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Is the CSM Worth It?

By Miranda Dulin
August 28, 2021
9 min read
Is the CSM Worth It?

Are you wondering if the CSM (Certified Scrum Master) course is worth its $1,000 price tag? This article will help you decide if spending that much on a piece of paper is worth it.





Background

I struggle when it comes to spending large sums of money on certification and training. This statement is a contradiction of sorts, given my penchant for continuous learning. There are two main reasons that I hesitate to shell out cash on certifications:

  1. The agile space has suffered from an overabundance of marketing. So-called gurus focus on turning a profit instead of helping teams solve impediments. I’m leery of contributing to the problem instead of being part of the solution.
  2. My family follows a strict financial plan. The goal is to be rich (hopefully before we die), so I tend to scrutinize spending.

I waffled for a long time on the decision to take the Certified Scrum Master course. As an alternative, I could use that same $1,000 to obtain several fancy cheesecakes. I’ll walk you through the thought process that I used to justify the expense.

Benefits

As a first step in justifying the cost, I try to offset it with the presumed value of benefits. To this end, let’s examine the advantages of the Certified Scrum Master certification.

Increasing Employment Opportunites

In my most recent job search, the CSM was the most listed certification on job postings. Any opportunity that listed certifications included the Scrum Alliance’s Scrum Master certification.

One smiling gold ball stands out in a sea of silver frowning balls
Certification might be the thing that differentiates you from the sea of other applicants.

Vetted Trainers

Unlike other agile certifications, the Scrum Alliance requires trainers to go through a rigorous application process. The cynic in me wants to point out that this is another money grab. However, my awareness of this application process does offset my concern about the trainer’s incompetence.

Knowledge Acquisition

The primary reason for anyone to sit through training is to gain knowledge. Although it can be challenging to determine how much you’ll learn from any given course, it is a safe assumption that you will learn something.

Strengthen the Core

Many Scrum teams adopt standard practices not specified in the Scrum Guide. Backlog Refinement, User Stories, and Story Points are some examples. Over my years of working with Scrum teams, a lot of the practices became conflated. It can be valuable to have a strong understanding of which are core to Scrum. A Scrum refresher can also highlight practices that your team has abandoned. Scrutinize these gaps to ensure the retention of the intended value.

Time Savings

Self-directed learning is the main alternative to certification. The benefit is that it’s free. The drawback is that it’s time-consuming. Part of what we pay for when we take a course is a fast-tracked and focused learning experience.

I can be very distracted when I attempt to learn something on my own. First, I play a couple of levels of Candy Crush. Then, I get started reading through a list of learning objectives. Next, I debate how to manage the work and read about productivity tools for half an hour. Once the guilt of wasting time sinks in, I’ll decide to buckle down and focus. After a few moments of productivity, it’s lunchtime and my focus shifts to obtaining cheesecake.

Now let’s contrast that with the scenario where I’ve paid $1,000 for an online course. I find myself doing prep work before the event. I want to get familiar with the content and have some questions prepared ahead of time. Since I’ve paid for what is presumably an expert trainer, I want my questions for them to be ready to go. I get plenty of sleep the night before and set three alarms to nail getting up on time. I take notes while I’m in the class and track new ideas. After the course, I process my notes and follow up on ideas.

Scrum Master focuses on learning from notes and books laid out on her desk
I'm more likely to focus on learning the material when I have money on the line.

I’ve heard several people say, “college is what you make of it.” The phrase highlights the two diverging paths students typically follow. They can choose to party their way through college or apply themselves and maximize their learning experience. The same is true for agile certification courses.

Other Scrum Alliance Benefits

The CSM certification comes with a two-year membership to the Scrum Alliance, which has its own set of benefits. I recommend you peruse those for additional value.

Is CSM Worth It?

Now that we’ve identified some benefits, the next step is to assign values to those benefits. This process is a bit arbitrary. I tend to approach it from the angle of What would I be willing to pay for this benefit? Everyone should evaluate the benefits for themselves. What I find valuable may not be beneficial to another.

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

Once I’ve assigned a number to each benefit, I total that up. If my total is greater than or equal to the investment, I will proceed with the opportunity.

As an example, I’ll walk through my calculation for the Certified Scrum Master course.

Job Opportunities

I tend to favor experience over certification. I have a disdain for employers that require a piece of paper to prove the candidate’s worth. My contempt has an inverse correlation to the effort to gain the qualification. Anyone with experience hiring for a position will tell you my stance is naive. No employer has the time to meet with every candidate and verify their capabilities.

The reality is that a resume will go through two different filters. The first filter will be the employer’s applicant tracking system. A recruiter will be the second filter. Both filters seek to winnow the sea of applicants down to the exceptional. Screening based on certifications is the most efficient way to achieve the goal.

On a wall of five doors, the middle door stands open with bright light implying an opportunity
Being a Certified Scrum Master isn't enough to guarantee you a job, but it can help keep the door open.

If being a Certified Scrum Master guaranteed you a job, one could argue that the pay increase of a new position justifies the cost of the course. Since that isn’t the case, my estimate should only account for the value of keeping the door open a little longer.

Now the question is: how much is that worth? For me, about $500. That may seem underwhelming, but it’s because I still need to knock the interview out of the park. Staying in the running isn’t that much help; I still need to win the race.

Training Skills

I aspire to offer agile training courses in the future. By participating in training, I learn techniques that will improve my eventual classes. How do other trainers present the content? What tools could I use to facilitate learning? What exercises are the most impactful for knowledge retention?





Gaining this insight benefited me but may not hold value for others. In my estimation, experiencing how a popular CST ran a training course was worth at least $200.

Certification Collection

CliftonStrengths tells me that my primary strength is Input. One of the main characteristics of this strength is that I like to collect things. Since the pandemic, I’ve started collecting certifications. Lucky for me, aversion towards spending money slows my progress somewhat. Some people collect pokemon, and I’ve begun gathering credentials.

The collector in me values this additional piece of paper at $100.

Scrum Alliance Tools

Your CSM certification comes along with a two-year Scrum Alliance membership. This membership provides various benefits. Given my penchant for continuous learning, some of the free tools drew my attention. The Scrum Master personal Improvement Tool in particular piqued my curiosity.

It’s hard to guess at the value of a tool like this for two reasons:

  1. Without using it, it’s impossible to know if the content is valuable.
  2. I can’t guarantee that I would commit to consistently using the tool.

I decided, given these two concerns, that a value of $50 seemed reasonable.

Knowledge Gain

I will learn something from every course I take. This knowledge generally takes three forms:

  1. Comprehension of the course material
  2. Ideas for content I want to create for my blog
  3. Identification of gaps in knowledge that I will fill in via self-directed learning

Going into the course, I had doubts about how much knowledge I’d gain. The following facts contributed to those doubts:

  1. I read the Scrum Guide once a quarter as a refresher
  2. I have more than six years of experience as a Scrum Master
  3. I reviewed the list of learning objectives for the CSM course and knew the majority of the answer

Given this reasoning, I felt $200 was justifiable.x

Educational Units

To renew my PMI-ACP certification, I’m required to acquire and log PDUs. This course would grant me fifteen of those PDUs.

Couple on bank of a lake extent hands to feed two birds
Who doesn't like feeding two birds with one scone?

The two courses that I completed before this one had an average cost of $21 per PDU. So to determine the CSM class, I just multiplied fifteen by twenty-one for a total of $315.

Return on Investment

Feel free to check my math, but that brings my total value to $1,365.

BenefitValue
Job Opportunities$500
Training Skills$200
Certification Collection$100
Nifty Tools$50
Knowledge Gain$200
PDUs$315
Total$1,365

Given that $1,365 > $1,000, I decided that obtaining my CSM was worth the expense.

Advice on Finding a Trainer

Although you need to be a CST to provide CSM courses, not all trainers are created equal. Students learn in different ways, and trainers teach via different means. I encourage you to do some research in an attempt to confirm you jive with your trainer. The following is my due diligence process:

1. Check Out Their Content

They should have an online presence where you can get an idea about their content quality. These resources might take the form of a blog or a YouTube channel. Determine if their content resonates with you. Do you agree with the points they’re making? Can you follow their logic?

2. Check out their Website

Poke around on their website. Does it look like it was last updated in the 90s? Can you not find a website? Pay particular attention to any reviews (both positive and negative).

3. Find them on LinkedIn

Check out their background. How long have they been CST certified? Did they recently start their training career? Do they share inappropriate content on LinkedIn?

A confused student stands shrugging with a piggy bank
You're getting ready to drop a lot of money; make sure you're confident of your investment.

4. Additional Benefits

I must admit, I’m a bit of a Mike Cohn fangirl. Therefore, I selected Mountain Goat Software as a training provider. Alas, Mike’s courses cost an additional $200 beyond that of the other CSTs. That’s a few more fancy cheesecakes. Even if you’re not a fangirl, Mountain Goat Software offers additional benefits worth consideration.

Agile Mentors

Agile Mentors is an online community of agile-minded folks. The value I’ve gained from this resource over the years is immense. I’ve always received detailed responses to my queries, and by reading through the forum, I’ve been able to learn from the struggles of others.

In the beginning, MGS seeded Agile Mentors with their previous students as a type of beta. I lucked into this experience because I’d taken the Better User Stories course. This free access had expired before taking the CSM course. Learning that Mountain Goat Software’s classes include a 12-month membership to Agile Mentors was a huge boon.

An annual subscription to Agile Mentors is $300, which I included in my ROI calculation.

Online Access to Course Materials

I have lifetime access to handouts, training videos, and recordings of the actual course. I’ve used these resources to validate the information I thought I remembered from class. If I wanted to, I could go back and retake the whole course as a refresher.

It’s hard to value something like this because I wasn’t sure how much I’d use it. Let’s start by picking a Udemy course as a rough comparison. Once purchased, I can go back and watch that course any time I want. On average, I’ve spent $20 for the Udemy courses I’ve purchased. The material from the CSM course is easily twice as good as any Udemy course I’ve taken. Add in a couple of extra dollars for retaining access to the exercise files, and I ended up at $50.

BenefitValue
Job Opportunities$500
Training Skills$200
Certification Collection$100
Nifty Tools$50
Knowledge Gain$200
PDUs$315
Subtotal$1,365
Agile Mentors$300
Course Materials$50
Total$1,715

All in all that puts the return way beyond the investment. Enough that I felt comfortable forking out the cash.

The Cheaper Alternative

There is an alternative if you don’t want to let go of the cash or your ROI doesn’t look as promising as mine. The Scrum Alliance publishes the detailed learning objectives for the course. You can use this document as a self-study guide.

I recommend that you read through the Scrum Guide first. Then test yourself with the learning objects and see how many you know the answer to. Research gaps in your knowledge using other resources.

You won’t be able to sit the exam and thus earn the certification without completing a course from a CST. If the knowledge interests you more than the piece of paper, this is a valid alternative.

“You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.”

-Stephen King

My Recommendation

I believe that other certifications provide more knowledge at less expense. If you have much experience with agile teams, much of what the CSM covers will be redundant. I recommend that you take the class as early in your career as possible to limit redundancy. If I had a mulligan, I’d take the course when I first started as a Scrum Master. In the earlier stages of my career, the knowledge could have provided me with a jump start.

A higher price tag coupled with a scope limited to Scrum makes this certification harder to justify. The industry recognition of the Scrum Alliance certifications helps to offset those limitations. Determine if this class meets your objectives by evaluating from your perspective.

Works Consulted





TLDR

A cost-benefit analysis can help answer the question, “Is CSM worth it?” I decided it was worth the expense, and I don’t have any regrets.


Previous Article
There's a Retrospective for That
Miranda Dulin

Miranda Dulin

Scrum Master

Table Of Contents

1

Background

2

Benefits

3

Is CSM Worth It?

4

Advice on Finding a Trainer

5

The Cheaper Alternative

6

My Recommendation

7

Works Consulted

8

TLDR

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