam for 30 days out, I could not. The pilot exam closed on November 30 and the exam wasn't available again until the launch of the official PMI-ACP exam on January 31. Initially I was bummed that I would not make the 30 day goal but I realized that the timing was perfect since I had some downtime between projects which I could devote to study. I decided to study all the recommended books that I could and then use practice exam questions to help me pinpoint areas for further study. I had not planned to take a preparation course. I thought that if I studied enough for 3-4 weeks, I could take and pass the exam on January 31.
I also joined the PMI-ACP study group on LinkedIn, which was very helpful. I went back and read all the discussion threads and there was some really good information there about the process and generally about the content, though nothing specific about the content. The discussion group provided additional context for the exam topics which was helpful. There were also comments from numerous people who had taken the pilot exam and were sharing their experience.
Study Materials - The AgileBOK
OK, that was a joke, there is no AgileBOK or an agile equivalent of the PMBOK® Guide. Heck just putting the words agile and PMBOK in the same sentence is considered offensive by many people, agile purists and PM purists alike! Instead of a PMBOK® Guide equivalent, (Updated July 8: I apologize that I actually mis-spoke in my original post. In my preparation for the exam, I overlooked the community based Agile body of knowledge at AgileBok.org. It was through Ashish Pathak and his LinkedIn update that I located the Agile BOK and reviewed it. It looks to be very helpful!)
PMI has provided a set of 11 books that the exam materials are based on, a content guide, and an examination guide. The 11 books are listed here, in the order that I found them most useful for the exam. These are the books that I read pretty much cover to cover:
- Agile Project Management with Scrum, by Ken Schwaber
- Lean-Agile Software Development: Achieving Enterprise Agility by Alan Shalloway, Guy Beaver, James R. Trott
- Agile Project Management: Creating Innovative Products – 2nd Edition by Jim Highsmith
- Agile Estimating and Planning, by Mike Cohn
- The Software Project Manager’s Bridge to Agility by Michele Sliger and Stacia Broderick
- The Art of Agile Development by James Shore
I did not read any of the following books, mainly due to time. Cost was also a factor since buying all these books was beginning to add up!
- Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great by Esther Derby, Diana Larsen, Ken Schwaber
- Coaching Agile Teams by Lyssa Adkins
- Agile Software Development: The Cooperative Game – 2nd Edition by Alistair Cockburn
- Becoming Agile: ...in an imperfect world Greg Smith, Ahmed Sidky
- User Stories Applied: For Agile Software Development by Mike Cohn
Because I was working on agile PMOs, scaling agile, and enterprise agile adoption, I also read the following books. They are excellent books though they are not on the recommended reading list or necessarily directly applicable to the PMI-ACP exam.
- Succeeding with Agile Software Development using Scrum by Mike Cohn
- Lean Software Development an Agile Toolkit by Mary and Tom Poppendieck
- Scaling Lean & Agile Development, Craig Larman and Bas Vodde
- Scaling Software Agility, Dean Leffingwell
I purposefully didn't seek out any "How to Pass the PMI-ACP Exam on Your First Try" books when I was preparing for the course. I know that there are some PMI-ACP Prep books under development or now released. I just didn't look for them because I was interested in reading the original authors rather than just getting partially digested material to help me pass the test.
(UPDATE on Feb 20: Mike Griffiths has written a PMI-ACP Exam Prep Book for RMC. He provides some great background information about the content of the exam in the following blog post: PMI-ACP Book Coverage on Leading Answers Blog. I didn't use and cannot endorse the book, though I have long been a fan of Rita's PMP Exam prep materials.)
PMI provides a lot of information about the exam content including a breakdown of the % of various questions between Tools and Knowledge, and between 6 domains. I looked this over but frankly found it confusing and not helpful to me. See the link for the Exam Content Outline below if you think this will be helpful to you.
Preparing for the exam
I was doing a pretty good job of working through the books in those first few weeks of January. I kept checking on when I could take the exam and the first available date was January 31. On January 23rd, I learned of an opportunity to take a 3-day PMI-ACP preparation course from Agile Transformation. This wasn't part of my original plan since I had the 21 contact hours of agile training from my previous assignment. But since I was within 8 days of my test date, I decided to take the training and I am really glad that I did.
I don't know for sure if I would have passed the test without it. But I know that the course helped to round out my knowledge of the topics and to boost my confidence. I also found the framework for the class materials very helpful and something I hadn't experienced prior to that time. I also had a chance to meet Sally Elatta, who is a dynamic and energizing speaker and instructor. (Disclosure: I am now partnering with Sally Elatta and Agile Transformations to provide training courses and consulting services!)
There is one other very important benefit to taking the training course from Agile Transformation. I realized within the first day that I knew more than I thought and I was probably ready to take the exam. I think that without having the training, I would have underestimated my agile knowledge and spent much more time and energy in preparing and that would have been wasted time and effort. This would violate a key agile principle:
"Simplicity - or the art of maximizing work not done - is essential."
Don't study more than you need to - the test is pass or fail. By the way, if you don't have the 21 contact hours of training, I definitely recommend a PMI-ACP exam preparation course and I certainly recommend the course from Agile Transformation!
The course that I took included access to AgileExams.com for PMI-ACP practice exams. They are probably not the only provider of these practice exams but I think they are the current industry leader. The practice exams were helpful for getting a sense of the breadth of the test and the length of time it would take to complete the exam. Over the next week, I took 3 full tests of 120 questions as well as several shorter practice exams.
I wish I could say that agileexams.com were helpful in building my confidence - they definitely were not! My scores on the practice exams ranged from 72% to 80% and they considered that failing. (It's not clear what score is passing on the official exam - it isn't published and some of the 120 questions on the exam are draft questions that don't count toward your score).
The main reason that I did not score higher on the practice exams was related to the depth of coverage of some specific approaches from the books above. As an example, there were several questions from the AgileExams that related to the specific phases of the Agile Project Lifecycle in Jim Highsmith's book (i.e. envision, speculate, explore, adapt, and close). These phase names are unique to his book and not common across the industry and so (thankfully) were not included in the actual PMI exam that I took. So I think the AgileExams are helpful in preparing for the exam. And I think that over time they will get closer aligned to the actual exam. At least for now I think you can assume their practice exams are harder than the real thing from PMI.
I should also mention that the preparation course I took from Agile Transformation also included some sample exam questions and these were much closer to the PMI exam question than those from AgileExams. I saw some that were very similar to those on the actual exam and so in that respect, they were even more helpful than those from AgileExams.com.
The Actual Exam
I read somewhere that if you are practicing agile, the exam will be pretty easy. I agree. Many of the questions turned out to be pretty straight forward based on my experience. If you don't have broad experience, you will also be challenged.
When taking the exam, I found that I was very confident about my answer on the first pass for about 100/120 questions. If I wasn't sure, I marked them for review and then came back to them after getting to the end of the exam. Upon review of the 20 I wasn't sure about, I was able to confidently answer another 6. For the remaining 14 questions, I found that I either had no clue at all, or it was a coin toss between two possible answers. That was a little un-nerving but I remembered that there were extra 'test' questions that were being included and would not be scored so I hoped the ones that I struggled with fell into that category. For those questions that I had no clue on, I used some rather unscientific methods of picking an answer and for the others, I just chose something reasonable.
The exam took me just over 1 hour to complete. That included a gut-wrenching 5 minutes when the PC I was using crashed on question 56 and I had to go get help. Fortunately, the staff at Prometric was able to get me back to my question and nothing was lost. It was a little unnerving though.
I knew that I had passed right at the end of the exam. I did not receive any diagnostic information about the questions that I missed and I would have liked to have received that.
I have included below some of the links that I found helpful in preparing for the exam.
- PMI-ACP Handbook: http://www.pmi.org/en/Certification/~/media/PDF/Certifications/PMI-ACP_Handbook.ashx
- PMI-ACP Exam Content Outline: http://www.pmi.org/en/Certification/~/media/Files/PDF/Agile/PMI_Agile_Certification_Content_Outline.ashx
- LinkedIn - PMI-ACP Certified Practitioner Exam Prep Study Group: http://www.linkedin.com/groups/PMI-Agile-Certified-Practitioner-PMIACP-3809643?trk=myg_ugrp_ovr
- AgileExams: http://www.agileexams.com/
- Agile Transformation (my PMI-ACP training course provider): http://agiletraining.com/
- Excellent Study Tips from Sally Elatta: http://agiletraining.com/2011/09/24/pmi-acp-agile-certification-exam-study-tips/#
Good Luck and I hope this information is helpful!