2 years into managing and delivering technology and innovation in my division, I took some time for a self-check. We always tell jobseekers to continually upskill to avoid getting left behind, but I had not done the same! Although I had IT project management experience, past bad choices meant I didn’t have qualifications to back it up.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Work experience (more importantly performance) will count for much more than qualifications once you get to the interview room. But qualifications help get you past the Applicant Tracking System (or HR) and put your foot in the door. Though I was not looking to move, I felt it was important to lay the groundwork for any eventuality.
With some simple desktop research, I found 2 types of project management certifications. The first applies to projects in different fields but is better suited to predictive projects with fixed scopes. Project Management Professional®, PRINCE2® and Certified Project Manager are among the widely recognised certifications of this type. The second type of Agile-centric certification gained popularity with the rise of Agile software development approaches in the 2000s. More widely recognised certifications include Certified Scrum Master®, PMI-ACP® or one of the SAFe® certifications.
Given the IT-centric nature of my projects, I knew the second type was a better fit for me. But which one to take? After some digging, I found that Agile was actually an umbrella term referring to many frameworks like Lean, XP, DSDM and Scrum. Although Scrum is the dominant methodology, I did not want to over-specialise and eliminated Scrum-only certifications.
I also wanted a certification that would be challenging to attain for added recognition. Beyond course attendance and test taking, there had to be other requirements justifying the cost of the certification. Here, the PMI-ACP stood out with its rigorous application process requiring written evidence of 12 months general & 8 months agile non-overlapping project experience.
Application and Preparation
PMI has an annual membership (129 USD) that gives you access to resources, community events and discounts on certification exams. Do consider if you intend to take >1 certification within a membership year, otherwise the free registration is sufficient.
Application is pretty straightforward as PMI provides clear instructions through a pdf booklet on their site. Documenting my project experience was tedious but greatly helped by referring to my yearly performance appraisals. Demonstrating application of agile principles was the hardest part as I did not have any formal training when I first began my application. I recommend putting this off till after finishing your training in agile.
This brings me to the next point on exam prep. If you have a degree, it seems you no longer need to attend 21 hours of agile education to qualify for certification. Nevertheless, I recommend taking a course to help you understand the agile methodologies you need for the exam. Do ensure that your course/provider is a Registered Education Provider, otherwise the hours don’t count (this applies to renewal as well). Seeing that certification already costs 400+ USD, I chose a Udemy PMI-ACP Exam Prep course as a value-for-money option. The course took me about 2.5 weeks to complete at my own pace.
You should also take practice tests and memorise key concepts to be ready for the situational questions on the exam. Here, I’d like to give a big shoutout to Edward Chung, the writer behind Edward-Designer. While googling for free practice questions, I stumbled on his gem of a site. Besides free practice questions and prep courses from across the web, he shares his own study notes too! This saved me a ton of trouble preparing my own notes. He also offers the same resources for PMP and ITIL®. If you use the resources and study, you should be able to pass on your first try.
Having said that, the PMI-ACP is not easy. It is a 3-hour 120 multiple-choice question test with many tricky questions. Do set aside at least 3 weeks to study and practice, especially if you’re new to agile. Although I don’t recommend rushing to take the test, don’t put it off for too long either. There is a 1-year period for scheduling your test date after your application is approved. Try not to change the date after setting it as PMI charges cancellation/re-scheduling fees.
Even though I had the physical exam option, I chose the online exam for its convenience and to satisfy my curiousity. PMI works with Pearson VUE, a third-party vendor offering online proctoring (invigilation) services. If your system allows you to do video conferencing, you should be good to go. To be sure, run a system check with the online proctoring software before booking your online exam.
On exam day, make sure you have a quiet space with a comfortable desk and chair to work uninterrupted for 3 hours. Sign-in 15-30 mins before your scheduled start time to complete the check-in procedures. This includes ID verification, showing your room, and clearing your workspace. By the way, the proctor is a real person on the other side who will guide you through this process and invigilate you.
Online proctoring is pretty strict. You’re not allowed to have anything, including writing materials, on your workspace. During my exam, the proctor caught me looking away from the screen a while and said it would be considered cheating if I did it again! Make sure you are mentally prepared to be on your best behaviour for the 3 hours.
On that note, do invest in a proper desk and chair. I had a makeshift set-up as I never had to study or telecommute extensively since moving into my new place. Midway through the exam, this decision came back to haunt me. Hunching over a screen was giving me back pain, but I was scared to shift for fear of disqualification. To make matters worse, I forgot to empty my bladder before the test began.
The exam questions were largely situational and quite tricky, often with 2 options that appear to be good answers. Read the questions slowly and carefully before looking at the options, so you don’t misunderstand the meaning. There is no negative marking however, so put in an option even if you don’t know the answer. This way you have at least 25% chance of getting it right.
Make sure to manage your time properly as well. With 120 questions over 3 hours, give yourself a maximum of 1.5 minutes per question. If a question is too difficult at first glance, mark it for review and skip ahead. When you get to the end of the paper, you can go back and review the questions you marked. The software flags questions you haven’t answered, so you won’t miss any of them even if you didn’t mark them.
Once you’re satisfied with your answers (or when the call of nature becomes unbearable), click submit and you’re done! The software will tell you immediately whether you passed, although the report won’t be available till a few days later. PMI doesn’t reveal the passing grade (rumoured to be 70%) nor your score, though it gives descriptors. “Above Target” and “On Target” means Pass; everything else means Try Again.
Despite my less-than-ideal experience, I was pleasantly surprised to score “Above Target” on all components of the exam. Honestly, I was not very confident of my answers so it really must be God’s grace that I managed to do so well. I hope this sharing has benefitted you. All the best for those looking to be PMI-ACP certified!
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are my own and not a professional recommendation or endorsement of any product or service. Do consider your personal situation and career development needs before proceeding with any certification.