January 15, 2017 Zack Sionakides no responses

PMI-ACP Retrospective

I recently took and passed the Project Management Institute’s Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP) exam. While taking it I had a number of thoughts regarding the quality of the exam, how well it measured agile knowledge, and where improvements could be achieved. Overall I found the exam to be pretty good, but I did have some issues with the exam that made some questions of low quality.

Exam Difficulty:

I found that the PMI-ACP exam is not to difficult if you experienced with agile, understand its principles, and have been practicing them. The exam requires deep and broad enough knowledge of agile that it should weed out those without agile knowledge or those who attempt to pump and dump to pass exams (a ‘la PMP boot camps).

During the exam I found some questions had three very clearly wrong answers I could find and eliminate (20-30% of questions). Most all the questions had two clearly wrong answers I could discern. A few questions had three or four decent answers I had to work through, and a few were thoroughly confusing what the question was asking (5-10 questions, which I’ll get to why shortly).

I marked about 35 questions as I went along, mostly because of how terminology was being used. I did this even when two answers could be right, yet I had a strong preference for one. Afterwards, I changed about 10 of those answers after going back through them. At the end, I had enough time to go through the unmarked questions, and fix a couple that I may have misread or misinterpreted the first time through.

Exam Terminology Issues

PMI attempts to use a mix of generic and agile methodology (e.g. Scrum) specific terms to check testers breadth of agile knowledge and to avoid favoring a single methodology. Unfortunately, in practice this causes issues with inconsistencies and questionable use of terms. The terms I noticed most issue with were:

  • Agile Practitioner – The term Agile Practitioner is frequently used in the exam in addition to methodology specific roles (e.g. Scrum Master or Product Owner). However, agile practitioner is not a defined position and the only definition I found for it is in the PMI Exam Content Outline (ECO) as “professionals who use agile principles, methods, and approaches when working on or leading agile teams”. This implies Agile Practitioner can really refer to any position in an agile organization. The issue on the exam is it’s not always possible to infer which role the Agile Practitioner is supposed to be in the question, making some questions a guess, since the answer would vary based on who the Agile Practitioner is supposed to be. On most questions I could infer who the Agile Practitioner was, but a few left me guessing and frustrated.
  • Customer – Inconsistent use of the “customer” role in the exam. At times it referred to the product owner (a ‘la XP), but other times it was the end customer that the product owner would typically represent for business purposes. This caused confusion on some questions as end customers and product owners have different roles in agile ceremonies and communications.
  • Project Team – While the term “Project Team” didn’t cause me any issues answering questions, I really question the use of a term that may not be technically correct. “Project Team” was used in place of “Scrum Team”, “Agile Team”, or other term. The issue is that a “Project Team” is not necessarily a single team (e.g. 2 or 3 teams working the same project) or could consist of non-development team members such as staff or PMO personnel. The term only came up on a few questions, but in my opinion should not be used at all.
  • Technical Debt – The term “technical debt” was improperly used in a question, making me have to choose the least bad answer of the choices. I recognize that PMI likes to use the choose the “most correct” type question for increasing the exam difficulty, but the choose the “least worst” question is not a good way to assess examinees.

What I Studied

I had a good background and experience with agile and Scrum before commencing exam preparation, and have done enough classes, workshops, and webinars that I felt pretty comfortable with what the exam was going to cover. I used the Mike Griffiths PMI-ACP book for a lot of my studying and practice questions. This is a really good book that covers 95%+ of what is on the exam. Even if you’re not taking the PMI-ACP exam, I’d recommend Griffith’s book as a strong comprehensive knowledge base of many things agile. I average about 90% on the practice tests in the book, so I felt confident going into the exam. Also I reviewed the Scrum and XP guides to make sure I hadn’t missed anything in the book. My overall prep time was a little under a month, and I was able to use some days off during the holidays to focus study for the exam day.


My overall opinion is that the difficulty is about right for the exam. If I had failed the exam, I honestly wouldn’t know what more to study to get better prepared, so my analysis of the difficulty is pretty close. The PMI-ACP exam should clearly delineate qualified from unqualified agile practitioners, as the agile interpretations in the exam require a healthy breadth of experience. I don’t think you could take a multi-day boot camp and simply pass the PMI-ACP exam, the way a number of people have passed the PMP.

Unfortunately, the quality of questions, I found to be average at best. The attempt to use generic agile terms, resulted in far too many questions of questionable quality. The exam shouldn’t be about trying to test a person’s ability to interpret undefined PMI terminology or knowing five words for Scrum Master. This aspect of the exam really needs fixing. A suggestion would be to pick terms that will represent common items and then map those to popular methodologies terms in the ECO, so everyone goes in knowing what the common terms will be. My feeling is that some examinees with strong agile backgrounds, will fail the exam simply due to the terminology interpretation issue, particularly if English is not their first language.

However, don’t let the terminology issue deter you from taking the exam. If you are aware of it beforehand, you can appropriately study and prepare to manage those types of questions.

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