I had some real nerve-wracking moments during the exam yesterday. Five minutes into it, I had 6 out of the first 10 questions marked. I had to almost look up at the exam title just to confirm that I wasn't taking the wrong exam. At that point, my mind had already started developing excuses for failing the exam, and thinking about the next attempt. Negative thoughts were making things even more difficult.
Though I had spent a reasonable number of hours in preparation for the exam, I went into it with a wrong mindset. Most PMI-ACP lessons learned post that I had read gave me an impression that this exam was not that hard, at least not when compared to the PMP exam. That message instilled a sense of complacency and overconfidence in me. I thought that having an IT background, and both PMP and Certified Scrum Master (CSM) certifications under my belt, I should be able to sail through this thing without breaking a sweat. Obviously, I got a reality check early in the exam. I felt somewhat under-prepared primarily because of 'fast-tracking' the schedule by 2 weeks. I was particularly short on practice with sample questions.
How it startedIt feels weird to say that I wasn't particularly keen on getting PMI-ACP certification. It just happened to me by chance. I took Certified Scrum Master (CSM) class in April 2012 and got my certification right after the class. Since then, I have been using Agile practices on my projects. Therefore, I fulfilled the 1 year experience requirement for PMI-ACP. My CSM class also provided me 19.5 PDUs, which was just 1.5 PDUs short of the 21 PDU requirement for PMI-ACP. Nevertheless, the PMI-ACP wasn't on my hit-list until much later.
In June this year (2013), I came to know that Cornelius Fichtner had developed a new Agile Prepcast program for the PMI-ACP certification. I was interested in reviewing that program for this blog and requested him for a free copy. I received my free copy the very next day. However, due to my busy schedule, I didn't get around to looking at it until September. When I started to look at the program I thought "Hey, while I'm reviewing the program, why don't I use the opportunity to go for the PMI-ACP certification?" Wouldn't it be like killing one bird with two stones or rather the other way around :-), I thought. I considered this certification to be a low-hanging fruit (another example of under-estimation and over confidence). So, I decided to go for it and hence my journey began ...
Exam PreparationI started my preparation with the Agile Prepcast in the first week of September. I thought that the Agile Prepcast would be sufficient to pass the exam. But to be honest, I found the material dry compared to my Scrum Master class, which was absolutely top-notch (in fact, the best training I had ever attended). There's simply no way for a distant learning program to better that classroom experience. I'm strongly of the opinion that a real classroom based training by an experienced instructor is the best way to "learn" Agile. So I don't really blame Prepcast on that aspect. However, my main concern was with the overall length of the Prepcast program. The exam required 21 PDUs, but the Agile Prepcast had more than 40 hours of podcasts, and offered 37 PDUs. It's focus was way too broad. You can read the full review of The Agile Prepcast here.
A week later, I realized that while the Prepcast medium was good to get a general understanding of the concepts, I had to complement it with a proper study guide to assimilate the material. After a brief research, I ordered a copy of Mike Griffith's PMI-ACP Exam Prep Guide through Amazon. For those who don't know, Mike Griffith is one of the Steering Committee members for the PMI-ACP certification.
For the entire month of September, I only watched the Agile Prepcast videos. I spent about 1-2 hours on it in every sitting. I somehow managed to watch most of the podcasts by September-end. On Oct 1, 2013, I took the 25 question final exam for Agile Prepcast and got a score of 23. That was good enough for me to get my 37 PDUs certificate.
On the same day, immediately after getting my PDUs certificate, I went to the PMI website and submitted my PMI-ACP exam application. While my application was being processed by PMI, I received my PMI-ACP Exam Prep study guide from Amazon. It turned out (somewhat surprisingly) to be a fantastic book - well-written, nicely organized, and concise. I read it cover to cover in just 4 (extended) sittings over 2 consecutive weekends. You can read Book Review - PMI-ACP Exam Prep by Mike Griffiths for my full review of the book.
After finishing the study guide, I started to feel confident about my preparation (perhaps a tad over confident). About the same time (Oct 12) my exam application also got approved. Immediately, without any hesitation, I paid for the exam (though I didn't book the exam slot). My application was not selected for an audit, though I wanted it to be (so that I could experience the audit process first hand).
In the next couple days, I read some lessons learned posts of successful PMI-ACPs candidates. Through those posts, I came across a wonderful resource - @ScrumDan's PMI-ACP Study Guide. This guide is basically a collection of 200-odd important topics for the exam with reference links for each topic. I followed most of those links and read through all the material thoroughly. I spent about a week on this.
In the last week before the exam, I found that PMI eReads and Reference provides free access to 1000+ PMI-ACP Practice Questions with Detailed Solutions. Since I had not attempted many practice questions until then, I decided to give it a try. I spent about 10-12 hours attempting about 750 (out of 1000+) questions. Again, I'll post my review of this book separately. I also did the second pass of Mike Griffith's book in the same week.
I booked the exam on Oct 27, just one day in advance. That day I went through a few free PMI-ACP mock exams online. I did a 3rd pass of important topics from Mike Griffith's book, and reviewed all the study notes that I had prepared in the past 8 weeks.
Finally, I took the exam on Oct 28 and passed!
Exam ExperiencePMI-ACP exam is mainly focused on Scrum, XP, Lean and Kanban. None of the other methodologies/frameworks found a mention on my exam. About 50% of the questions had Scrum or XP mentioned on them. About 10% were on Lean or Kanban. The exam also gives emphasis on Agile values and principles (about 5% questions). I also remember seeing lots of questions on Estimation. I saw a few questions on Agile Earned Value Management, a topic that was not covered well in most study material that I used. Overall, I felt under-prepared on important topics and over-prepared on topics, which were not even touched in my exam.
The 3 hours of allotted time is more than sufficient. Anybody who has taken the exam would tell you the same thing. I could have finished the exam in 90 minutes and saved the remaining 90 minutes to blog about it, but I chose to utilize it all by reading, re-reading and re-re-reading the tricky questions. As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, I had some really tricky questions in the beginning of the exam that put me into a defensive frame of mind early. I read the questions very thoroughly (almost memorizing them) and answering them very carefully in the first pass.
I completed the first pass in about 1 hour and 50 minutes and had 38 questions marked. That's a lot of marked questions for a 120-question exam - almost 1/3rd of the entire exam. Still I was relatively confident to pass the exam. I took a restroom break for about 5 mins (mainly because the rest room was on a different floor of the building and I had to walk a considerable distance), came back and went through all the marked questions, which took me another 35 minutes. I could have ended the exam at that point, but I decided to go over all the 120 questions again in the final 30 minutes (about 15 secs per question). To my surprise, I changed about 4-5 answers in the final pass.
Exam ResultAt the end, I was confident of scoring Proficient in both the domains - Tools and Techniques (T&T), and Knowledge and Skills (K&S). Finally, I pressed the End Exam button just about 1 minute before the end of allotted time, performed the other rituals (exam survey and my secret prayer), and got the result on the screen. It does take a good 30-60 seconds for the result to appear. That's enough to make your pulse rate shoot above 100. Though I didn't set any record books on fire with my score, I was relieved that I passed comfortably. I got Proficient in T&T, and Moderately Proficient in K&S.
Exam Difficulty LevelI felt that the exam questions were very intelligently designed and required thorough understanding of the subject to answer correctly. Most questions were just one-liners, but the answer choices were superbly well-crafted (and super tricky). My breakup of the questions based on their difficulty level was:
- 20 questions - straight forward questions, which anybody with reasonable preparation could bag easily.
- 20 questions - could be answered by eliminating 3 wrong answer choices.
- 60 questions - 2 correct answer choices and required some reasoning or logic to determine the better of the 2 choices.
- 10 questions - tough questions with 3 very close answer choices.
- 10 questions - I was not familiar with the topic.
Overall, the exam is of moderate difficulty. I know that the PMPs out there must be itching to know the relative difficulty compared to the PMP exam. So, let me just say it straight. PMI-ACP exam is not as hard as the PMP exam mainly because there are no dumb ITTOs (618 of 'em) to learn or memorize. Having said that - do NOT underestimate PMI-ACP!
Prometric Test Center ExperienceMy overall experience with Prometric examination center was good. The staff was professional, the lockers and other facilities were adequate, and everything was processed efficiently (pretty much expected in Singapore). They even had free tea/coffee in the cafeteria. The examination hall was relatively quite with no more than 2 other test takers at any point. It was however somewhat cold. I'm not the one who usually wears a jacket around the office, so I did fine. But those who are more sensitive might want to take along a sweater or jacket.
Another small, and perhaps irrelevant niggle - I was shocked to see that the test center had those old ball-type mice. Mine was somewhat old and made a cranky sound, loud enough to distract the neighbors, each time I used the scroll wheel on the mouse. For a moment, I wondered whether it was 2013 or 2003. I put that feedback in the survey.
Study material usedThe difficult part about this exam is that the content is very broad and there's no reference standard like the PMBOK Guide for the PMP exam. The exam is based on 12 books (it used to be 11 when I took the exam), but there are not many good study guides in the market that distill those 12 guides keeping the focus required for the exam. There is a lot of good and free material available online on Agile, but not a whole lot for PMI-ACP. So finding the right study material is somewhat of a challenge.
I did not read any of those 12 books simply because I was on a fast-track schedule. I made up by reading lot of free content online. Also, as I mentioned earlier, I took a 3-day Scrum Master class last year (and got my CSM certification) that helped me immensely in understanding the Agile values, principles and concepts, and of course he Scrum framework. I used the following study material for my preparation:
- Agile Prepcast
- PMI-ACP Exam Prep by Mike Griffith
- Scrum Guide
- @ScrumDan's PMI-ACP Study Guide
- 1000+ PMI-ACP Practice Questions with Detailed Solutions - by Chris Scordo
- About 200-odd free sample questions available online
- Agile related blogs and websites
Things I would do differentlyIf I had to prepare again, I would have done a few things differently such as:
- Spend less time (no more than 21 hours) on the Agile Prepcast and focus more on the important topics (see the next section).
- Purchase How To Pass On Your First Try - by Andy Crowe as my second study guide. This book includes 2 sample exams at the end, and also provides free 1-week online access to another sample exam on Velociteach. I would use this just for the sample questions.
- Skip 1000+ Questions by Chris Scordo. This turned out to be a colossal waste of time. I've posted my review of this book separately. But in short, the questions in this book are off-track and do not resemble the real PMI-ACP questions. There is way too much repetition and those 1000 questions are more like 250 questions for all practical purposes. But to get those 250 questions, you need to actually go through a pile of 1000 questions. I literally spent 12 hours on this book and the return was only worth about 2 hours.
Important topicsBased on my own experience and that of others who have taken the exam, I recommend that your learn and understand the following topics very thoroughly:
- Agile values (in the Agile manifesto) and principles
- Scrum, its Roles, artifacts, ceremonies and particularly all the scenarios around Daily Scrums
- XP practices and roles
- Lean principles
- Basic concepts of Kanban
- User stories (understand them in and out)
- Agile estimation
- Conflict resolution
Study TipsI have the following tips for those who are preparing for this exam:
- Take a good Scrum Master (or similar) classroom-based training to learn Agile, and get the 21 PDUs. Note, I said Scrum Master class, not a PMI-ACP class. I believe that Agile is something to be learned by doing, not by reading. For PMP, self-paced online courses are fine, but for Agile, real classroom based setting is the way to go.
- Don't spend too much time on methodologies/frameworks such as Crystal, DSDM, ASD, and AUP. Focus more on Scrum, XP, Lean and Kanban instead. The only important concept from Crystal is Osmotic Communication.
- If you are a PMP, then be extremely cautious about some situational questions. The right answer on a PMP exam question, can be a wrong answer on a PMI-ACP exam question for a similar situation. PMI-ACP requires a different mindset (servant leadership as opposed to command-and-control).
- Know the role of a Scrum Master very well and how he/she should act in different situations.
- When faced with 2 seemingly correct answer choices, look at them through the filter of Agile values and principles. It may help you eliminate the less correct answer.
- The PMI-ACP exam had lots of situational questions. Invest in some good sample questions to learn about different types of situations that can be arise in an Agile project environment.
- Read the @ScrumDan's PMI-ACP Study Guide thoroughly. You can get at least 5 more questions correct if you just read this guide even without following any of the links mentioned in the guide.
- I would not purchase PMI membership if it's only to save on the exam fee. Membership costs $139 and saves only $60 on the exam fee. Moreover, I didn't find any useful book on Agile in their members-only eReads and Reference section except for Chris Scordo's 1000+ PMI-ACP sample questions book, which I didn't find useful anyway. Refer to 10 Benefits of PMI Membership to learn about other benefits.
Final thoughtsPersonally for someone with an IT background, I found this certification very useful. I feel that I learned a lot of things during the course of my preparation that I can actually apply on the job. Compared to PMP, PMI-ACP is more relevant to my job. Had this certification been around 6 years ago, I would have skipped PMP in favor of PMI-ACP. Currently, there are only about 4000 PMI-ACPs in the world, but I'm confident that this certification will grow in popularity rapidly. If you are on the borderline and considering this certification, I would say "Go for it!"
This is probably the longest post ever on this blog. I apologize for it. I considered splitting it into multiple posts, but in the end decided against it. I think keeping it together makes it easier for the readers. I sincerely hope it is helpful to folks aspiring to achieve PMI-ACP. Please post your comments and feedback below and let me know your thoughts. If you have any question, I'll be happy to answer them.
Thanks for reading and your support.
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Image credit: Flickr / Mark Fischer