In a recent Certified Scrum Product Owner® (CSPO) course, I was explaining the process on how to become a CSPO and a student asked me this seemingly simple question, “So why doesn’t the Scrum Alliance® have an exam for this course?”
The answer to that question is a little complicated, so let me give it a try.
- The Scrum Guide, most recently updated in late 2020, provides very little guidance on what are the specific practices a Product Owner must use to build valuable products and services. If you are looking for this type of information, the Scrum Guide provides this answer, “Specific tactics for using the Scrum framework vary and are described elsewhere.” Not very helpful, but consistent with the Spirit of Scrum. Scrum is about organizational change and disrupting the status quo, not a set of practices you adopt. What Scrum does is “make clear the relative efficacy of your product management … techniques so that you can continuously improve the product, the team and the working environment.”
- The community of Certified Scrum Trainers® (CST) and Scrum coaches, Certified Team Coaches® (CTC) and Certified Enterprise Coaches® (CEC), are divided on what defines good Product Owner practice. Many product leaders in the Scrum community argue that due to the wide variety of markets, domains, technologies and people who use Scrum, specifying standard Product Owner practice is impossible. Who can say that user stories are superior to use cases? Can anyone claim that 20-20 Vision is a better prioritization technique than the Kano model? They have a point. Product management tools and practices that are effective in one context can fail spectacularly when applied in a different domain under different market conditions.
- After many years of talking about an exam, in the Fall of 2018 the Scrum Alliance assembled a team of subject matter experts to create a Product Owner exam that learners would have to pass in order to receive their CSPO certification. In early 2019, the volunteer team finished their work and released a beta version of the test to Product Owner candidates, Scrum coaches and trainers. I am not sure how the CSPO candidates fared on the exam, but a vocal segment of the Scrum coaches and trainers raised enough objections about the quality of the exam, see point #2 above, that the CSPO test was quietly shelved.
Why We Created a Certified Product Owner Exam
Those are the main reasons why there is no Certified Product Owner exam today. But they read more like excuses that explain how we ended up with the status quo, not as a thoughtful set of reasons why the Scrum Alliance chose NOT to have an exam. Here are the main reasons why I think it is time for a Product Owner assessment:
- Learners want this: for as long as I have been a CST, which has been about ten years, people have been asking about a CSPO exam. It is not a huge number, but people are interested in an assessment. Providing a CSPO test will meet a need of motivated learners.
- Validated learning: in order to become a CSPO, all a person needs to do is attend a two-day training provided by a CST and accept the CSPO license agreement on the Scrum Alliance website. This is the same as the original Certified ScrumMaster®(CSM) certification process, but the exam was later added to make the CSM certification more robust. I think it is time to do the same with the CSPO certification. A simple Product Owner test would confirm that people who attended a Product Owner class actually learned the topics outlined by the Scrum Alliance. This would be valuable for participants, employers and educators.
- Low quality assessments: while there are some Product Owner tests out there today, most support the Professional Scrum Product Owner (PSPO) certifications at scrum.org, and all were created by people OUTSIDE of the Scrum Alliance — people who were never validated as experts in Scrum are authors of tests for a role that was ostensibly created by the Scrum Alliance. Our Product Owner test was created by experienced CSTs who have real-world experience using Scrum to develop software-powered products and services.
So I thought, “Why doesn’t Applied Frameworks create their own Product Owner assessment? We’ve already built a CSM practice exam. We have the product management knowledge and experience, and we know a lot about the various learning objectives at the Scrum Alliance.” As a result, a few of the CSTs at Applied Frameworks got together this summer to create our own CSPO exam, and it’s now available for you to take today.
How We Created Our Certified Product Owner Exam
The main challenge we had to overcome was how to respond to the legitimate critique that any Product Owner test would have to accept the wide variability of product management practice across domains, markets and technologies. After much debate, the answer was clear — follow the pattern set by the CSM exam. For the CSM exam, the Scrum Alliance’s position is to only test concepts that can be found in the Scrum Guide. In other words, if a practice or technique is not found in the Scrum Guide, it does not have a place in the CSM exam — so we followed that model for our CSPO exam.
Another choice we made was to model our Product Owner assessment using the format of the official CSM test administered by the Scrum Alliance. Our position is that Product Owners should demonstrate their understanding of the same fundamental Scrum and Agile concepts – Scrum theory, values, events, artifacts and the roles – in the same ways as a ScrumMaster®. This means that 80% of the Product Owner exam content would be similar to what could be found on a CSM exam. We feel this makes our Product Owner exam more realistic and consistent with the current CSM exam.
Where we diverged with the CSM exam is where one would expect, in the area of Product Owner practice. In that case, our exam is based on the last version of the CSPO learning objectives provided by the Scrum Alliance. This is only 20% of the exam content.
These constraints simplified the design process for our test since most of what are considered product management best practices do not appear in the Scrum Guide. As a result, writing the exam questions was a fairly straightforward process because we could focus on core Scrum and eliminate distractions related to tools, techniques and frameworks.
Finally, there were a few other design choices we made to keep this experience consistent with our Certified ScrumMaster practice exam.
- Our CSPO test is a timed assessment of twenty-five questions. Learners will have thirty minutes to complete the test.
- The passing percentage is set at 76%. This means a test taker must correctly answer eighteen out of the twenty-five questions. If someone does not pass on the first try, they are offered a second attempt.
- The test is designed to be a learning experience. Most of what is currently available for Product Owner tests, or practice exams, only offer a pass/fail score. Our exam provides cogent explanations supporting the correct answers, reinforcing your Scrum knowledge.
A Sample Exam Question
Below is a sample question to give you a sense of what we have created:
Which of the following terms are related to product economics?
- Recursion, encapsulation and object oriented design.
- Critical path, milestones and work breakdown structure.
- Market window, forecasts and return-on-investment.
- Gap analysis, use cases and change control.
Correct answer: 3
Explanation: Recursion, encapsulation and object oriented design are all software engineering terms defined by the IEEE. Critical path, milestones and work breakdown structure are concepts identified and defined in the PMBOK, the project management body of knowledge. Gap analysis, use cases and change control are words defined in the BABOK, the business analysis body of knowledge.
Are you ready to take the exam? If so, here’s the link.