I passed the Scrum Alliance’s (relatively) new CSP exam last week. Before the switch to a 3-hour 150-question multiple choice format, the qualification was assessed by submission of a written case-study. There was a substantial backlog of papers to grade, which is not surprising as that job, I am told, fell to unpaid Alliance volunteers!
The exam was unlike any I had taken before, so made the whole process of study and assessment an interesting experience which I think is worthy of covering here. What made it so unusual? First, the sheer volume of questions – 150! The CSP exam handbook (PDF) classifies the content into 65 “tasks” in 7 domains, which goes some way to explaining why the questions have to go on… and on… and on. Secondly, some questions are “fluffy” – there’s room for interpretation and shades of correctness requiring you to choose the option which is “most” or “best”. There are sample questions in the exam handbook and a $20, 35-question practice test which illustrate this.
If you have arrived at this blog post from a search engine, you probably want some tips on the exam. I’m happy to give some pointers, but it’s a tough exam so don’t expect that reading a few tips will make it easy to pass!
There’s no way around it, this is an exam you have to prepare for with good old fashioned cramming from books. And passive reading isn’t going to cut it, you really have to understand. For me, that means sloooooow reading with plenty of time for reflection and wherever possible, application. There’s nothing like real-world use to take lessons to heart.
The exam handbook has a useful reading list. The stand-out book for me is Scrum Alliance Chairman Mike Cohn’s Succeeding with Agile: Software Development Using Scrum. This has a fantastic scope and gives a good grounding in Scrum beyond the basic framework. Read it, then try as much of it as you can in practice. Then read it again. Then read some of the other books.
2. Read related content
I’ve always found that “reading around a subject” – studying content that’s related but not integral – is very effective. Knowing more than you strictly need to somehow makes it a lot easier to understand what you must. It also provides some mental recuperation without completely going off-piste with the latest paranormal romance (which is, by the way, a genre of fiction that really doesn’t need to exist).
Scrum is about people, technology, management, innovation and much more – so there’s plenty of books you can use to “read around”. On my reading list I had Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and David Anderson’s Kanban, as well as a lot of technical tomes. None of those are about Scrum, but do a great deal to put it into context.
Another great way to learn around is to take part in conferences, meet-ups, and other groups. By sharing experiences you can put yourself in the shoes of other practitioners, and gain an appreciation of situations that you have never seen first-hand.
3. It’s Scrum, Jim, but not as we know it
CSP is a Scrum qualification, but the goes well beyond the mechanics of Scrum – a fact well-illustrated by the content outline in the handbook. Knowing the Scrum Guide backwards is the foundation for CSM and Scrum.org’s PSM I, but won’t cut it for CSP.
A good appreciation of Agile as a generic approach and related technical practices are pretty crucial – you need to have really internalised the Agile mindset to quickly (almost instinctively) assess the right approach in different situations.
4. Put it into practice (but don’t get tunnel vision)
I can’t imagine someone passing the exam without getting into the sticky business of doing Scrum/Agile in the real world. In fact, 2,000 hours of Scrum-related work in the past two years are an eligibility requirement. Working as a ScrumMaster is the most obvious position, but any Scrum role (i.e. developer or Product Owner) could in theory provide the right exposure and opportunities.
Be careful to use your experience but not be constrained by it. CSP takes a broad view of the Scrum world and your experiences are likely to be narrower, and sometimes in conflict, with what’s best in a broad range of circumstances.
5. General multiple-choice exam tips
The common, time-honoured, advice for multiple choice tests is worth bearing in mind. There’s some good tips in the exam handbook, but the ones I find most useful are:
- Use a process of elimination. If you aren’t confident of the answer but can eliminate two options, the odds are swung massively in your favour.
- Take your time, but don’t agonise. Methodically work through the questions and when you have done all you can, move on. Racking your brains is more likely to lead to frustration than the right answer.
- Take breaks. 150 questions is a lot. You can’t get up and stroll around, but you can close your eyes and relax a few moments at regular intervals. Getting a little breather can help maintain perspective.
I’ve taken a good few technical exams over the years, but the CSP is very different. You can’t simply cram and regurgitate facts to pass, which is refreshing – but challenging. I initially viewed the CSP with some scepticism but have come to appreciate that an automated exam which fairly assesses a complex, nuanced body of knowledge is quite an achievement, and it really means something to pass.