CSM or PSM - which Certification to choose?

Which competing Scrum Master certification to chose?

CSM and PSM are the leading Scrum Master Certifications.

There are a number of different organizations offering different certification programs.

Project Management Institute (PMI)

Project Management Institute

The Project Management Institute (PMI) don't offer certification for Scrum but do have a number of Agile Project Management courses and credentials to offer.

They offer Project Management training and certification that applies to non-software projects.

Scrum Alliance

The Scrum Alliance

The Scrum Alliance was the first organization to offer a certification program around Scrum and their Certified Scrum Master (CSM) is certainly the most well known and commonly found.



One of the original Scrum Alliance founders, Ken Schwaber, left and formed a new group Scrum.org who have introduced a competing certification called Professional Scrum Master (PSM) which offers compelling reasons to be considered as an alternative because it addresses many of the criticisms of CSM.

It's important to understand the true purpose of certification in order to properly evaluate the options.

Let's take a step back and consider for a moment what the purpose of certification is. It's really all about trust and competency - some group, ideally impartial, is willing to certify that they believe you are capable of performing a certain role by possessing a sufficient level of knowledge and meeting a minimum degree of competence.

Trust in what a certificate represents is essential

Employers and clients need to have trust in the authenticity of any certificate if it is to be of recognized value.

How does any organization know how competent and knowledgeable you are about a subject? The obvious way is to have some assessment of your abilities and this has been common with many certification programs throughout IT from Microsoft Certified Professionals to Cisco Certified Network Engineers.

To evaluate the value of any certification we need to consider:

  • How knowledge or competency in a subject is evaluated
  • How rigorous is the assessment process
  • How many certificates have been issued
  • How much the certification program costs
  • How likely is it that an unskilled person could pass

There are some surprising differences between the different programs ...

The most widely held and recognized Scrum certification available.

The Certified Scrum Master (CSM) program was the first scrum certification available and is certainly the most well known and widely recognized.

It is completely linked to attendance of a 2 day Scrum Master Training Course and up until recently attending the course absolutely guaranteed that you would then become certified as a CSM.

This led to inevitable criticism of the program as even if someone had no experience of scrum, demonstrated no expertize or knowledge of it and even slept through the entire training course itself they would still walk out of the course as a Certified Scrum Master simply by attending and paying for it (or typically, having their company pay for it).

How many CSMs have no expertise in Scrum or Software Development?

I know from personal experience working at a software consulting company that also hosted CSM training and received 1-2 seats on each course as part of the deal that many, many 'managers' with no particular skills or expertise in Scrum or Software Development attended simply because it gave them an extra credential and also a couple of days out of the office!

By all accounts the courses themselves are fun and interesting and informative about Scrum and Agile although the quality may be variable and depends very much on the specific instructor and the materials they provide. But gaining a certification simply by paying a fee and by virtue of attendance does nothing but devalue it in the long run.

In an effort to address the growing criticism, an assessment factor was introduced during 2012 in an attempt to reassert its value and authenticity as a certification. The price of the assessment is included as part of the course fee and the assessment cannot be taken without previously attending an official training course. However, the assessment process is still not considered arduous:

  • Course attendees have 90 days to take the online assessment
  • There is no time limit to the assessment itself
  • The assessment can be paused and doesn't need to be completed in one sitting
  • Incorrect answers are highlighted and can be re-submitted after research
  • Requires correctly answering 24 out of 35 multiple choice questions (68%)
  • Answers to all questions (correct and incorrect) are shown after passing
  • Anyone who manages to fail can re-try for a $25 fee

Really, the assessment is not onerous and seems like a token attempt to add a veneer of validity to the certification process which still relies mostly on paying a course fee and turning up.

This is a shame because the weakness of the assessment and doubt that it casts over the validity of the CSM certification itself does the training a disservice as the course itself is highly regarded as a useful introduction to agile methodologies. The focus certainly seems to have been the promotion of training courses with certification added as a way to 'sell' them.

The CSM certification must also be renewed every 2 years (as at July 2013 this costs $150). There are over 220,000 Certified Scrum Masters so the program has certainly been successful and has also helped promote the role of Agile as a viable methodology to use with software development projects.

A new Scrum certification that tries harder to assess genuine knowledge.

The Professional Scrum Master (PSM) program appears to be an attempt to have a clearer separation between conducting assessments and issuing certificates and the business of selling training courses.

While official training is available and is usually comparably priced to the CSM course, attendance of a course is not mandatory in order to obtain a PSM certification. The assessment itself costs $100 to take separately with this fee typically included in the cost of a training course.

You can download the official Scrum Guide for free from the Scrum.org website and they also provide a free Open Assessment to evaluate your readiness for taking the real test. The Open Assessment is the exact same format as the real assessment and is taken from the same pool of questions so it's definitely worth spending an hour or two on to become comfortable with the format.

The PSM assessment:

  • Must be taken with 14 days of purchasing a password
  • Requires correctly answering 68 out of 80 question to pass (85%)
  • Has a 60 minute time limit and cannot be paused
  • Consists of multiple choice and multi-select questions / answers
  • Failure requires purchase of an additional attempt ($100)

Can you really become a PSM without attending a training course?

Yes - I just did a couple of days ago and just received my PSM I certificate.

Having used agile for many years I didn't find the exam too difficult and passed with a respectable enough 90% score after taking ~54 minutes to go over all the questions twice.

While some questions are fairly easy (especially the few repeated from the Open Assessment), others are anything but trivial and require careful reading of both the question and the potential answers.

The PSM training courses are based on official training material so are likely to be less variable than CSM courses although the quality of any training is still going to be very dependent on the individual instructor.

Chosing a training provider or instructor

If you are considering paying for a training course it makes sense to ensure you have one of the recognized experts in the field with a good reputation. Don't settle for any provider that doesn't live and breath the core Agile values and principles in their own work or an instructor who is 'just a trainer' who may view Scrum Master Training as simply something easy to sell.

There are currently far fewer people with PSM certification than CSM - around 11,000 which can be attributed to it being new but also because the assessment process itself is far more rigorous and must command more respect in the long run as it becomes more widely known.

Why did I chose PSM over CSM?

I had the chance to obtain a 'free' CSM certification some years ago while my employer at the time conducted the training. Seeing all the non-experts brandishing their new CSM certificates definitely put me off and I declined on principle.

The PSM was much more appealing because it appeared more genuine as a certificate and also allowed me to become certified at my own expense but without the full cost or inconvenience of attending a 2 day training course.

A summary of the two Scrum Master Certifications and how they differ.

Some of the comparisons are somewhat subjective and represent the opinions of the author.

Certified Scrum Master / CSM Professional Scrum Master / PSM
Attainment by attendance by assessment
Learning Materials course outline only free downloadable guide
Training Cost typically $1,000 - $1,300 typically $1,000 - $1,300
Training Required mandatory optional
Training Materials vary by instructor standardized
Assessment superficial comprehensive
35 questions, 68% pass mark, no time limit 80 questions, 85% pass mark, time limit
Certificate Renewal every 2 years ($150) not required
Certificates Issued 220,000 11,000