How I passed the PMI-ACP exam

It has been a while since I passed the PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP) exam, almost 5 years ago. Recently, I was approached by a colleague who is preparing to take the exam to share my experience. I would probably have forgotten many of the details, were it not for this article that I wrote for the PMI Slovenia Chapter Newsletter soon after passing the exam. I dusted off the article and I am publishing it here for anyone else who is interested in the process.

When PMI first announced the agile certification, I knew immediately that I wanted to take it. I had become familiar with agile a few years earlier and I was already practicing it in my consulting work. Becoming certified in agile seemed a logical next step.

Eligibility requirements

To apply for the PMI-ACP certification, I had to meet the following eligibility requirements:

  1. 2,000 hours of general project experience working on teams.
    I automatically fulfilled this requirement because I am PMP certified.
  2. 1,500 hours working on agile project teams or with agile methodologies.
    I listed my previous consulting work on business intelligence and data analytics projects. At the time when I was applying, agile was still relatively new and most of my stakeholders had never even heard of the term. I did a lot of explaining of the concepts which differ from traditional project management, but the idea that we can deliver faster in iterations was well accepted. The stakeholders were especially impressed after a few initial iterations that already demonstrated tangible results. I had two years experience working on agile projects which fulfilled this requirement.
  3. 21 contact hours of training in agile practices.
    The bulk of this requirement came from a 2-day Scrum Master training that I attended earlier. This is a good investment because in addition to gaining 14 hours of training, the content is also very relevant for the PMI-ACP exam. The remaining training hours came from attending various PMI chapter events and listening to webinars, particularly on the PMI Agile Community of Practice.

After I gathered all relevant documentation to support my eligibility, the next step was to apply, pay and of course study for the exam.

Exam content

As opposed to the PMP certification where the exam content is covered in the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) there is no such manual for the PMI-ACP exam. There is only the Exam Content Outline which lists topics that are covered in the exam.

Another useful document is the Reference Materials for PMI-ACP Examination. This document lists 11 recommended books that are helpful for preparation for the exam. I read a few selected books from the list:

As suggested on the list, candidates may identify additional resources and I added:

In addition to these resources I also bought a book aimed specifically as preparation for the PMI-ACP exam. Because the certification was new at the time, I didn’t have many options to choose from. I bought the first one that I came across:

Because the certification was relatively new at the time and there is no official manual, I was worried whether this book adequately covers the exam content. After the exam I can attest that the book lacks detailed descriptions of the various agile methodologies Scrum, XP and Lean. [Updated March 2017: a new version of the book has been published since I studied for the exam and although I haven’t seen the new book I suspect the deficiencies have been addressed.] Many questions on the exam expect the candidate to know specifics of these methodologies. I knew enough about Scrum from attending the Scrum Master training and I learned about XP by reading the book Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change. I didn’t read anything specific on the Lean methodology so I knew only the general concepts that I learned from Andy Crowe’s book. Fortunately this gap in my knowledge didn’t affect my final exam outcome.

Studying for the exam

Because the exam materials are contained in many books by different authors, there is no one single source of truth and I noticed that there was sometimes conflicting information. I had to decide which source to believe and what would most likely be valid for the exam. Here are some examples of conflicting information and how I decided:

  • One of the principles behind the Agile Manifesto says that “Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely”, which I understand as that the velocity of an agile team should be constant so that it performs for the long term. I came across sample exam questions where the correct answer was that team velocity increases over time. This may make sense at the beginning when the team is still learning agile practices and is therefore slower, but becomes faster with more experience. However, for the exam, I thought it best to favor the Agile Manifesto.
  • One of the books states that the three pillars of Scrum are “visibility, inspection, adaptation”, while the official Scrum guide by Schwaber & Sutherland lists them as “transparency, inspection, adaptation” (sure, visibility probably means the same as transparency, but for the exam, I wanted to be sure I know the exact term). Once again, I favored the more official document, the Scrum guide.
  • There are different definitions of the suggested number of agile team members. Some sources state that the team should have 7+-2 members, others that the number of team members shouldn’t be less than 3.
  • The agile manifesto suggests iterations between 2 weeks and 2 months while in XP they may be as short as 1 week. Scrum allows iterations to be of various lengths but Andy Crowe says that they are 30 days in length. I also came across a dilemma whether 30 days means 30 calendar days or 30 working days. From some examples in books I deduced it means calendar days.

I was relieved that the actual exam didn’t contain a single question where the answer might be ambiguous. This is probably due to PMI’s high standards in exam development (which I learned first hand when I participated in a workgroup for PMP exam development some years ago). A question may appear on the exam only if the answer can be attributed to at least two different sources.

Taking the exam

There are many locations where the exam can be taken, in fact, the list of locations for Ljubljana where I took the exam is about a page long. I just picked one location from the list at random to reserve my time slot.

The certification exam has 120 multiple-choice questions and you have three hours to complete it. Just like the book by Andy Crowe hinted in the title, I did pass on my first try.

My recommendations

In summary, based on my experience, here is what a candidate should do before taking the PMI-ACP exam:

  • Attend a ScrumMaster training because it helps in fulfilling the agile training requirement and also because a major part of the exam is covered in this training
  • Acquire and study from a book aimed specifically as preparation for the PMI-ACP exam
  • A sound knowledge of each of the three methodologies, Scrum, XP and Lean is essential; therefore I suggest reading a book on each of the methodologies
  • More or less memorize the Manifesto for Agile Software Development and the Principles behind the Agile Manifesto, because many questions expect detailed knowledge of these
  • Knowledge of the PMBOK may also be of use because a number of topics are relevant for the exam, such as the Project Charter, calculating the present value, net present value and internal rate of return (PV, NPV, IRR), cause-and-effect diagrams (Ishikawa diagrams), Deming circle, Earned Value concepts.

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