Value of CSM Certification in Game Development
In my last post I discussed the value of PMP (Project Management Professional) certification in game development. On a scale from worthless to Don’t Leave Home Without It, I’d give my PMP cert a 2 out of 10. Today’s initials are CSM, or Certified Scrum Master, and the executive summary is that they get an 8. Or possibly a 5. Before I explain the meaning behind those two scores I’ll give a brief explanation of what Scrum means.
For the uninitiated, Scrum is a framework for project development. Without getting into its origin, artifacts, and the subtle nuances of its verbiage, I’ll simply say that the main cycle around which Scrum revolves is the idea that you start with a rough project plan, perform an amount of work over a set period of time, examine the results of your work, and refine your project plan accordingly. Then you repeat the cycle until the project is done or – as is much more likely in game development – you’re out of time. For a detailed description of all things Scrum, please go here.
What the CSM cert means to the recipient is that you have verified to this field’s supervisory organization, the Scrum Alliance, that you have been trained by an appropriately knowledgeable individual and you have demonstrated in a brief test a proper grasp of the Scrum process and its fundamental ideals. You are capable of facilitating a team in the use of Scrum to complete a project. You understand what problems this framework is designed to solve (obtaining knowledge about the project and the process, ensuring completion of highest priority work) and what areas of development it doesn’t address (engineering practices, performing miracles). You know to help the team on a daily basis by removing their impediments. You can assist in organizing their work with user stories and Scrum boards. You can help them track their progress with burndown charts. You can even help with project predictability by creating release plans and tracking team progress with velocity numbers. And perhaps most importantly, you know the value of improving the team’s productivity by serving them rather than managing them. This is, ideally, what the CSM initials represent.
The value of all of this knowledge is particularly applicable to the chaotic and complex field of game development, hence the 8 out of 10 value I gave this cert earlier. As has been long borne out by studies in multiple fields, creating a design up front and sticking to a single plan from start to finish is a recipe for failure. The iterative approach outlined by Scrum is almost ideally tailored to the creation of games and is much more likely to result in success, which explains the higher appraisal I give the CSM – it can be valuable to an organization, and it’s definitely valuable to you personally.
Why then the lower score? Why might this certification only garner a 5 out of 10 for value in game dev? There are two main reasons. The first of which is simply that a tool is only of value in a practical sense if you’re allowed to use it. If you have a shovel but aren’t allowed to use it, but you are allowed to use a football, the football would actually be more valuable when digging a hole – despite the fact that it’s really an inappropriate choice for the job. While you could possibly apply this same value-lowering assessment to any piece of knowledge, it’s particularly worth noting in the realm of production methodologies. Making a shift from, say, standard waterfall tactics (“Let’s make a huge game design doc and then build the game from it without ever revisiting our plan”) to Scrum is a huge undertaking for an organization. It’s a cultural change that requires buy-in and support from all levels to ensure success. The local trough of the J curve associated with methodological adoption is noteworthy here, and you’ll find that it engenders more than enough fear in many leaders to prevent a valuable outcome. So if you’re looking to become a CSM keep this in mind: if you won’t be allowed to apply your knowledge within your organization, the value of that knowledge is reduced – with respect to your organization.
The second reason why Scrum certification isn’t of greater value is this: it is necessary but insufficient. I’ll explain that statement with a bit of my own background. I read quite a bit about Scrum years ago and worked long and hard to implement as many aspects of it as possible on a floundering project. Even though I was not certified, and even though I wasn’t properly applying some of the underlying principles of the framework, our two Scrum teams on the project averaged about a 700% increase in productivity over the waterfall methods previously employed. I was impressed with these early results, so when the opportunity came up years later to obtain CSM credentials I thought I would finally get a chance to truly understand and master the intricacies of the material. Although the training was superb (I strongly recommend Clinton Keith as a Scrum trainer for game developers) I probably could have passed the final certification test prior to taking the class. In other words, before obtaining the credentials I already had most of the knowledge that those initials represent.
I would call the CSM knowledge necessary because it clearly has great capacity to improve the production of a game, and the certification at the very least represents a common understanding of the Scrum material. The certification is insufficient, however, because it connotes neither project experience nor the cultural awareness and social engineering ability required to implement Scrum in a non-Scrum environment. The organizational value of the knowledge is lowered if you can’t apply it. Case in point – the game I mentioned earlier, the one with the 700% productivity gains? The project leaders reverted to waterfall after two iterations because they feared the lack of traditional control and I didn’t know how to convince them otherwise. (That team, by the way, ran way over time, way over budget, and eventually saw the project handed to another team to be completed.)
Would the CSM be more meaningful if it came with a prerequisite of project experience, like PMP? Perhaps. Would it be better if it also provided training in the anthropology of corporate application? Probably. But now you’re talking about a package that it is not the Scrum Alliance’s goal to deliver (at least, not with CSM…but that’s not the only Scrum cert available). If, however, there were another body specific to game development, kind of a cross between the IGDA and the Scrum Alliance, and that body provided project management certification that included all of the above points, I think we’d all benefit from having those IGDASACSM’s on our teams. But they’d need better abbreviations.
Sidebar: Allow me to interject that I am not a Scrum zealot. I won’t lambaste you for not keeping a product backlog. If you say “team” when you should have said “Scrum team”, I will not hold you down while Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland take turns kicking you. And I do not promise that Scrum is the be-all, end-all solution to game development. It will not magically ship your game for you any more than it will do your laundry. But what it says are good ideas, are – by and large – good ideas. And if you haven’t tried them, you probably should.
To summarize my view of the CSM credentials, I recommend them. They represent critical and applicable knowledge for game development. And they do have value outside of the industry, should you desire such a fallback. Every team should have a producer or project manager who possesses what this certification entails, but be aware that they won’t necessarily have the skills or knowledge to implement what they’ve learned.
There is a new certification being offered by PMI later this year called Agile Certified Practitioner, or (PMI-ACP)SM. It’s worth keeping an eye on but it has yet to be fully developed. My appraisal at this stage is that this cert will eventually coalesce into something more valuable to game development than PMP and will possibly be more valuable than a straight CSM, but I think some time is needed to see how things shape up. Not unlike the fanciful IGDASACSM I mentioned earlier, this cert is in need of a better abbreviation. (PMI-ACP)SM? Ugh.