29 Apr

Scrum and the C-Word

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There has been much deriding of both Scrum and the word ?certification? in the past few months. It has become quite vogue to look down on formal training of any kind it seems, particularly among the ALT.NETerati. I get it, and I think several of the criticisms are deserved. Some aren?t.


  • I am a Professional Scrum Developer Trainer. That is: I have been certified by Microsoft and Scrum.org to teach others about Scrum and modern engineering practices on the Microsoft platform. More information about all of that is available here and here.
  • I teach for a living. Mostly Visual Studio ALM along with topics I believe are focused on making better software craftspeople.
  • I have watched teams get it wrong (and sometimes right) for about 20 years now. That admission makes me feel very old.

A Bit More Background

Choosing to enter the Microsoft and Scrum.org program and be part of the certification process for developers was not an easy one for me. Indeed, as several people I irritated with my waffling for over 6 months will attest, it was a decision I spent a long time considering. In the end, I obviously elected to become an instructor for certification courseware and this in this post I will tell you why.

On Scrum

I first practiced Scrum in or around 2003/4, if memory serves. I didn?t see it done well for several years after that.

On paper, everything sounded just spiffy when I studied Scrum and considered bringing it to my team and organization. Who wouldn?t want the benefits it promises of frequent feedback, clear accountability, and no-nonsense shipping of product? To get started we hired Jeff Sutherland to come in and teach the original Certified Scrum Master course offered through the Scrum Alliance. I was baffled that at the end of the 2 day discussion to receive this thing called a ?certification?. My colleagues and I actually joked about it at the time as being proof that we didn?t fall asleep in class. As Ken Schwaber pointed out to me in an interview recently, we probably could have nodded off and been fine, actually.

My team struggled a great deal trying to use Scrum well. I won?t bother including the long list of mistakes we made, but we eventually got traction and settled into a cohesive rhythm. After we figured things out, Scrum became an amazing vehicle for delivering product, which was the original intent.

To my knowledge, Scrum is still used today in that organization. At the time of my departure was in fairly healthy shape.

Looking back on Scrum?s contribution to my professional life and its contribution to our industry as a whole, I am humbled. Scrum as an idea has done more to drive agile software development than perhaps any idea other than the original manifesto itself. TDD ranks right up there, but fewer CEOs have heard of TDD. There are a lot of reasons Scrum has won the marketing war, but the simple fact is that our profession is a better place for the presence of the Scrum framework and the people who provided stewardship to it, Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland.

I know good and well that other techniques are very effective. Kanban is a wonderful way for many teams to operate. Feature Driven Development is a powerful model for the teams who need to formality of it. And of course, the gaping hole left by the absence Extreme Programming reminds us that zealotry has its costs. Scrum, as it advertises, is not a silver bullet. It won?t fix anything, in fact. Only people of good intent who come together and try to do something well can make that happen. Scrum can merely provide the rules of engagement.

Scrum is popular for several reasons. When it comes to the mechanics of the framework:

  1. It is easy to understand.
  2. It is easy implement and follow the basics.
  3. It can show dramatic return in a short period of time.
  4. The first Scrum in an organization is a highly visible Kaizen Blitz.

With all of those benefits, Scrum is plagued by the same problems as every other process or methodology framework in the world.

  1. Human beings are the ones who try an implement it.
  2. Human beings are the ones who try an implement it.

Scrum is great when wielded for good. It is the lowest barrier-to-entry agile technique I know (excluding engineering practices, like TDD and CI). Teams who currently live in plan-driven organizations derive great benefit from Scrum and so do the organizations themselves. Scrum can be very, very effective.

I chose to work with Scrum.org specifically because I know from experience there are more shops out there that need to change than those who don?t. I believe most of those shops cannot handle something like Kanban. [See this for more] My professional life as a trainer is focused on helping developers love our craft again. Those of us who got a thrill from lighting up a pixel many years ago have just been beaten to hell and back since deciding to do this for money. Although Scrum is only one arrow in the quiver, Scrum as a great vehicle for improving people?s professional lives.

On Certification

Ken has readily admitted that using C-word in the beginning of the Scrum Alliance has resulted in a complete and total mess. Primarily because certification involves a demonstration of something, typically knowledge. Unfortunately that requirement was never required to obtain a Certified Scrum Master ?credential?. We can all recognize this is not a credential in it?s current form as offered by the Scrum Alliance, but merely a roster of class attendees. ?Nuff said.

I also see there is value in demonstrating knowledge through a genuine certification process. For example, we all take driver?s tests. I look for ASE (Automobile Service Excellence) certified mechanics to work on my car. I trust a BMW certified technician to work on my motorcycle. What is a university diploma if not a certification award?

In almost any field, it is impossible to certify competence. Certification can demonstrate knowledge, but not ability, talent, experience, or wisdom. It is exactly for this reason that I never got hung up on a college degree as a hiring manager but went to great lengths to try and know a person. A college degree did show me what that person experienced, though, because I basically know what it means to get a university degree. There is value in that credential because it had to be earned.

Given the current state of the industry, there are 3 logical progression paths for Scrum certification.

  1. Change nothing and remain a mockery.
  2. Drop the certification word and idea altogether.
  3. Add meat to C-word by actually testing for it.

Scrum.org is taking the 3rd option and I am going for that ride. My reasons include:

  1. Working for change within a system is typically far more effective than pushing from the outside.
  2. Scrum as an idea continues to help teams and individuals improve.
  3. I respect the people involved in the stewardship of Scrum.org.
  4. ?Certification? means a demonstration of knowledge by a taking a test in this crowd. Not perfect, but a good start.
  5. I believe the teams and other trainers I work with have the best interest of the craft at heart. Really.

On The Future of the Craft

In the last 60 years of programming computers, we have have learned that developing in small batches and delivering incrementally works. Scrum gives us a model for doing exactly that, and it will still be helping teams until the next great thing is found. Now that I know Ken a bit better I can say that Scrum itself will likely evolve to incorporate whatever works better.

Ridiculing certification or Scrum may well be the in-crowd thing de jour, but I see that Scrum addresses a core need in our industry, and genuine certification has its own benefits. Lean offers some wonderful directions for us, and shows all the signs of providing a path forward. But, let?s not forget that Scrum is an inherently Lean idea.

But I digress.

Another time, perhaps.

4 thoughts on “Scrum and the C-Word

  1. David, great post.

    There are a couple of things you said that ring in my ears.

    1. I chose to work with Scrum.org specifically because I know from experience there are more shops out there that need to change than those who don’t. I believe most of those shops cannot handle something like Kanban.

    I sometimes forget that point. I can see that having some model of Agile delivery will benefit so many dev shops out there that are still stuck in waterfall. The only problem is without things like TDD, continuous integration and automated regression tests, they will still fall flat on their face unable to deliver on 2 week iterations, done done code. That is why I was suggesting a new process Kanbanand (http://bit.ly/crFNOc) that encompasses all those things. But, I am sure you are teaching those things along with your Scrum teaching, so the people who are fortunate to have you doing their training are able to actually achieve success. (I am more worried about the bozo trainers out there that are just in it for the money, not the love of the craft like you). Anyway, that is a pretty good argument you have there. I really can’t totally disagree with that.

    2. Given the current state of the industry, there are 3 logical progression paths for Scrum certification.

    Change nothing and remain a mockery.
    Drop the certification word and idea altogether.
    Add meat to C-word by actually testing for it.
    Scrum.org is taking the 3rd option and I am going for that ride.

    That makes pretty good sense to me. Given those 3 choices, I think at this point I might choose 2. I tend to think you would also, but hitching your ride to the right horse is a smart thing to do, and honestly I can’t blame you for that. If you are in the position to make a difference. Make the tests hard… Make it so that it is curved. Make it so that only 20% people are allowed to pass each time, or make it so that you have to study or submit reports or essays. Something to make it actually mean something, because even if you do have to take a test, but that test is a multiple choice test about 2 days of material. It will still be a joke.

    Anyway, I have mucho respect for you. You are a stand-up honest, guy with a sincere passion for the craft of software development, and you have made a huge impact on the community as a whole. You are probably the single person who inspired me to get off my butt, start blogging, and start getting involved in the community. So even though we have a bit of a difference of opinion on Scrum. I just want to say that your awesome, and anyone who pays to take a class from you is getting much more benefit than they pay for.

    To be honest, the biggest thing I am concerned about right now with Scrum is what I call the “Scrum Bubble”. There is this big build up of all these buzz around Scrum. So many companies doing it, it is growing so fast, so many people getting certified. But, the process isn’t being checked very well. So many people are doing Scrumbut and thinking they are doing Scrum. When they fail, they give Scrum a bad name. Doing real Scrum can be a great success, but Scrumbuts everywhere can cause a big disaster. I am worried that the fall-out from this explosion will blast Agile itself right off the planet. If Scrum is to become mainstream, the hype and consulting $$$ around it has to stop. It has to be more about doing the right thing, and less about buzz words and quick bucks and certificates, otherwise, just like the .COM bubble, the stock market bubble, and the housing bubble, it is going to pop and take good ideals with it.

  2. Good post, one of the things we have struggled with when we first started was we sent one guy to scrum training and he just didn’t get it. the other members of the team who, didn’t have formal training but have read about it, basically ran the show but never had the backing to make it work. then as a group we got some formal training, including the dev, manager, and Biz people and now it works great.

    I completely agree that with out adding some meat to the certification process it’s worthless.

  3. @john

    Thank you for the kind words.

    The intent behind the Professional Scrum Developer program is to add engineering practices to the execution of Scrum. I have had a lot of discussions lately around the idea of how to formalize this into a Body of Knowledge (BoK), but I don’t yet have something to report on that front.

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