Certified SAFe agilist(SA) vs Certified SAFe Scrum Master(SSM)

As organizations strive to achieve business agility, they find they are quickly outgrowing small-team Agile and need to decide on an approach to scale to the enterprise.

Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe®) for Lean Enterprises is a knowledge base of proven, integrated principles, practices, and competencies for achieving business agility using Lean, Agile, and DevOps.

Due to its scalability and its number of roles and ceremonies, companies are increasingly expecting team members to not only be trained in SAFe® but also become certified. Since SAFe® is the most popular form of Scaled Agile, it is wise to consider becoming certified in this framework.

This article will compare and contrast two certifications – Certified SAFe® Agilist and Certified SAFe® Scrum Master.

SA SSM
Learners are in these roles
  • CEO
  • Project Manager
  • Scrum Master
  • Team Lead
  • Release Train Engineer
  • Product Owner
  • Project Manager 
  • Scrum Master 
  • Team Lead 
  • Release Train Engineer 
  • Product Owner 
  • Consultant

Topics covered
  • Thriving in the Digital Age with Business Agility 
  • Becoming a Lean-Agile Leader 
  • Establishing Team and Technical Agility 
  • Building Solutions with Agile Product Delivery 
  • Exploring Lean Portfolio Management 
  • Leading the Change 

  • Introducing Scrum in SAFe® 
  • Characterizing the role of the Scrum Master 
  • Experiencing Program Increment planning 
  • Facilitating Iteration execution 
  • Finishing the Program Increment 
  • Coaching the Agile team 

What attendees get
  • Attendee workbook 
  • Preparation and eligibility to take the SAFe® 5 Agilist (SA (exam 
  • One-year membership to the SAFe® Community Platform 
  • Course certificate of completion

  • Attendee workbook 
  • Preparation and eligibility to take the SAFe® 5 Scrum Master (SSM) exam 
  • One-year membership to the SAFe® Community Platform 
  • Course certificate of completion 

Prerequisites
  • Highly recommended:  
  • 5+ years’ experience in software development, testing, business analysis, product, or project management 
  • Experience in Scrum 

  • Highly recommended: 
  • Familiarity with Agile concepts and principles 
  • Awareness of Scrum, Kanban, and eXtreme Programming (XP) 
  • Working knowledge of software and hardware development processes

Exam details
  • Candidates have 90 minutes (1.5 hours) to complete the exam. There are 45 questions and passing score is 77% or 35 correct  
  • Candidates have 90 minutes (1.5 hours) to complete the exam. There are 45 questions and passing score is 73% or 33 correct  

 Certified SAFe® Agilist 

This is the certification that I acquired when I first started venturing into SAFe®. My certificate says “A Certified SAFe® 5 Agilist (SA) is a SAFe® enterprise leadership professional who is part of a Lean-Agile transformation. Key areas of competency include the application of Lean-Agile principles, execution and release of value through Agile Release Trains (ARTs) and building an Agile portfolio with Lean-Agile budgeting.

So, while it is a very good entry point and covers SAFe® thoroughly, there is no specific prescribed role other than ‘leadership’ and being part of the team, especially one involved as part of a Lean-Agile transformation.  

Prerequisites

Leading SAFe® /SAFe® Agilist Certification Course5+ years’ experience in software development, testing, business analysis, product, or project management; experience in Scrum. 

Leading SAFe® is two-day course. Prices vary but they tend to be less than $1,000 USD. 

Attendees discuss how to establish team and technical agility and organize and re-organize around the flow of value. There are also exercises for supporting a key ceremony called PI Planning. Students also begin to understand how to implement a Lean Portfolio Management function in their enterprise. 

Key areas of competency

  • Apply SAFe® to scale Lean and Agile development in the enterprise 
  • Apply Lean-Agile Mindset and principles 
  • Plan and successfully execute Program Increments 
  • Execute and release value through Agile Release Trains 
  • Build an Agile portfolio with Lean-Agile budgeting 

Exam details

In the author’s experience, the exam is difficult but not as difficult as, for example, the Project Management Professional Exam. Some questions may be situational but overall, they want to ensure that you understand the framework and its underlying principles. 

The exam can be taken any time after the class is completed but ideally should be taken within 30 days. It is a non-proctored, closed-book, multiple-choice exam. It can be accessed on-line within the SAFe® Community Platform. 

Candidates have 90 minutes (1.5 hours) to complete the exam. There are 45 questions and passing score is 77% or 35 correct. Currently the exam is only provided in English. The first exam attempt is included as part of the course registration fee if the exam is taken within 30 days of course completion. Each retake attempt costs $50 USD. 

Retake policy – Second attempt on exam (first retake) can be done immediately after the first attempt. The third attempt requires a 10-day waiting periodThe fourth attempt requires a 30-day waiting period. (It is not unusual for companies providing such exams to impose longer waiting periods if you fail. They want to give you more time to study.) 

Sample question

Several sample questions are provided online by Scaled Agile Framework. This is a typical SA question: 

What does SAFe® Principle #3, “Assume variability; preserve options,” enable?  

  • Specification traceability 
  • Better economic results 
  • Stronger Definition of Done 
  • Up front design of systems 

The answer is ‘Better economic results.’  

Exam study materials 

  1. Course materials – The course materials can be downloaded from the SAFe® Community Platform. 
  2. Study guide – This study guide outlines the job role of a SAFe Agilist, and provides valuable resources related to the exam such as a detailed reading listThe Guide can be accessed through the Learning Plan in the Community Platform, after completing the course. 
  3. Practice test – Practice testrun for the same duration as the actual test, and have an identical number of questions and level of difficulty. They are designed to be predictive of success on the certification exam. These tests are available on the Learning Plan in the  Community Platform and can be taken any number of times at no cost. Please note that this is not the actual exam. A candidate who has passed this exam is not guaranteed to get success on the certification exam. 
  4. Sample Questions – Candidates can access a web-enabled, flashcard style version of the sample questions online and in the study guide. 

What you get

Certification includes: 

  • Certified SAFe® Agilist PDF certificate. 
  • Certified SAFe® Agilist digital badge to promote your accomplishment online. 
  • One-year membership to the SAFe® Community Platform, which includes access to the SA Community of Practice. 
  • Access to Meetup groups and events that connect you with other SAFe® certified professionals. 
  • A variety of learning resources to support you during your SAFe® journey. 

Certified SAFe® Scrum Master 

Unlike the SA certificate, which is more general, the Certified SAFe® Scrum Master (SSM) has a specific role. He or she is a professional responsible for integrating Scrum practices into an organization. The role is very much analogous to – but not exactly the same as – the corresponding role in Scrum. As with the SA certification, you must first attend a two-day course. You cannot ‘test out.’ Certification expires one year from the date is earned.  

 Key areas of competency 

  • Use Scrum and Kanban to facilitate team events 
  • Support program execution 
  • Coach Agile teams 

Prerequisites

SAFE® Scrum Master course; experience working in a Lean-Agile environment.  

SAFE® Scrum Master is a two-day courseThis course explores the role of the Scrum Master in the context of the entire enterpriseThe planning and execution of a Program Increment (PI), the core enabler of alignment across the various levels of a SAFe® enterprise, is discussed in detail. The curriculum also includes understanding the key components of Agile development at scale, facilitating Scrum throughout the enterprise, and executing Iteration Planning. 

Exam details

The exam can be taken any time after the class is completed but ideally should be taken within 30 days. It is a non-proctored, closed-book, multiple-choice exam. It can be accessed on-line within the SAFe® Community Platform. 

Candidates have 90 minutes (1.5 hours) to complete the exam. There are 45 questions and passing score is 73% or 33 correct. Currently the exam is only provided in English. The first exam attempt is included as part of the course registration fee if the exam is taken within 30 days of course completion. Each retake attempt costs $50. 

Retake policy – The second attempt on exam (first retake) can be done immediately after first attempt. The third attempt requires a 10-day waiting periodThe fourth attempt requires a 30-day waiting period. 

Sample question

Several sample questions are provided online by Scaled Agile Framework. This is a typical SSM question: 

Who facilitates the Scrum of Scrums?

  • Release Train Engineer 
  • Product Owner 
  • Business Owners 
  • Scrum Master 

The answer is Release Train Engineer. Release Train Engineer is a role exclusive to SAFe®. 

Exam study materials  

  • Course materials – The course materials are an essential artifact from the course and can be downloaded from the SAFe® Community Platform. 
  • Study guide – This guide details the job role and all resources related to the exam, including a detailed reading list. Access is available through the Learning Plan in the SAFe® Community Platform upon course completion. 
  • Practice test – The practice test is designed to be predictive of success on the certification exam and it has the same number of questions, level of difficulty, and time duration. It is part of the Learning Plan in the SAFe® Community Platform and can be taken an unlimited number of times at no cost. This is not the actual exam and passing it does not guarantee success on the certification exam. 
  • Sample Questions – A web-enabled, flashcard style version of the sample questions can be found online and in the study guide. 

 What you get

Becoming a Certified SAFe® Scrum Master requires an exceptional range of skills and is a career path for many Scrum Masters. Certification includes: 

  • Certified SAFe® Scrum Master PDF certificate 
  • Certified SAFe® Scrum Master digital badge to promote the accomplishment online 
  • One-year membership to the SAFe® Community Platform, which includes access to the SSM Community of Practice 
  • Access to Meetup groups and events that provide connections to other certified SAFe® professionals 
  • A variety of learning resources to support certified professionals during their SAFe® journey 

Which certification should I choose?

There is no one ‘right’ answer to this. Not all students are the same. When the time came to learn more about SAFE®, I asked myself the same question. Since I wasn’t seeking a specific role within a SAFe® team but was trying to attain a broader understanding of the framework, the SA certificate was sufficient, at least as an entry point. I found it gave me an excellent overview of the framework and I would feel poised to work in SAFE® environment. 

However, if your goal is to be a Scrum Master or take your current Scrum Master skills to the enterprise level, then the SSM would seem to be a better choice.  

Maintaining certification

You can no longer renew your certification on an individual level. As of January 2021, Scaled Agile has moved to a membership model for the SAFe® Community Platform. With this transition you will now be able to renew your membership at one of three tiers, two of which will include a bundle renewal of all your SAFe® certifications. If you don’t need or want to include renewal of your certifications, you have the option to simply renew your membership to continue access to all the assets, tools, and resources to help you grow as a SAFe® professional. Information on this can be found on the SAFe site here.  

The three Membership tiers are:

  • SAFe® Program Consultant Membership ($895/year) - For members who currently hold SPC or SPCT certifications. Renews all certifications, provides access to all SAFe® content, and enables SPCs/SPCTs to train others to lead a Lean-Agile transformation. 
  • Certified SAFe® Membership ($295/year) – For members who currently hold one or more certifications, and who may benefit from a bundled pricing approach. Renews all certifications except SPC and/or SPCT, provides access to basic and some advanced content and continued access to course learnings and assets. 
  • Individual SAFe® Membership ($195/year) - For those who don’t seek certification but still benefit from the valuable content on the SAFe® Community Platform. No certification renewals included. 

Professional Development Units (PDUs) and Scrum Education Units are useful to maintain certifications So for example, a PMP is required to gather 60 PDUs in various categories every three years in order to maintain certification. The following tables detail how many are provided as a result of this course for each PMI certification.  

Professional Development Units and Scrum Education Units (SA)

PMI Certification Technical Leadership Strategic Total
PMP® 6:00 6:00 3.00 15.00
PgMP® 6:00 6:00 3.00 15.00
PMI_RMP® 0.00 6:00 3.00 9.00
PMI_SP® 0.00 6:00 3.00 9.00
PMI_ACP® 0.00 6:00 3.00 9.00
PfMP® 0.00 6:00 3.00 9.00
PMI_PBA® 0.00 6:00 3.00 9.00

Professional Development Units and Scrum Educations Units (SSM)

PMI Certification Technical Leadership Strategic Total
PMP® 12.00 2.25 0.75 15.00
PgMP® 12.00 2.25 0.75 15.00
PMI_RMP® 0.00 2.25 0.75 3.00
PMI_SP® 0.00 2.25 0.75 3.00
PMI_ACP® 12.00 2.25 0.75 15.00
PfMP® 0.00 2.25 0.75 3.00
PMI_PBA® 0.00 2.25 0.75 3.00

Conclusion 

Business agility is a crucial component in the ability of organizations to stay ahead of the competition in a fast-paced business world. Studies show that Scaled Agile Framework is by far the leading method of scaling agile. For Agilists, it is crucial to not only understand how agile scales but to also be certified in it so that your team (not to mention hiring managers) know that you are staying conversant with it. 

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