How to hire the best Agile professionals
I’m seeing a lot of job postings for agile professionals lately. However, the way they are worded and the requirements listed often do not make sense in an agile context.
In fact, a large number of them seem to be copy and pasted from a project manager job posting with the additional requirement of a scrum master certification and possibly some agile experience. If that is your case, your agile endeavor is in a heap of trouble.
The goal of this article is to shed some light on what to look for in an agile professional. There are a lot of emerging titles, certification acronyms and different frameworks out there. It is also easy for the non-initiated to see scrum masters and product owners as nothing more than traditional project managers with a fancier name.
The situation is not helped by the fact that many companies who ask for agile personnel have a limited understanding of what agility is, believing it to be simply a new delivery method involving only superficial changes.
I hope the following will shed a bit of light on how best to approach hiring agile professionals.
What is Agile again?
Agile is not a delivery framework (although there are agile delivery frameworks).
It is not a management method (although several management philosophies such as Management 3.0, Tribal Leadership, Teal organizations and the like are arguably agile).
Agile is a mindset that involves:
- Being adaptable in the face of changing contexts.
- Putting a focus on the need of the clients and users.
- Delivering tangible value continuously or in short bursts.
- Being able to experiment, learn and improve in very short cycles.
- Trusting self-organizing professionals, and being worthy of that trust.
There is more to it, but these are the main characteristics.
Finding a good agile professional is first and foremost about finding someone with the right mindset. Certifications and even years of experience should be secondary considerations.
What you should stop doing now
There are two habits that seem to be standard in recruitment that does not work when you are looking for agile personnel. Using these practices will simply cut you off from the best candidates. Those are:
- Copy-and-pasting typical project managers requirements to agile job posting
- Pre-filtering by credentials and years of experience
Agile approaches are product-oriented, not project-oriented. That difference alone is a huge deal. If a recruiter is asking for an agile project manager with an MBA, PMI-PMP, and a decade of experience in being accountable for delivered requirements, there are two possible explanations: either your organization is doing A.I.N.O. (Agile In Name Only) where it’s business as usual with agile nomenclature slapped on top, or the recruiter has no idea what he is looking for.
Many companies get lured in the agile movements by promises like “twice the work in half the time”, without any understanding of the changes required for that to be remotely possible. You end up with accountability without responsibility or authority, a traditional project-based approach based on predictive planning, inappropriate funding scheme, matrix-based environment, etc. It’s business as usual, but far from what agile is about.
For agile personnel, environments like these are a nightmare: typical project management jobs with a layer of unrealistic expectations and opposition to change added for good measure. Candidates who have experienced working in true agile settings will flee these types of openings.
What should I ask for?
Asking for the correct agile role for the situation shows that both the recruiter and the hiring company know what they are looking for. Please keep in mind that these roles are full-fledged jobs, and not meant to be tacked on a more traditional role (like business architect/product owner, or the ever popular project manager/scrum master), especially since the duties of these roles are often conflicting.
Product Owners are the people in charge of a product. They are different from traditional Product Managers, as product owners work directly with the team while traditional product managers are higher up the hierarchy. Products Owners do not manage projects, they make decisions on the product (like prioritizing work) and represent the interests of the stakeholders.
Scrum Masters are support people in some frameworks. The term originated with the Scrum framework, but nowadays it covers the support role imbedded in an agile team. Alternative names for this role includes facilitator, team coach or, team support. They have no authority over the team, except to enforce the framework. Their role is to keep team members working at peak efficiency by removing impediments, building the team, culture, smoothing relations with other teams and doing some administrative work. The skill set of a good scrum master tends to be quite different than for a good project manager, as the role is completely different.
Agile coaches are, like the name says, coaches. Their role is to help with agile transitions, training, and coaching agile personnel. They set up new teams, they are advocates for agility and they bridge discussions between agile groups and other groups within the organization. While many of them started as scrum masters, those are two different roles with the coaching role requiring more solid experience.
Agile business architects, agile enterprise architects, and agile software architects are like the non-agile version of these roles but who are agile-trained and who can produce work especially designed for agile teams. In a nutshell, that means work designed as small independent chunks, with little dependencies, aiming at producing a minimum viable product quickly and then building on that.
Agile managers refer to any type of senior managers with the training and experience required to work in an agile organization.
You can note the glaring absence of an agile project manager role. Such roles occur when a non-traditional organization wants to label a project “agile” without the necessary associated change to the environment.
What should I look for in candidates?
Unless a candidate has some experience working for organizations that are well-known for being agile, his resume will sadly give you little information about his agile expertise. You are looking for someone with the right mindset, and who can display a solid knowledge of agile.
The best way to measure agile expertise is to talk to candidates, or even better to research what they have written. Presentation letters, blog post, white papers, slide decks or video presentations are all good sources, as long as they are not simply reports of someone else’s work. If no such documentation exists, then it might be interesting to ask the candidates to explain in writing either their approach handling a certain situation or a specific concept.
You might find it surprising but a large number of agile professionals have never had the chance to work in a fully agile environment. Most have been working in hybrid environments, often with little more than agile labels on a traditional framework. Having more experience in a purely agile environment is a big plus.
In the same vein, a lot of traditional experience (especially in project management) is not necessarily a good thing. The dynamics in traditional and agile work are very different, and leftover habits from a traditional dynamic can hamper greatly your agile efforts. Still, if your organization is starting a transition and is not yet ready for it, having someone able to work in a hybrid way might be a boon.
Keep in mind also that an agile expert will gain experience rather quickly. In just six months, an agile team will have delivered usable value a dozen times, or even more if they use continuous delivery. In a traditional setting, a team will have delivered maybe once in the same amount of time. While delivery isn’t everything, these events always bring a fresh crop of unexpected issues that need to be addressed ASAP. Have your candidate talk about those events. It will be revealing.
What about certifications?
Let’s not be coy about this one: certifications are products, or part of products, offered by training organization in order to make money. Very nearly all of them cover a framework or another. My advice is: do not let those (often virtual) pieces of paper define your selection for a good candidate. Many good agile candidates will have learned through non-affiliated consultants and won’t have a costly certification to show.
That being said, there are a lot of different certifications out there and it can quickly become confusing. Many Agile professionals show their credential by stringing as many certification acronyms at the end of their name as possible.
The Scrum framework has by far the largest number of certifications. Those shown below are only the most frequently encountered. Other frameworks, like Disciplined Agile, also offer certifications, and some Lean frameworks, like Kanban, should also be considered if you are looking for an agile professional rather than specifically a Scrum professional.
As you can imagine, your candidates’ budget will be a limiting factor for certifications. Many agile experts will have both the knowledge and the experience to cover several of those certifications but are unwilling to pay for the seminars, the exams and, in many cases, the costs for the continuous training and the periodical renewal fee.
Buckle up, we’re going to see quite a bunch of letters.
Scrum Master certifications
CSM: Certified scrum master from Scrum Alliance. Like all Scrum Alliance certifications, this one requires attendance at a costly 2-days seminar. This is by far the most common certification out there.
PSM: Professional Scrum Master from Scrum.org. Granted after a somewhat difficult online exam. Comes int three tiers (PSM I, PSM II and PSM III) of increasing difficulty.
SMAC: Scrum Master Accredited from International Scrum Institute. Granted after an online exam. This is the lowest cost solution for certification, making it very popular in some regions of the world as well as with people who have been mentored or trained by experts not affiliated with Scrum Alliance or Scrum.org.
Scrum Product Owner certifications
CSPO: Certified Product Owner from Scrum Alliance. Like all Scrum Alliance certifications, this one requires attendance at a costly 2-days seminar.
PSPO: Professional Scrum Product Owner from Scrum.org. Granted after a somewhat difficult online exam. Comes int two tiers (PSPO I and PSPO II) of increasing difficulty.
SPOAC: Scrum Product Owner Accredited from International Scrum Institute. Like the SMAC, this is the low-cost alternative.
Scaled Scrum certifications
SPS: Scaled Professional Scrum from Scrum.org. This certification covers the Nexus framework, which is basically a scaled version of Scrum.
SSEAC: Scaled Scrum Expert Accredited from International Scrum Institute. Covering the “Scrum of Scrums” classic approach to scaling (rather than the newer Nexus, LeSS or SAFe).
Other Scrum certifications
CSP: Certified Scrum Professional from Scrum Alliance. This is a second-tier certification that requires either the CSM or CSPO in addition to 36 months of experience and PDU-like learning credits.
CST: Certified Scrum Trainer from Scrum Alliance. This certification is required to give official Scrum Alliance trainings leading to certification.
STAC: Scrum Trainer Accredited from International Scrum Institute.
LeSS Practitioner by the LeSS company: LeSS is a framework for scaling agile software development over several teams. It is based off Scrum.
Disciplined Agile certifications
Disciplined Agile is an agile framework, but of a much larger scope than Scrum. It is described as a decision-making framework and cover aspects of the entire business, not just software engineers. Disciplined Agile is also one of the scaling frameworks (along Nexus, SAFe and LeSS). As a framework, I believe it to be the most complete one available, but a very difficult one to get into for the uninitiated.
CDA: Certified Disciplined Agilist from the Disciplined Agile Consortium. This is the basic certification, earned after a solid online exam covering a large number of agile techniques usable across the company. A CDA is also able to act as Scrum Product Owner or Scrum Master.
CDAP: Certified Disciplined Agile Professional from the Disciplined Agile Consortium. The advanced Disciplined Agile certification, requiring verified extensive experience with the framework and a difficult exam.
SAFe is a lean-agile scaling framework based on Scrum, but it covers the whole chain from the portfolio level all the way down to team level. It is popular with many large companies who can see their existing structure in SAFe. It is very controversial with many agile pundits for the very same reason.
SA: SAFe Agilist by Scaled Agile Inc. Aimed at executive, managers and change agents.
SPC4: SAFe Program Consultant by Scaled Agile Inc. Aimed at external consultants who are brought in to help with a transition toward SAFe.
SP: SAFe Practitioner by Scaled Agile Inc. For project and product managers, software developers and other people involved in a SAFe organization.
PMPO: SAFe Product Manager/Product Owner by Scaled Agile Inc. Aimed at product owners, product managers, Product line leads, program managers and business analysts.
PMI Agile Certifications
PMI-ACP: From the prestigious Project Management Institute, the Agile Certified Practitioner certification covers many frameworks such as Scrum, Kanban, Lean, extreme programming (XP) and test-driven development (TDD). It offers three advantages: its certifying entity is well recognized, it must be maintained through continued training and it’s far more versatile than specialized ones.
Agile Coaching certifications
CEC: Certified Enterprise Coach. Aimed at coaches, it requires them to have sufficient experience in addition to holding the CSP certification for at least a year.
CTC: Certified Team Coach. Similar to the CEC, but aimed at people specialized in working with agile teams rather than the whole enterprise. Requirements are a bit easier than the CEC.
SCAC: Scrum Coach Accredited form International Scrum Institute. Attainable with only an online exam and no other requirements. This certification is a bit lacking by itself and says little about the experience of the coach.
CDAC: Certified Disciplined Agile Coach from the Disciplined Agile Consortium. This is the highest level of Disciplined Agile certifications, requiring lots of involvement and a review panel.
There are others. So many others.
If I missed your favorite certification product, feel free to mention it in the comments.
The TL;DR version
When looking for Agile personnel:
1- Stop asking for agile project managers with non agile credentials
2- Demonstrated expertise should trump certification
3- Agile experience, even a shorter one, should trump long non-agile experience
4- If you are confused by all the certifications, just don’t ask for any and leave it to the candidates to justify theirs. That’ll teach them!
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