Recently I spent some time in the UK with Julian Holmes of Unified Process Mentors
. In one of our conversations we deplored what we were seeing in the agile community around certification, in particular what the Scrum community was doing, and he coined the term “integrity debt” to describe the impact it was having on us as IT professionals. Integrity debt is similar to technical debt
which refers to the concept that poor quality (either in your code, your user interface, or your data) is a debt that must eventually be paid off through rework. Integrity debt refers to the concept that questionable or unprofessional behavior builds up a debt which must eventually be paid off through the rebuilding of trust with the people that we interact with.
The agile community has been actively increasing their integrity debt through the continuing popularity of Scrum Certification, in particular the program around becoming a Certified Scrum Master (CSM). To become a CSM you currently need to attend, and hopefully pay attention during, a two-day Scrum Master Certification workshop taught by a Certified Scrum Trainer (CST). That’s it. Granted, some CSTs will hold one or more quizzes which you need to pass, an optional practice which isn’t done consistently, to ensure that you pay attention in the workshop.
Scrum Masters, as you know, take the leadership position on a Scrum team. The idea that someone can master team leadership skills after two entire days of training is absurd. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm supporter of people increasing their skillset and have no doubt that many of the CSTs deliver really valuable training. However, there is no possible way that you can master a topic, unless it
is truly trivial, in only two days of training. From what I can tell the only thing that is being certified here is that your check didn’t bounce.
The CSM scheme increases the integrity debt of the IT industry by undermining the value of certification. When someone claims that they’re certified there’s an assumption that they had to do something meaningful to earn that certification. Attending a two-day course, and perhaps taking a few quizzes where you parrot back what you’ve heard, clearly isn’t very meaningful. The problem with the term Certified Scrum Master is two-fold: not only does the term Certified imply that the holder of the certification did something to earn it, the term Master implies that they have significant knowledge and expertise gained over years of work.
It is very clear that people are falling for the Scrum certification scheme.
A quick search of the web will find job ads requiring that candidates be CSMs, undoubtedly because they don’t realize that there’s no substance behind the certification. Whenever I run into an organization that requires people to be CSMs I walk them through the onerous process of earning the designation and suggest that they
investigate the situation themselves. Invariably, once they recognize the level of deception, the customer drops the requirement that people be CSMs.
Another quick search of the web will find people bragging about being a CSM, presumably being motivated by the employment opportunities within the organizations gullible enough to accept Scrum certification at face value. My experience is that the people claiming to be CSMs are for the most part decent, intelligent people who 99.99% of the time have far more impressive credentials to brag about than taking a two-day course. Yet, for some reason they choose to park their integrity at the door when it comes to Scrum certification. I suspect that this happens in part because they see so many other people doing it, in part because they’re a bit desperate to obtain or retain employment in these tough economic times, and in part because the IT industry doesn’t have a widely accepted code of ethical conduct. These people not only embarrass themselves when they indicate on their business cards or in their email signatures that they’re Certified Scrum Masters they also increase the integrity debt of the agile community as a whole.
Yet another search of the web will find people bragging about being Certified Scrum Trainers (CSTs), the people whom have been blessed by the Scrum Alliance to deliver Scrum master certification courses. Once again, my experience is that these are intelligent, skilled people, albeit ones who have also parked their integrity at the door in the pursuit of a quick buck. Surely these people could make a decent living via more ethical means? I know that many of them have done so in the past, so I would presume that they could do so in the future. The actions of the CSTs increase our integrity debt even further.
The group of people who have most embarrassed themselves, in my opinion, are those whom we consider thought leaders within the agile community. Leaving aside the handful who are directly involved with the Scrum certification industry, the real problem lies with those who have turned a blind eye to all of this. The Scrum certification scheme was allowed to fester within our community because few of our thought leaders had the courage to stand up and publicly state what they were talking about in private. This of course is all the more galling when you consider how much rhetoric there is around the importance of courage on software development projects. As Edmund Burke once observed, all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.
There are several things that we can do today to start paying off some of our integrity debt:
- Be discerning, not deceptive. If you’re going to list credentials on your email signature or business card then only choose to list the ones that actually mean something.
- Educate human resources people. Make them aware of what “Certified Scrum Master” really means and let them think for themselves. I highly suspect that if HR people realized what was going on the demand for CSMs would plummet, and in turn people wouldn’t be tempted by Scrum certification.
- Act professional, don’t just claim to be certified. Instead of signing up for every easy certification that comes your way why not simply do a good job and let the people you work with be your claim to fame? The good news is that for the past few years the agile community has tried to pay down some of the IT industry’s integrity debt that we have with our stakeholders by providing better return on investment (ROI), delivering systems which are more effective at addressing the needs of your stakeholders, by working in a more timely manner, and by producing greater quality work. All of these claims are borne out by the 2008 Software Development Project Success Rate Survey by the way.
- Recognize that adding a test doesn’t address the underlying problems. For the past year there’s been a move afoot to have people pass a test as part of earning their CSM (apparently it’s been a challenge to create a non-trivial test to validate your understanding of a topic that you can master by taking a two-day training course). This is something that should have been done from the very beginning, along with some sort of peer review, not years later when the damage has been done. Adding a test at this late date isn’t going to remove the stink that’s built up over the years, but sadly it will fool a few people into believing that they’ve covered it up.
- Recognize that there is a demand for certification. The agile community needs to put together a decent certification program, something that the Scrum Alliance has clearly failed at doing. My article Coming Soon: Agile Certification provides some thoughts as to what we need to do. The good news is that people such as Ron Jeffries and Chet Hendrickson, and others, are putting together a developer certification program. The really good news is that these are the right people to do this. The really bad news is that they’re doing it under the aegis of the Scrum Alliance, so whatever they accomplish will unfortunately be tainted by the fallout of the CSM debacle.
If we're going to scale agile software development strategies to meet the range of challenges faced by modern organizations, we need to be trustworthy. Is claiming to be a certified master after taking a two-day course an act which engenders trust? I don't think so. As individuals we can choose to do better. As a community we need to.Suggested Reading
- Agile Certification -- A humorous look at certification.
- IT Surveys -- A great resource for statistics about what IT people are actually doing in practice.