Certified Agile: The PMI-ACP Exam
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I sat for the Project Management Institute’s Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP) exam earlier this week. The PMI-ACP tests your understanding of common Agile development methods, values and practices. It focuses on basic Agile principles, and on Scrum and XP in detail, as well as fundamentals of Lean and Kanban.
Unlike the PMP, there is no Book of Knowledge which defines best practices and a process framework for this certification. Instead there is a certification content outline that explains at a high level the tools, techniques, knowledge and skills that you will be expected to know and will be tested on, and a reference list of books to read which includes some of the usual suspects. Out of this list I’d recommend reading Mike Cohn’s books on Agile Estimating and Planning and User Stories - they are useful for the exam and they're worth reading regardless. If you’re not working in an XP shop you should also read Kent Beck’s Extreme Programming Explained to make sure that you understand XP, and you must read up on the basics of Lean and Kanban. And of course you need to memorize the Agile Manifesto and the Twelve Principles of Agile Software Development front to back.
But I know from writing the PMP several years ago that experience and general reading aren’t enough to prepare for a PMI certification exam. PMI wants everyone who holds a certification to know the same things, and to share the same values and to think and act the same way. There’s an emphasis on orthodoxy – you’re tested not on what you would do (based on your experience and common practical knowledge), but what you should do according to PMI's definition of what “the right way" is to do something. And PMI’s exams are as much a test of your ability to read and write an exam as they are of the subject matter, with trick questions and trip-up answers and questions which are purposefully hard to understand, and even some extra questions thrown in which don’t make sense at all. Writing a test like this is not fun, although the PMI-ACP exam is certainly not as hard as the PMP exam - you shouldn’t need the 3+ hours that you’re given to complete this test.
So like others, I decided to use an exam prep guide to finish my studying.
The PMI-ACP Exam: How to Pass on Your First Try by Andy Crowe is a quick overview of the material that you should know for the exam. Easy to read and easy to follow, it defines key terms and “doing Agile right”, roles and responsibilities and rituals and tools, and covers communication and collaboration issues, and includes some sample questions (and access to a sample online exam). This is not an especially insightful book, but I found it useful for last minute review and cramming.
I did most of my studying with Mike Griffiths’ PMI-ACP Exam Prep: A Course in a Book for Passing the PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP) Exam, a much more complete study guide, and a good overview of Agile development that is worth keeping and reading on its own. This book builds on materials that Griffiths published earlier on his blog and it is especially good on Agile reporting tools.
Griffiths is one of the experts who created the PMI-ACP program and so he understands what you need to know in depth, and he is a good writer. However, his book is harder to study from than Crowe’s, because it contains a lot more details and because it is structured around the artificial domains that PMI uses to describe Agile development. This results in several discontinuities, where an idea or practice is introduced under “Value Driven Delivery” and then continues later under “Adaptive Planning” or “Continuous Improvement” or one of the other domains (it is not necessary by the way to learn the domains for the exam).
If you have solid experience with Agile development (which you need to in order to meet the qualifying bar) especially Scrum and XP, you should be able to pass the exam with the help of Griffiths’ guide and some general reading to fill in gaps.
Studying for the PMI-ACP has made me examine Agile development ideas and practices in more detail (which is why I decided to apply for the certification). But it hasn't changed how I think about Agile practices and methods or how I think you should follow them. I am just as convinced today as I was before that the key is not following some method in a pure way, but instead to build your own toolkit, to borrow what works from different methods and adapt them to your specific requirements, constraints and situation. And the more that you know and understand about Agile methods and practices, the more tools you have for your toolkit.