How to pass Professional Scrum Master certification (PSM I)

Introduction

Utilizing and being familiar with Scrum is nearly a must these days. Anybody working in software development, should be familiar with Scrum principles for the sake of successful delivery of projects and his or her own career development.

But why is Scrum so important anyway?

First, it has proven as efficient way to work, deliver and especially validate products during development. Second, try to google basically any job position ad in the IT industry. I am confident that at least 75% of them will mention Scrum or agile development.

When I started working in the IT industry, I got familiar with its principles quite fast as the waterfall approach has been already phasing out. Thus, I was lucky to not to have to switch but start learning from scratch. However, I have never really pushed myself for passing the certification exam until now. The question is, why now? I came to the point when I thought: “Am I really utilizing scrum the right way?” and secondly: “My Scrum knowledge needs to be visible due to my career development.” The first question turned out to be more important as I realized we have not been really following Scrum as we should have.

Lastly, before jumping to the exam preparation part of this article, I would like to very shortly elaborate on why have I chosen PSM I exam despite working as developer in my projects. I would call this an introduction exam to Scrum. It specifically trains you for the Scrum Master role but I noticed that it has a lot more general questions about Scrum than the other exams (at least from the Open Assessments on scrum.org), therefore I found it as good starting point. For instance in contrast, the Professional Scrum Developer exam is focused a lot on Continuous Integration and Continuous Delivery questions.


Now to the preparation. As everybody else, I started googling around the classic question: “How do I prepare for PSM I?” and received quite a few decent results and articles. However…

The Scrum Guide

Most of the google results contained advice such as: “You should read the Scrum Guide and not just once, actually many times!” or “Get yourself familiar with the Scrum Guide!” Yes, the Scrum Guide is definitely the center-point of the exam but just reading it, is not really helpful in my opinion. You really need to analyze it and this is where I struggled. The following was my own approach.

As a start, you just read it slowly and carefully once. Then I would read it again while highlighting (using a regular marker) the modal verbs like must, can, may etc. This is really important as some of the questions in the exam are build the way that, for instance the product owner, has to release the done increment at the of the sprint and you should select true or false. Then you remember that you read in the Scrum Guide something about product owner deciding about releasing the done increment at the end of the sprint, so you go for true which is unfortunately incorrect as the scrum guide says he can do it, which implies that it is not mandatory to do it. Therefore, it is crucial to learn to pay attention to these details as they really matter for you successfully passing the exam.

The 6-step plan how to study the Scrum Guide:

  1. One initial slow and careful read where you really take your time
  2. Go through the guide and highlight all the modal verbs, so you pay attention to them every time you read the guide
  3. Take a paper or create a new word document where you draw 3 boxes, each for one of the roles and while going through the guide again, write down responsibilities for each role, maybe also divide what the role can and what it must. Make sure you do not copy the text and rather write it down in your own words but strictly maintain the meaning!
  4. Do basically the same for events where you write down what is the input to the meeting (required participants, optional participants, inputs, outputs etc.)
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 once more to really remember. You can also make notes about other parts of the guide the same way.
  6. Read the guide 2 or 3 times more with high attention to your highlighted modal verbs and while checking if something you now find really important is in your notes from steps 3 or 4.
Screenshot from my notes described in point 3

I truly believe that this 6-step plan will get you on the right track. You can always repeat the entire plan. Lastly, if you do not understand anything from the guide, I suggest you to visit the Scrum.org forums where other members will be happy to explain.

Mikhail Lapshin’s PSM I Quiz

You can find the link here. This is a really great quiz made by Mikhail Lapshin that simulates the questions for the PSM I exam. Generally speaking, my advise would be to be careful with the unofficial and free practice tests around the internet but I have very positive experience with this one. Literally any question you see there, you can easily verify in the scrum guide. Further, you can use a learning mode, where you get the explanation of the correct answer straight after submission of your answer or a real mode which simulates the 80 minutes time for the exam and you get the result only after final submission.

Do the quiz as many times as you feel like but complete it at least once in the learning mode where you look at the explanation immediately after every question. What also really helps at a later stage where you become really good with the answers, is to also aim for filling the test out in a short-time, so that you eventually get some time to review at the real exam.

Open Assessments at Scrum

The open assessment on scrum.org is mandatory for you to use. You can be sure that the questions you will face in this assessment are the ones that can show up on the test (and they really do!) and that if you do a mistake, there will be a correct explanation to it.

Situation Questions

By the term “situation questions” I mean questions that put you into the scrum master role and into particular situation. For instance by asking you how would you divide x number of developers into teams for the project or imagine that a developer comes to you talking about some problem, what would you do. These are typical situation questions that you can encounter on the exam and to be honest, there is no straight answer in how to prepare for them. You simply really need to understand the Scrum Guide in details and I believe that the 6-step plan is sufficient for that. Besides that a tremendous help for the situation questions is the following topic.

Practical Experience

You need practical experience with Scrum! Repeat after me: “I need practical experience with Scrum before taking this exam.” Is it absolutely necessary for passing the exam? Probably not. However, it helps tremendously and even one project in Scrum makes your head to put all the theoretical knowledge together and most importantly, you will realize the importance and effectiveness of the framework. So, while I advocate that you absolutely need to try it in the real project, it is not impossible to pass the exam without the experience in a real project.


Conclusion

The PSM I exam is not difficult but the size of the Scrum Guide can trick you into thinking “Man, just 17 pages and multiple choice exam? Pfff. Piece of cake.” Nope! It is not piece of cake and you will spent quite some time with it if you want to pass it. The time runs fast and it can get really tight. To summarize it up, you need the following to pass the test:

  • Analyzing the Scrum Guide
  • Mikhail Lapskin’s Quiz
  • Open Assessment at scrum.org
  • At least a little practical experience with the framework on real project

After going through all the above, I passed my exam with score of 95% — 76/80 questions correct.

Feel free to contact me for advice and good luck with your exam!