How and Why I Got My Certifications

For years I never worried about getting certified in anything. I was steadily developing skills and picking up new things. I already had the jobs I wanted. I was able to learn what I needed from books or the occasional class. Many classes were provided by employers but on one occasion I sought out a week-long class in Oracle database management because we were going to start interfacing with Oracle products. Mostly I never availed myself of training allotments made available at places I worked. I just did my thing, studied and experimented on my own, and lived my life.

That was good enough until a situation where my company and a larger partner company were working together to bid on a contract for which I was envisioned as the project manager. I had served in this capacity on many occasions already but this was going to be bigger and more formal than what I had previously done. It was going to involve dozens of people (hence the need for a larger partner) and involve a full Project Management Office (PMO) and as such the contract called for the PM to be formally certified as a Project Management Professional (PMP). The owner of the company said, essentially, “you will obtain that certification or you will find someplace else to work.” So, I went back to the office, read up on the requirements for the cert, filled out the application including documenting the thousands of hours of PM experience I already had, and sent it in. (My company did not win that project, btw.)

One of my co-workers was also interested in the cert so I signed up for the online prep course he recommended and blasted through it at home one Saturday. That’s it, I did the whole thing in one day, maybe 7-9 hours. The process was easier because I already had most of the background but this seemed kind of incomplete to me. I therefore also signed up for a four-day class in a nearby hotel and finished that as well. It consumed a lot more hours and cost a lot more money but didn’t provide much extra background. The PMP exam was (and I believe still is) a closed-book proctored exam given at automated testing centers around the country. In order to prepare I made a table of five columns, one for each of the phases of a project (Initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring and Controlling, and Closing), and nine rows, one for each management subject area (Integration, Scope, Time, Cost, Quality, Human Resource(s), Communications, Risk, and Procurement), and then inserted all the summary information listed in the PMBOK Guide (Project Management Body of Knowledge), which was at that time in its fourth edition. The fifth edition was released recently and I reviewed it to ensure I haven’t missed anything. I made the grid in Excel, printed it out, and carried it around and reviewed it periodically. I also made a shorthand grid that just had the subject matter initials in the row headers, the project phase initials in the column headers, and Xs where there was actually data in the grid. Not all subject matter areas have actions defined for every project phase. The pattern was pretty regular and I memorized it and the few exceptions quickly. When I walked into the testing session I was able to start by drawing out the shorthand grid from memory, and that gave me enough of a framework to hang the rest of the details on. I passed every section of the test easily enough, though my strongest section was clearly Project Execution, the area in which I’d had the most direct experience at that time.

Project Management Professional (PMP) #1284485

That certification needs to be renewed every three years so when it came time for the first renewal I breezed through a couple of inexpensive online review courses (one evening after work, about three hours from end to end). When it came up for the most recent renewal I used the PDUs I earned by completing a series of Lean Six Sigma courses, which brings me to the next certification. I already have most of the PDUs I need for renewal beyond 2018 and will probably just apply those I earned from this year’s Scrum certification classes, unless the requirements have changed.

I had heard about six sigma programs and techniques for at least ten years and probably more and had been actively involved in TQM (Total Quality Management) programs at two companies earlier in my career. I had also seen that two of my younger co-workers had used their yearly educational allotment to take Six Sigma Green Belt courses. That looked interesting enough but it took a specific event to motivate me to follow in their footsteps. I was looking for additional activities that my employers might pursue to open new lines of business. They were always talking to people and working with community development boards and so on. I therefore resolved to see if I could get a tour of a business or two to see what they were up to and how they did things.

The first business was run by a friend of mine. He let me come in and observe his dental practice for an afternoon, take some notes, and ask a bunch of questions. That was interesting to me because I had created a tool to simulate activities in dentists’ offices some years previously and already knew the basics. I watched him go through his paces and after closing he told me what the secret was that allowed him to keep up to nine chairs going with him as the only dentist in the practice. It made perfect sense when he described it. (No, I’m not telling you what it is here, but I would be pleased to do so for the appropriate fee!) The analysis performed was very similar to that I was using to analyze operations for over ten years at that point. The innovations and improvements came both at the level of improving individual processes and also at the level of rearranging the overall processes to achieve certain efficiencies. It later became obvious that the process rearrangements were developed using classic Lean techniques.

The second business I saw on a trip to Pittsburgh. My father owns a small interest in a local manufacturing company up there and got a couple of the guys to show me around one morning. The engineer described both what was going on in the operation and how he was improving and rearranging things based on his Six Sigma training. It looked fascinating to me. I therefore marched myself back home and signed up for a Green Belt course right away. Looking back on what I saw that day, plus my own years of experience, made all the information in the classes very easy to visualize and understand.

The Green Belt course was designed to be completed in eight weeks with five or six hours a week of effort. I finished a couple of weeks early after having devoted four full Saturdays to the process. I got my little printout certificate and stewed about it for a while. It had been too easy and I could get a quantity discount if I took all three courses together. I decided to go ahead and sign up for the other two. My company was good enough to pay for the second course in full even though that took me over my training allotment for the year. I paid the larger cost for the final course out of pocket because I was on a roll and wanted it done. I finished the Lean Six Sigma course in about six weeks and then started in on the Black Belt course, which was supposed to take sixteen weeks. I finished that a few weeks early as well. I did extra review in each section of each course by taking the test as many times as it took to get a 100, or until I had taken each one the maximum of three times. The few times I didn’t do better than 96 still annoy me.

I took the Six sigma courses through Villanova University’s online program because they also offer a certification that accepts the single project you complete as part of the Black Belt course for the work requirement. I have done a bucketload of process analysis and process improvement work over the years but never while formally using the tools of Six Sigma, so this option allowed me to achieve formal certification in a way I would not have been able to had I gone the ASQ (American Society for Quality) route. The downside of the Villanova certification is that it needs to be renewed every three years, while the ASQ cert appears to be a permanent, one-time only thing. When I get the chance to do a formal project or two in Six Sigma I’ll be sure to go back and take that test and get the permanent certification. I’ve already passed an online practice exam in the ASQ format.

The Villanova Lean Six Sigma Black Belt exam is online and therefore open book (and even open Internet, though time constraints make it impossible to spend too much time looking around), but even the proctored ASQ exam allows test-takers to consult their own notes. I reviewed for the Villanova exam by re-watching all of the course videos and recording the highlights on seven sides of unlined, B-size paper. That review took eight solid evenings and full weekend days. I finally took the test on a Sunday and got the highest score earned that month. The entire process had taken a year. When it was all done I ordered a number of highly regarded books for future reference.

Certified Lean Six Sigma Black Belt (CLSSBB) #VIL020684

My last company operated in an Agile fashion but employed formal Scrum concepts only loosely due to the dispersed and stop-and-go nature of small teams dividing their efforts across multiple projects. When they decided to begin adopting Scrum formally they brought in the son of one of the owners who had done formal Scrum work and was formally certified as a ScrumMaster, Scrum Product Owner, and Scrum Practitioner. Achieving the last requires at least one of the former and two or three years of actual Scrum practice. I eventually decided that these would be good certifications to have and signed up for and completed the ScrumMaster and Scrum Product Owner certification classes earlier this year. They were fun to take and made perfect sense both in terms of what I saw at my last company and in all of my previous experience. Over the next few weeks I learned Java programming by working through a book on the subject I accessed through my subscription to I also learned both the Eclipse and IntelliJ IDEA development IDEs. When that was done I was able to complete a Certified Scrum Developer course that was given in Java in the IntelliJ IDEA environment and thus earn that certification as well. I could probably apply for and receive the Certified Scrum Practitioner badge as well but that seems cheesy until I’ve formally worked in the Scrum framework for a while longer.

The concepts from Agile and Scrum are an interesting and effective distillation of practices I’ve been following for years. I always operated in a relatively Agile way in the software development efforts I’d been part of as a team member, manager, or sole practitioner. It was always about figuring out what needed to be done, getting a minimum viable product up and running, and building it out while soliciting and incorporating continuous feedback from the customer. I’ve seen that done in various forms for 25 years, so the certifications were a nice way of crystallizing and formalizing that experience.

Certified Scrum Master (CSM), Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO), Certified Scrum Developer (CSD) (Scrum Alliance)

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