It’s not an easy process. It’s not intended to be.
It's not a meticulously defined process. It’s not intended to be -- at least that's the personal conclusion I've drawn after talking to a number of CSTs who have participated in the trainer approval process.
I'm writing this on the plane on the way home from the 2011 Scrum gathering in London. During the conference, Vernon Stinebaker and I co-hosted a session called “Becoming a CST.” The purpose of this article is to share the information that I've gleaned about the CST approval process from that session, as well as from numerous additional personal discussions with current CSTs. The observations and conclusions in this article are my own. I believe them to be valid, as they're based on my experience as a CST applicant and my personal interactions with members of the Scrum Alliance leadership, but they are inevitably colored by my own memory and perceptions. My hope is that the information I've collected here will be of value to other CST candidates and those contemplating starting the process, and I welcome any feedback readers may have.
The official outline of the process and CST application materials can be found on the Scrum Alliance website. The problem is that for most of us mere mortals, the actual CST approval criteria are stricter than a surface interpretation of the officially published ones. For example, the official statement on the site says, “Experience co-training is highly recommended.” In fact, according to numerous members of the trainer approval group , experience co-training is absolutely critical to approval, for the typical applicant. From what I can extrapolate, this discrepancy between the official criteria and the actual criteria arises from two sources.
The first is an attempt to have flexible criteria that allow the committee to accommodate edge cases, such as the approval of a well-known, senior member of the Scrum community; or the approval of a trainer facing geographical or language challenges. For example, someone trying to find co-trainers in Africa, Asia, South America, or other areas where trainer density is low would be given more flexibility than someone in an area where there is ready access to CSTs .
The second arises from the differences between the process for creating the CST approval criteria and the actual approval process for CST applicants. The official CST approval criteria and process represents, in a sense, a least common denominator consensus, as all the criteria included in the official process need the approval of a group of Scrum Alliance leaders.
However, the actual approval process is administered entirely by current CSTs and requires a four-fifths vote for the initial paper phase and five out of seven votes for the final phase. Thus, in the worst case, the candidate must get the approval of up to nine separate CSTs. Given individual variations among members of the trainer approval group, some CST candidates have faced a stricter approval committee than others. A candidate guided only by the official criteria may not be prepared for a more stringent committee and thus may fail this final stage of the approval process. A similar phenomenon has been noted by the program lead for the Certified Scrum Coaching (CSC) Program.
In other words, minimally meeting the published requirements is not very safe. To maximize chances of approval, the candidate should go beyond the minimum stated requirements. I've copied the official CST approval criteria below and annotated them with comments in italics to reflect what I've gathered to be the actual CST approval criteria for the typical candidate. Following my annotations, I include some personal reflections about the value I've found in going through this process.
In summary, most of the members of the trainer approval group that I have interviewed have been helpful and are committed to making the CST approval process reasonable and fair. In spite of individual opinions, most trainer approval decisions are reached by consensus. Nevertheless, I believe that it's wise for an applicant to develop a strong application that meets the annotated suggestions below. As Nigel Baker says , "Aim high - it makes certifying you much easier."
Annotated CST approval criteria
A CST is an ambassador of Scrum. He or she will:
Have a solid understanding of the Scrum framework, a deep understanding of the principles and values that are the foundations of Scrum, and a clarity on what belongs to Scrum and what is an extension or complement.
- On the “Become a CST” website, we are compiling a minimum reading list of books and articles. All CST applicants should be able to discuss this literature in depth.
Have extensive experience of implementing and/or coaching Scrum inside organizations.
- Remove the “/or.” Many members of the CST approval community do not recognize coaching (even extensive coaching) as sufficient. You are not likely to become certified until you have substantial experience as a pig. At minimum, you must have worked as a ScrumMaster; extra points if you have also worked as a product owner or member of the development team.
Be active in the wider Scrum community through actual and virtual interaction with other Scrum and Agile thinkers and practitioners.
- If a number of persons in the approval committee have never heard of you before they get your application packet, you are less likely to get approved. At a minimum, you must:
- Attend both global and local gatherings. Don’t just attend – participate, submit proposals, and organize open-space meetings. Actively seek out current CSTs who are also attending and introduce yourself to them. Be part of the leadership of any groups local to you.
- Participate frequently in Scrum forums and discussion groups.
- Speak on Scrum at as many conferences and groups as possible both inside and outside of the Scrum community.
- Write articles on some aspect of Scrum.
Have training experience beyond just Scrum, be willing to explore new ways of working and be committed to continuous improvement.
- We're talking substantial historical evidence that you're a good speaker and can handle audiences.
- You must be able to articulate how you have improved your training style based on actual student feedback.
- You must be able to demonstrate that you are not just a master of Scrum but also a master trainer.
- You must continuously improve your professional training skills by reading books on training, participating in training seminars, co-teaching, and experimenting with new training techniques. If the committee finds you to be simply a mediocre lecturer and not a master trainer, you will have a hard time getting approved.
The CST applicant will also recognize that:
Basic background information, course materials, exercises, etc., are required.
- Don’t forget to include a set of student evaluation forms along with your course materials.
- The exercises are as important as the PowerPoint material. Don’t just describe each exercise; explain its learning objectives.
Experience co-training is highly recommended.
- Co-training is absolutely required. Five co-training sessions are recommended. The more over the minimum, the stronger your application.
- Be prepared to articulate what you learned while co-training.
- Don’t neglect a co-training opportunity just because it won’t result in a reference. Even if you can’t interact with a CST enough to get a reference, you can still learn by co-training with him or her, and increasing your number of co-trainings strengthens your application.
At least five references from current CSTs are highly recommended.
- Five references are a minimum. Hard-to-get references from leaders in the Scrum community are counted more heavily than references that are easy to get.
- References from those who have a vested interest in your success count less than other references.
- References from those with whom you have co-trained count a lot.
- Don’t forget to include additional references from clients.
- Don’t forget that you're applying to become a Scrum TRAINER. References that can speak to your training ability are valuable.
Annotated CST approval process
Pass an initial paper review by a peer review committee.
- Put thoughtful work into your paper application. Make it easy for the reviewers to find everything they're seeking. It may all be in your attached resume, but copy out the relevant Scrum experience, presentations, and articles and highlight them in the appropriate section of your application. It should be crystal clear from your application that you meet all of the criteria in the previous section.
Participate in a face-to-face interview for those who pass initial review.
- There will be two parts to this interview. Be prepared for both. The first part is a relatively traditional interview. The committee may ask you fairly standard interview-type questions -- so if you haven’t interviewed recently, you'll need to prepare by practicing with a professional colleague (get one of the CSTs you co-train with to mock-interview you), and reread the standard interviewing literature to prepare yourself for traditional but tricky interview questions. Specifically, you should be prepared to articulate why you want to be a CST.
- The second part of the interview will be a 30-minute sample training session. The committee will choose one topic for you out of a list of predefined topics. You'll have to teach the topic on the fly, without any PowerPoint slides. You can use a flip chart and any other props you have brought with you. During this session, be prepared for the committee members to play the disruptive, dysfunctional, antagonistic student game to see how you respond to such situations. You must not only demonstrate mastery of the subject you're teaching but mastery of delivery and of the classroom. One piece of advice I was given by a current CST seems wise to me: Avoid the extremes of teaching styles during this part of the interview. If you simply lecture, you'll be marked down. On the other hand, many who have tried a total “back of the room” approach have not done well at all. Also, total “back of the room” doesn’t give the committee the chance to see you in action in the front of the room, where all instructors typically “perform” at least part of the time. So the recommended approach is to use a basic front-of-the-room approach, but make it a highly interactive lecture with a good mix of tried-and-true mini-exercises thrown in to illustrate your rounded, student-centered approach.
Given my own experience and my discussions with other CSTs, I'd say that in addition to seeing that you've had substantial experience as a ScrumMaster, the committee is looking for a minimum of four things:
- Are you a recognized, contributing, established member of the Scrum community?
- Is your knowledge of Scrum and all of the surrounding and supporting information impeccable?
- Is your passion and commitment to Scrum and to being a Scrum ambassador balanced and unquestionable?
- Are you a great trainer?
I believe that the evaluation process is deliberately meant to be a very human one. The perfect paper candidate could still fail the human interview, because there are so many intangibles that can only be ascertained face to face. From each of the above categories, I’ll give an example that I've heard from some member of the trainer approval group:
- The committee is looking for signs that you will continue to be a contributing member of the Scrum community after you become a CST. Unfortunately, some CSTs disappear from the active community once they gain the certification. The committee can only evaluate the probability of this occurring by reading between the lines and by watching your body language and facial expressions when you're asked revealing questions.
- If asked to discuss the issue of a prioritized backlog versus an ordered backlog, and your first facial expression is one of being puzzled because you aren't even aware that Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber have published a new version of the Scrum Guide, you are in trouble -- even if, based on your knowledge of the English definition of the words, you recover and talk your way through it.
- When asked about the purpose behind each element of the Scrum framework, does it become apparent that you give the correct answers but that your attitude reveals that Scrum teams really should be free to modify the basic framework as needed? You might verbally profess the need for a daily Scrum, but your body language might cast doubt on your commitment to this. On the other hand, do you come across as a Scrum extremist who doesn't recognize the contribution of other approaches?
- How comfortable are you in front of a class? Do difficult questions throw you? Do you have passion for your subject? The committee will be observing much more than just the words you say. Unfortunately, not all great Scrum Masters make great trainers. CSTs have to excel at both.
The CST application process hopes to prevent endgame failure by requiring you to submit five recommendations along with your application. However, it is possible -- while not likely -- to get the required recommendations and still not make it through the final interview. It is my hope that this document will help applicants be more realistically prepared for the trainer approval committee.
In addition to this document, I have set up both a Google Group and a Google website specifically dedicated to supporting CST applicants. I invite all CST applicants to join. A number of past training approval committee members belong to the group and are willing to help mentor you through the CST approval process. I encourage all past TAC members to join.
Even if you don’t join the group, you may be interested in browsing the website, which contains:
- The most recent version of this article
- A recommended reading list
- Comments by TAC members
- Co-training criteria by a number of CSTs
- Personal observations and conclusions
I have personally found the CST approval process to be extremely valuable. In spite of my 30-plus years as a professional trainer and consultant, I've learned something valuable from each of my co-training experiences. Sometimes it was a training technique, sometimes a new game; sometimes reconciling a contradiction between two CSTs forced me to think Scrum through to a deeper level than I had previously done.
The core of the process is really based on mentoring. Going through the process has resulted in my gaining a number of close CST colleagues who continue to stimulate my professional growth and support me when I need the energy and intellectual boost that being part of the Scrum community can provide.
I, like every other Scrum professional I know, am hyper-busy. I've always enjoyed professional community involvement, but the CST application process has resulted in my even more active involvement in the Scrum community than would have otherwise been likely, given my packed schedule. This involvement has, I hope, been beneficial to the community at large; it has definitely been beneficial to me personally. The Scrum community is full of stimulating and challenging ideas. These challenges and ideas keep me growing both personally and professionally. It is also a lot of fun to have a good, roaring, healthy debate with a respected colleague.
I thank everyone who has encouraged me and given me advice. I especially thank those who have allowed me to co-train with them and have become my mentors.
See you all at the next Scrum gathering!
- I use “trainer approval group” to refer to anyone who has participated in the current version of the trainer approval process.
- Comments by Vernon Stinebaker on an earlier draft of this article.
- Private email dated 10/21/2011, used with permission