How I studied for the PSMI certification

Okay so I decided I’d like to do the Professional Scrum Master 1 assessment. I realised that I don’t have any fancy letters to my name, no qualifications or certifications whatsoever that are anything to do with tech or testing. Not saying you need fancy letters to be good at a job, but sometimes it’s good to have them so that the people who think you need them feel comfortable.

Yeah, it doesn’t sit with me either, but I started thinking about actual career things and there are too many people out there who think you need fancy letters, so while I have the means I’ll follow along and put some of those letters next to my name. (False. They will never be next to my name, unless I get some really, really fancy ones.)

How did I pick PSMI? Same way I make all decisions – a blindfold and a dart board! (Also false. I’ve been working with an actual Scrum Master in my current role, and we talk a lot about teams and how people work. He’s inspired an interest in Scrum Mastery, and become one of my top favourite people at work.)

First thing’s first – researching how best to prepare! I started by looking online for suggested methods of preparation, and I was bombarded with advertisements and recommendations for training courses to go along with the exam. A lot of sites out there give you the impression that the assessment is really difficult, and that you’ll need multiple days of instruction and help before you’re ready to take on this terrifying man-eating beast of an exam. Oh, and these courses all happen to cost a bare minimum of £600, and many of them much more…

Cool, cool, cool, cool, cool…

Being (at times) a bit of an arrogant sod, I thought to myself “I’ve worked in Scrum, sort of, for two years now. Pretty sure I know the rules, right?”

And so began my 7-day “Bruce is theoretically on holiday but has nothing better to do during lockdown” quest to study for and pass the exam, to answer the question burning in my own mind:

Is it really necessary to do a £600 training course to pass the PSM I?

Bruce The Arrogant, 2020

Day 1:

As it goes with such things, I got off to a racing start, filled with energetic motivation and a burning desire to Do The Thing.

I talked to a friend who has done a few qualifications, including PSM I, and she sent me a list of resources she used – which included Mikhail Lapshin’s Practice Quiz. Now, I love me a quiz, so I thought… Let’s just see how I do now. Set a baseline, sort of thing.

I’ve run retrospectives and standups, and facilitated all sorts of change/progress in my short time as a tester… That’s what a scrum master does, right? Meetings and stuff? Surely I know enough to get at least 75%!

Hahahahahaha…

I got 56%, and I’ll tell you now that I guessed or meta-read the questions to get half of those ones right.

Screenshot of the test results. I scored 49 out of 87, which is 56%.

Considering that I had never read The Scrum Guide, nor heard terms like “Scrum Artifacts” before, I think I did alright. My best area was Scrum Events, which isn’t surprising since I’ve facilitated a lot of them… Lowest score was in Scrum Theory, which is also unsurprising because, as I said, I had never read the Scrum Guide.

So the next step, upon realising that I needed to read the Scrum Guide, was to download a bunch of totally unrelated Scrum books that were available on Kindle.

Look, I never claimed to be intelligent, okay? I genuinely, intensely hate reading books or documents on a computer screen. It’s too big, too high, too wide, too bright, too everything. I can pretty much only concentrate on words that are on a paper page, or something the size of a page that I can hold in my hands. I want a medium that moves with me so I can fidget and sit upside down on my chair while keeping the material in the exact same spot relative to my eye holes.

Seeing as the official Scrum Guide isn’t available for kindle (fyi you can email the pdf to your kindle account and that works, I was not aware of this) I decided to learn more about Scrum in a wider sense. The essence of Scrum, if you will.

That’s how I started reading Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time. I won’t go into detail, but suffice it to say that if you are taking your first steps to learning about Scrum, this is not the book for you. If you already know lots about Scrum and want to read about one of its co-creators and how he is the best and most magical human being that exists, then you should totally read it.

I got about a fifth of the way through before realising that it was not going to help me pass the exam, and instead found a different one that was made to help people pass the higher levels of Professional Scrum Master certifications.

This book is called The Scrum Guide Explained: A Comprehensive Analysis of The Scrum Guide.

And I will not lie to you, this was a proper Goldilocks and the three bears situation. Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time was a bit faffy and biographical, with a mere sprinkling of educational content in between. The Scrum Guide Explained on the other hand, was way too deep for just the basic understanding of rules I needed. I read the first twenty pages of it and came across a passage stating that the entire official Scrum Guide is only twenty pages long, and realised I could have just read that and been done by now if I’d started there.

I had to suck up and ignore my usual learning material preference, and go open my computer. At this point however, I was exhausted from eating the metaphorical porridge and sleeping in the metaphorical beds, so I played video games instead.

Day 2:

Played video games.

Day 3:

Played video games.

Day 4:

Really, really intended to study.

Played video games.

Day 5:

I don’t wanna talk about it. (Played video games.)

Day 6:

On Day 6 I finally read the Scrum Guide!

I did an initial read-through, with all the requisite “ooh“s and “aah“s and “so that’s why we do that“s, then I went through it a second time while taking notes. I had to stop every ten minutes or so to congratulate myself on the stupidity of not having done this sooner – I am really, truly proficient in the art of overdoing things to my own detriment. Facepalm.

Photograph of me writing notes while biting the paper I am writing on in frustration.
I love studying really…

I retook the preparation quiz, and this time scored just under 90% – much better than my initial test the week before. Each time I got a question wrong, I did a little huff because I knew the answer really.

Screenshot showing results of the same test as before. This time I scored 78 out of 87, which is 89.66%.

The most marked improvement was in my understanding of Scrum Theory, in which I scored less than 50% the first time, now over 90%. I definitely understand the Why of Scrum much better now that I’ve actually read the darn guide, and realised how little I previously understood the framework and why it’s set out the way it is. (See how I called it a Framework there? That’s how you know I’m indoctrinated.)

Day 7:

Day of the assessment! I should admit… I had planned to study all day, then do the assessment at around 3pm. However, by 2:30pm, I had:

  • Gone to the shop to buy orange juice (with extra juicey bits, if you care to know)
  • Baked a cake (victoria sponge with vanilla buttercream icing)
  • Regretted the cake and offered it to strangers on twitter
  • Met with some excellent testers online to talk about helping on an upcoming project

So I guess I had a few bits left to do before I was prepared for the exam. I made a new goal to be ready by 5pm. Come rain or shine, I was doing it that day!

My practice score improvement had been great so far, but the questions were static on that one test so I needed to take a few from other sources to make sure I was prepared for all manner of questions.

After using a search engine, I found some different practice tests including this one from The Scrum Master site. In some ways, this is a better practice test because it pulls from a pool of possible questions so you don’t get the same ones every time. The downside is that you have to give them your email address in order to see the results, so I’m awaiting a barrage of advertising and cold emails… Another annoying thing is the band of sliding/rotating sponsor logos at the bottom of the page. I found it very difficult to read the questions properly when there was something moving on the screen nearby. On my first attempt of this test, I scored 85%.

Next up was the Fractal Systems Practice Assessment. I scored 82% on this one, and also had to give them my email address. This test seemed much more rules-based than the others, ie it asks questions around the specifics of what exactly has been said in the Scrum Guide, rather than the meaning of those words. My pet peeve was that it doesn’t give you the correct answers when you get questions wrong – this annoys me because I’d like to correct myself as soon as possible at the point of failure. However, it did send me back to the Scrum Guide itself to check, which can’t be a bad thing.

(Update: It’s been 5 days and after giving unique surnames in both forms, I can confirm that I received 0 cold emails using those names. None, from either site. All good.)

Day 9:

Wait…. Day 9? Bruce, you were supposed to do the assessment on Day 7! What on Earth happened!?

I know, I know. I chickened out. $150 is a lot of money, you know? I’m doing it today. Right now. This very next hour.

It’s not that I’m super nervous or worried about failing, I’m sure it’ll be fine, but I can’t afford to whiff or make silly mistakes since I’m paying for myself to do this…

Elevator music plays for an hour while Bruce is off doing the assessment.

Okay so that was vaguely terrifying. The actual test contains a lot of situational-type questions that were not asked on any of the various practice ones I took. I can’t tell you what the questions were, but they were in the format of “Person of X role comes to the Scrum Master with Y issue, what should the Scrum Master do? Select 2” and I was not at all prepared for these types of questions. I’ve always been bad at them – you know how you get those online tests to check if they want to interview you for shop assistant jobs? Yeah, I failed them all. Every single one.

Oh, but I did pass this, by the way! If you follow me on Twitter, you probably already know, but here it is:

Screenshot of the finishing page of the test, showing results for Bruce Hughes with a passing percentage of 91.3%
Did… did I pass? Still not entirely sure at this point.

Bit of an anticlimactic ending, to be honest. I was expecting a fanfare and some confetti (Test Automation U knows what’s up) but the time ended while I was going back through my answers for the millionth time, and it just navigated me to the finishing page without preamble. It didn’t immediately give me the impression that I had passed or failed either, but there we are. I passed with 91.3%! Woo!

Looking at the score breakdown though, don’t hire me as a Product Owner. All 7 incorrect answers were to do with Product Backlog Management and Stakeholders…

Takeaways

Okay, so well done for reading through that mess. Now, what did I learn from this experience, and what advice do I have for others looking to do the certification?

I knew naff all about Scrum

I don’t want to admit this, since I’ve always been proud of my contributions to the team both as a facilitator of ceremonies and as an influencer of change, but I really honestly had not a single clue what Scrum is actually all about. I thought I knew everything of worth there was to know about it because I’d worked in teams using Scrum(-ish). Oops, I was wrong.

Turns out that Scrum is more than the sum of its parts, and that there are more parts than I was ever aware of. I’m in a much better place to support the scrum master and see how my actions and behaviour can positively affect the rest of the team now though. Which is cool.

Also I now know all of the things, so I can be even more insufferably annoying on Twitter!

Illustration of me wearing a monacle, waving my finger and saying "I think you'll find..." with a condescending expression. I'm wearing a tshirt that says "I'm professional now" in Welsh.
I’m Professional Now

A new lens on failures

Thanks to this newfound understanding, I was also able to look back over teams I’ve been part of in the past and better see why some of the practices we followed were super pants.

For example, I used to work in a team where developers were often being directly asked by the CEO and sales/marketing people to add new work to the sprint not related to the product backlog. These were often entirely new features or products, prototypes etc, or changes to core functionality. We recognised it as an issue, but no one was empowered to change the way things were, and there was an attitude that being agile meant picking up absolutely anything thrown at you without the weight and faff of any thought or planning whatsoever.

Every sprint felt like it was going in five different directions, the goals kept moving and the team was riddled with almost-finished features and products that were not used by the customers we thought we were making them for. Nightmare.

Advice

So on Day 7, just before I was going to take the assessment, I found this page detailing some of the steps you can take to make sure you pass. It’s one of the reasons I bottled it on the day, because I realised I probably had more reading and prep to do, as well as the Open Assessment I had somehow managed not to come across earlier.

In general, my advice is thus:

1. Read The Scrum Guide. Make notes. Read it real good. This is the #1 most important thing, and the one I was most reluctant to do.

2. Check the version of the Scrum Guide you’ll be assessed against. At the time of writing, the 2020 version is out, but all assessments will be against the 2017 version until January. Although I didn’t notice a lot of difference in the rules and essence between the two versions, it will in all likelihood affect the wording and focus of questions in the assessment.

3. Do as many different practice tests as you can find, because they’ll all ask different things and use different wording – some of the questions can be a bit tricksy, so it’s good to have practice, and not to let yourself associate certain phrases with others or you might fall into traps.

The practice tests I used are listed again here:

  • The Open Assessment – this is the official one I think, with some actual questions from the assessment, as well as others, and some of the questions change each time.
  • Mikhail Lapshin – this one has a lot of questions, very worth doing. The questions are static so far as I noticed.
  • The Scrum Master – shorter quiz so easier to do more often, and repeatable because the questions change.
  • Fractal Systems – frames the questions differently, I’d recommend just for the practice at reading the questions properly although it does not offer feedback on what you did wrong.

4. During the assessment itself, go through all the questions and answer the ones you’re sure about while bookmarking the ones you’re not (there is a bookmarking function built into the test). Do it carefully but quickly, because this will leave you enough time to look over your notes or the Scrum Guide for guidance on how to answer the others.

And remember: it’s not an exam. You’re allowed to use your notes, the Scrum Guide and even search engines during the hour. You can do it standing up, sitting down, lying under the bed to hide from your children. You can’t pause it though, so be sure you have the time before you start because $150 is not a small price to pay if you get disturbed.

The Verdict

So I successfully passed, does that mean I reckon everyone else could or should do the same?

Well, no. I was able to do this for a bunch of reasons, most of them related to forms of privilege.

I have a learning style that means I was able to read a 20 page document and study it really hard, and it wasn’t a big struggle. A lot of people will really benefit from having guidance and/or interactions with a group, to help them learn the way they learn best. Especially if they are studying in their second language, or if they have dyslexia or they can’t focus on studying for long periods of time for any other reason.

I also had the time to study on my own without disturbances, and a personal computer to use that’s just for me. No children barging into the room, no one to look after, and the physical and emotional space to do things I want to do. That’s an extraordinarily lucky set of circumstances, and absolutely not the case for most people.

So my overall verdict is: Yes, it’s very possible to pass without doing a course, but if you need or want to do a course for any reason, then that is totally legitimate and cool. I know that if my company had been paying, I would have purchased a course without a doubt!

And if anyone wants a study buddy to sit in a call with them and walk through the Guide, I’m no expert but I make an excellent rubber duck.

Outro

Just a note to say thanks to everyone who has read my blog and encouraged me on Twitter this year. I hope to get a post out about achievements and goals from 2020 (I didn’t meet any of them, oh dear!) in the next few weeks, but if not then just know that despite the year we’ve had, it has been so wonderful to be part of the community. I’ve been a tester now for 2 years and 9 months, and I’ve learnt so much and met so many amazing people. Hashtag blessed.

2 thoughts on “How I studied for the PSMI certification”

  1. I did a formal training course leading to a Scrum Master qualification back in 2008 or thereabouts. It was a multiple-choice open book exam, and I was able to pass, just like everyone else. Got a swanky certificate and the right to call myself a Scrum Master.

    Five years on, I was using that qualification for real on my CV in a real job search. I found that what different organisations understood by “Scrum Master” was as different as, well, as many flavours of Scrum as there are organisations. I actually terminated one interview by saying “Hey, it’s clear to me that what I understand by Scrum and what you understand by it are two very different things. I’d be wasting your time if we continued this conversation. Great meeting you, like the company, great product, but I’m not who you’re looking for.”

    Despite having the format training course behind me, I only came to understand Scrum when I saw it in use in a number of different organisations over the next five years. Only now do I really understand the course I took. So whatever you’ve learnt will be useful to you, but not necessarily the way you might think.

    The funniest take-away from the course was seeing the course leader, who was Dutch, pick up her personal e-mails whilst still plugged into the digital projector, and reply to them whilst we were (supposedly) doing an exercise in the mistaken belief that none of us could read Dutch.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hahaha you’re right – even in the two companies I’ve worked for, although there is technically one ‘true’ definition of Scrum, it’s defined and implemented so differently everywhere! It’s kind of exciting, right? I love working in the new team, not because it’s better or cooler or faster than where I was before, but because it’s different and my world/knowledge has expanded so much just from being around different people!

      And that email incident, haha, made me laugh! I sometimes speak Welsh on the phone to my dad or sister in public, and say the most silly and personal of things loud as you like. Waiting for someone to turn around one day and tell me they understand Welsh. xD

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.