Thought Leaders

The Rush For Certification

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Project managers often comment that they wish they could have invested in certification bodies before the “gold rush” occurred. Certifications go way back.

From doctors to chartered accountants, there is a drive to ensure that anyone in virtually any practice is qualified, and, of course, certified. The Project Management Institute reports that over 880,000 practitioners have earned the Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification.

Scrum.org says there are over 245,000 certified scrummasters (CSM).  And so it goes.  There are certifying bodies for everything from Certified Construction Flaggers to Licensed Alligator Trapping Agents.  From the BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) to the CFL (Certified Fireworks Launcher), it seems that everyone is getting in on the act.

Project Managers are moving beyond a basic certification and pursuing more and more esoteric labels.

Erika Flora, CSM, CSPO, PMP, ITIL Expert, is one such individual.  The CSPO stands for Certified Scrum Product Owner.  ITIL used to refer directly to the Information Technology Infrastructure Library, but now refers more to an understanding of IT service management practices.

Her first certificate was actually a certificate program in project management.  “The certificate took me almost a year to get.  I had such a fun time learning and meeting the other students in class.”  But then she started stacking up the certs.  “I’m obsessed with learning about better ways of working.”

Another project manager with similar focus is Igor Zdorovyak PMP, CLSSBB, ITIL, CSM.  The CLSSBB is his certification for Lean Six-Sigma Black Belt.  He says he got started with the PMP, and given his position, he felt it was a logical choice.

“I was an IT/PMO departmental head for a $20 billion in revenue organization. I was already managing large portfolios for the organization and I wanted to learn more and improve on the best practices and methods that could help me in help the organization run more effectively and efficiently.”

Not all of the certifications relate directly to the professional or IT realms.  Joanne S. Aaronson, PMP, REV decided that the spiritual side deserved her attention, and went far enough to get certified.

Her first certification was a graduate certificate in technology management from the University of Maryland.  She was looking for a higher level of credibility in the field.  “Essentially a graduate degree to further my credentials. I had a technical degree and wanted a more rounding out which it did provide (administration, finance, etc.)”.

Aaronson says she then realized that the PMP® was critical to advancing her career.  “As life went on, I went for the PMP which was very helpful when I got laid off and needed to find work elsewhere. It was valued by the community.

“I was already 53 so retaining all that info was difficult for me. I studied for 4 months and really prepared with trial exams. I passed with an 83% which I’m proud of. I can’t say that the real world of project management reflects what’s on the test but it did teach me how PMI thinks about it.”

But she wasn’t done there.  “The next one was the Reiki Master. [Reiki-a healing technique based on the principle that the therapist can channel energy into the patient by means of touch].

“This one took 4 years going through Reiki I, II, III and the final Master level over this time. I knew I wanted to phase out of the corporate world and into a retirement business but not sure exactly what.

“The study of Reiki trained me to be more sensitive to energy – as I majored in physics this made sense to me. People are energy beings so sensitivity to energy extends to understanding how people emanate energy based on what’s working in their energy body.

“I became very good at sensing the various energy levels of the 7 energy centers (chakras); as a result I could “read” people, their motivations and relative situations. This ability was critical to my success with stakeholder management and keeping risks in line”.

In terms of adding more and more to the list of certifications, Tony Johnson may win some awards.  He has all of the Project Management Institute Certifications, and then some.

Tony Johnson MBA,CSP,PMI-RMP, PMI-SP, PMI-ACP, PMP, PgMP, PfMP (PMI Scheduling Professional, PMI Agile Certified Professional, Program Management Professional, Portfolio Management Professional) actually got started by getting certified as a Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP).  He was targeting the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer Certificate (MCSE), but given his role in his work, he went for the PMP instead.

“Using the Agile mentality, I bumped the PMP up on the product backlog.  The odds of me getting a job were a lot better in project management than in networking.  If you want to run projects, you need the PMP.  What’s that?  It’s a CPA for project management.  It used to intimidate me.”

Jackson says the progression through the different certifications has been natural.  “I followed the PMI guidance…and when they came up with the PgMP, I realized.  And then when the PfMP came out…”

A lot of certificants believe that the certificates afford them a higher level of credibility and visibility.  Flora falls into that camp  “It lends credibility in my industry, but more importantly, I’ve picked up some really great tools and techniques to better solve problems.”

She acknowledges that it’s not all sunshine and roses.  “There’s often a temptation to see a particular certification or “body of knowledge” as the only or the best way of working, and that’s simply not the case.  Different tools and techniques solve different problems, and you have to know how and when to best use them.”

Zdorovyak sees the bright side of the range of certificates he holds.  “All certificates have common themes in that help you do your task efficiently and effectively.”

He says “With best practices, they provide more of an arsenal under your belt to solve problems. And each practice has its own methodologies which makes it better for specific areas. By combining best practices it helps me help the organization. And it also helps me in personal day-to-day life and the in choices I make and solving problem that I face”.

Aaronson stresses that even thought her certifications seem somewhat unrelated, they all bring something to the table.  As for her Master’s Certificate? “Yes, it makes a difference in getting a job and in getting a higher salary all along my history. I think it helps with respect too. People think you’re smarter when you have an advanced degree [or certificate].”

“As for being a Reiki Master, I didn’t advertise it at work but I certainly used it to read my surroundings, keep sensitive to my team, my project risks and my stakeholders in general. It also helped me to tap into my intuitive abilities as well for forecasting and planning.”

She acknowledges that most project environments don’t require a member of the clergy, but, “I became ordained as an interfaith minister (REV) in 2009. Again, this study was of various religions and how to do ceremony.

“In the process I learned an increased awareness of sensitivity to cultural differences.”  She says that each certification matters in its own environment.  “Only the PMP is important in the project management world, and the REV if I’m going to do a wedding or a funeral. I guess if there was an RFP that required a project manager that could perform a wedding, I’d have that one in the bag!”

Johnson points out that we need to be careful about how we frame our experience and our certifications.  He says telling everyone every certification you hold might be overkill.

“There’s a perception that people believe you can’t do anything except pass a test…Some people have the perception that because you can pass these tests, that’s all that you can do.  It caused me to add all the letters up and see what was missing.  I don’t know that I can manage having all 26 letters of the alphabet after my name.”

“I can talk about theory and reality,” Johnson points out.  “But,” he says, “If I were trying to keep a job in the real-world spectrum [rather than training/consulting], I’d probably scale back to four or five.”

Maintaining certifications is also a challenge.  With continuing education requirements and contributions to the profession, it can almost become a full-time job in and of itself.  We asked each of our multiple-certificate holders what advice they’d provide potential credential aspirants.

Johnson contends the real key is to be able to “walk the walk.”  “You have to be able to deliver.  I don’t care if you have the letters after your name, you have to be able to deliver.  I remember the first book I ever sold, and the guy sold himself as a PMP expert and a quality expert.  It became obvious that this guy didn’t know what he was doing. Choose what you’re good at, stick with it, and grow that.”

He points out that a few mis-steps can make you look like a fraud.  “If you lay claim to being a scrummaster, you better be able to talk the language of the scrum world, as an example.  The truth will come out sooner or later if all you did was pass the test.  That’s what I like about the experience aspect of a lot of the credentials.”

“Pick a certificate that will help you in your career, in your business or in your job,” says Zdorovyak.  “And don’t pick a certificate just to have more letters behind your name. I am sure your name is difficult enough for some folks to remember. Now they have to remember the acronyms after your name.”  He says that the certificate won’t really change who you are.

“I had hands-on experience before and learned best practices and methodologies before becoming certified.  However, people who don’t have practical experience get bogged down on doing certain ways because that is how they were taught.”

He says book knowledge in the field is definitely not enough.  “They have to really understand why things are done the way it said to be done.”

Flora believes there are some positive aspects to most credentials, but there are also warning signs that you might be getting to them the wrong way.

“Frankly, the credentials that are most in demand in your industry (the ones you see cropping up most often in job descriptions) are the best ones to get to set yourself apart.  It’s also helpful to do research on the training organization that’s offering the certification.

The real beauty of getting a new certification is having a great learning experience – one that’s interactive and fun, allows you to retain concepts over the long-term, and gives you lots of practical advice along the way.  Avoid any training classes that only teach you how to pass an exam.  It’s far better to look for a class that will make you better at your job.”

Aaronson says the key is to grow through the experience.  “Go with what feels right to you. there is nothing wrong with preparing for retirement with hobbies all along the way.

“As left brain people, we all need to have right brain hobbies in our lives, so go for dance, art, music, … something creative to balance yourself out.. even yoga. At the least you’ll be a healthier person.”

Carl Pritchard, PMP, PMI-RMP (and former Earned Value Professional) is the U.S. Correspondent for PM Today.  He welcomes your comments and insights at carl@carlpritchard.com

Carl Pritchard
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