Another in my continued attempts to come to terms with what Scrum is rather than what it could (and should?) be.

I’ve pretty much given up on coming to terms with the larger concerns today, such as our nation’s systemic racism and sexism, the disturbing thread of authoritarianism, the perhaps more disturbing notion that you can have your own facts, the even more disturbing notion that we’ve got to keep the economy running even if it kills people, or that sending kids to school to die under gunfire or disease is somehow OK … I could go on. Anyway, I’ll never come to terms with those.

I think I can come to terms with what the Scrum Alliance, and the whole Scrum Industrial Complex is, versus what it might have been. At least, I’m slowly coming to understand why it is what it is, and perhaps, understanding, I’ll come to see what might be done about it.

Understanding comes down to the title of this article:

Certifiers Gonna Cert

I was thinking this morning, while slowly deciding whether it was time to get up, about who the customers of the Scrum Alliance are. (The other members of the S.I.C. have similar but not identical situations.)

The Scrum Alliance receives essentially all of its revenue from selling certifications, most of them CSM certifications, with a smallish fraction from other certifications. The conferences, I’ve been told more or less officially, were fortunate to break even, and at least sometimes lost money.

You might think, well then, their revenue comes from ScrumMasters. But that is doubly not the case. First of all, the certification fee is paid, not by the individual, but by the trainer, when they submit their class list for certification. Second, of course, by far the bulk of the fees for the courses are paid by the would-be certificant’s company, not by the individual.

The Scrum Alliance does not offer courses. It does not have a mass of employed trainers going about training. It has Certified (!) Scrum Trainers, who pay a fee to the Scrum Alliance for the right to offer CSM courses. Scrum Alliance does not have coaches, it has Certified(!) Enterprise and Team Coaches with a similar arrangement. And it has “reps”, individuals or organizations who are authorized to teach developer courses and (perhaps?) other such courses.

Trainers, coaches, and reps are the Scrum Alliance’s customers. If they were to look beyond that immediate layer, the second-tier customers are the companies that pay for the courses, probably primarily managers in the development organizations.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with this, but it has real implications for the motivations of anyone trying to run the Scrum Alliance. Your primary job would be to keep hundreds of trainers and coaches happy. Based on my past history with them, most of the focus is almost certainly on trainers. The coaches had to work hard even to get a coaching certification, and, as far as I know, they do not funnel part of their coaching revenue back to the Scrum Alliance.

And what do the trainers sell? They sell certifications. Some of the larger companies offer non-certification training, but even that training is supported by the “SEU” (Scrum Education Unit) which is part of an individual’s steps through the hierarchy of certifications.

I hope the above doesn’t come across as cynical: I’m trying to be realistic. If it is too cynical, I’m sure that Nigel or someone will correct me, and if I have facts wrong, I’ll be happy to correct the article.

My Petty Concerns

I’m concerned with the lives of people who work under the thumb of Scrum, especially developers. I’m concerned with individuals who are experiencing Scrum applied by individuals who may or may not be certified. I’m concerned about people who’ve just heard of Scrum somewhere on the street and started trying to do it.

As I’ve discussed in other articles, when you’re close enough to the sources of Scrum, you’ll probably do fairly well, but as your distance increases, the quality of your knowledge, and therefore your execution of Scrum, declines.

It was ever thus. But those people outward from the center ought to be of concern, in my view, and it’s clear that they are not. What I’ve come this morning to recognize better than I have before, is that it is a natural outcome of the way Scrum–and the Alliance–is organized.

The brilliant marketing move was the original creation of the Certified ScrumMaster notion, which I have seen attributed to Ken Schwaber, who was looking for something to sell as part of bringing Scrum to the world. And it has worked marvelously.

Ken has moved to another part of the S.I.C., but his legacy lives on in the current setup. There are now many “certifications” around Scrum, offered by Scrum Alliance and others. These are almost all paid for by companies looking for improvements in productivity. And, in the case of the Scrum Alliance, it’s not even those companies who produce life-giving revenue, it’s the Trainers.

Mission Oriented?

Paraphrasing what I said in an earlier article:

Scrum, seen as the whole system, is not focused on the well-being of everyone working under Scrum, despite the good will of everyone I know inside that system.

It would be possible to imagine a Scrum certification organization that was truly oriented to the mission of making the world of work a better place. Such an organization might operate like the Red Cross, or Doctors Without Borders, transforming money into help for people who need it. It would be led and managed by individuals focused on that primary purpose, and it would of course include individuals who managed the money. I am sure that inside Red Cross there are bean counters who make hard decisions about what will be funded and what will not. But even those bean counters surely understand that the mission is to help individuals who need help.

Scrum Alliance is not that kind of organization, and it’s unlikely ever to become one. It is surely focused on its current food chain, and that chain is almost entirely corporation to trainer to alliance. If it were to fall into the hands of a leadership with the more broad focus of actually transforming the world of work, I suspect it would be possible to change. But with all its constituents essentially being Certifiers …

Certifiers Gonna Cert.

That’s our reality. As always, reality could be better. But reality isn’t truly bad in this case. I do think that Scrum, done reasonably well, can be a path to making work lives better. I think it is far more weak than it could be, far more weak than it should be, but I know these people, and I know they’re trying to be helpful.

And yet, it makes me sad. Systems are weird. They don’t do what we expect, and they are really hard to change.

What does that mean to me and mine? I think we have to just recognize that Certifiers Gonna Cert, and continue our efforts to reach people who are drawn into the Scrum / Agile maelstrom and help them as best we can.

Certifiers gonna cert. Roll with it, do your best inside it. Keep helping.