Lessons Learned in Preparing for the PMI-ACP Exam

Lessons Learned in Preparing for the PMI-ACP Exam

I happen to be a very good test-taker. When I was young, I thought it might be fun to have a job helping people who were preparing for standardized tests like the SATs.

Though I never had that particular job, now that I’m an agile coach teaching a course that helps people prepare for the PMI-ACP exam, it’s right up my alley. Of course, to qualify to teach that course, I had to first earn the PMI-ACP certification myself.

“No problem!” I thought. I’ve been totally immersed in “everything agile” for years, so it should be a piece of cake to get certified. I filled out the application and had the requisite experience and training, so now I simply needed to take the 120-question test.

The day before I was scheduled to take the test, I got my hands on a couple of sample exams. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn't do very well on them. Even though I thought I knew everything there was to know about agile, apparently I didn’t know how much I didn’t know!

Besides kicking myself for waiting until the day before the test to take the practice exam, I was also annoyed that I didn’t even agree with some of the answers on the practice tests, many of which I felt were really a matter of opinion.

For example, one of the questions on the sample exam was:

"A project retrospective is scheduled to last an entire day. One of the stakeholders asks if they can drop in and drop out throughout the day. What should the retrospective leader tell this stakeholder?

a) Tell the stakeholder full-time attendance is necessary because each part of the retrospective structure builds on the preceding portion.

b) Tell the stakeholder it's okay to drop in and drop out since their feedback is important.

c) Ask the stakeholder to still attend the retrospective and bring their other work with them to do in private.

d) Reschedule the retrospective until every participant's schedule allows for full-day attendance.”

Correct Response: D … Did you guess that?

“Drop-ins slow down the retrospective process; drop-outs send a different, often puzzling message. Set the expectation for full-time attendance as recommended in this answer choice.”
- Esther Derby and Diana Larsen, "Agile Retrospectives," Chapter 9

Wait a minute! Reschedule? Really? This is not a very realistic answer, since rescheduling to suit one stakeholder’s schedule will undoubtedly cause a problem for someone else. Waiting until everyone is available all day is likely to either be unrealistic or cause a long delay.

I had picked answer “A” and I still think that’s closer to “setting the expectation for full-time attendance.” Also, the question asks what the leader should tell the stakeholder, and “D” is the only answer that doesn't tell the stakeholder anything.

This is just one of many examples where the “right” answer was somewhat ambiguous.

I really didn’t have the time or ability to dig into all the answers I disagreed with, so I focused on learning unfamiliar material and memorizing all I could before the test.

Luckily, I passed the exam, which was easier than the sample tests, but still had a number of questions which I felt were not at all black and white. Agile suggests that we don’t assign black-and-white solutions to problems, but consider the context.

I thought many of the questions would be good for discussion, and that even the experts would have differing answers. It would be nice if we could have the answers as well as explanations on why a particular answer was considered “right,” but for now, I’m just happy to have passed despite my lack of preparedness.

PMI provides some tips and a reference list of materials to prepare for the test. They did allow feedback about the questions at the end of the exam.

Overall, I think it might be interesting to have a panel of agile experts (maybe all the people who wrote the books referenced) take the exam. Any question that gets different answers from the experts should be, in my opinion, eliminated or reworked.

In general, I’m not crazy about “certifications,” but I understand their purpose. This is not an easy one to earn and should instill credibility and respect for those who do earn it. On the other hand, I think the test questions need to be better vetted.

Lessons learned:

  • Don’t wait until the day before the exam to start preparing.
  • There’s a lot more information in the agile reference books than I realized.
  • Don’t depend on PMI-ACP practice exams as your sole resource for studying.

If I hadn’t passed, I’d be very curious to know which questions I’d missed and whether I’d have a chance to contest them. But luckily, I did pass. Taking the exam forced me to study and recognize that there was a lot I didn’t know.

Learning is always a good thing and for that reason, I’m happy to have had the experience. 

Have you taken the PMI-ACP exam? What are your thoughts on it? Let me know in the comments below.


Yvette Francino has more than 30 years in the software development industry, and is an independent consultant, experienced agile leader, coach, author and trainer in various methodologies including SAFe, Scrum, Kanban and large-scale custom methodologies.

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