Thursday, 3 April 2014

Passing PMI’s ACP exam in the first attempt – The Agile way

Passing PMI’s ACP exam in the first attempt is a breeze – well almost – ok, let’s be more realistic - with a few pre-conditions that is J. As a pre-requisite for taking the exam, when I first took the 21 hours mandatory study course, little did I realize that there would be so much more for me to learn about Agile. Though I had gone through the Agile Manifesto earlier, the four simple looking values, had never meant much. I had been through a lot of reading on Agile specific terms / tidbits / presentations etc.  for a long time now. My first exposure to real agile reading was the kindle edition of ‘Agile Project Management for beginners' by Brian Mathis. This is a very well written small book which gave a bird’s eye view yet a good overview of Agile. The 21 hours course saw a few recommendations of books coming in, all suggested by the PMI.

PMI suggests a dozen books, but my personal suggestion to anyone starting on Agile Certification would be the ‘PMI-ACP Exam Prep’ by Mike Griffiths. This book has been ordered well based on ‘PMI Agile Certification Content Outline’ - a concise view on what the PMI would test you on.  This is available in the PMI website.  So this rests your apprehensions on what you need to go through and understand – but wait… it is like, you are told that of all the oceans, you would be asked only about the Pacific. But how deep would be the questioning? You can bet a million dollars on that.. J.  This is very important to understand because you do not have a single bible like the ‘PMBoK’ which you can fall back on for anything and everything of PMP exam. As the name suggests, the document is an outline and is just that. Whatever your guess is, it is bound to be wrong with respect to the depth of awareness expected of you in clearing the exam, from the outline document. 

The outline document was Greek and Latin, till I started off with Griffiths. Fortunately Griffiths gives a good overview of the outline document in addition to how to read his own book. I found the suggestions simply superb and I followed it to the tee, most particularly, the test taking part.

After completing Griffiths, I took up Andy Crowe’s ‘The PMI-ACP exam – How to pass on your first try’.  After all, that was my goal too. The contents looked very simplistic but attempting the two sets of questions at the end of the book told me, I needed to know more of Agile..
I also attempted Mike Cohn’s ‘Agile Estimating and Planning’ which is a very very good book. But I also found that the orientation was more towards clearing the fundamental concepts and not on the exams, which threw me off that book.  Let me admit post haste, under no stretch of imagination am I saying that the fundamentals are not needed. From the exam point of view for ex., knowing that story points are needed to calculate the volume of work is sufficient than knowing how the story point technique evolved.

After completing Crowe, here I was, a poor soul, wanting to obtain one more certification but more confused than ever in all my life. So what was the reason for my confusion? It is simply this…. There are so many Greats who have participated in creating the Agile Manifesto and each of them have come up with their own methodology – each endorsing the other’s works in parts and also deviating from them significantly on other areas. And thus, a new methodology is born which is also part of PMI’s exam syllabus. 

FORTUNATELY, PMI to a large extent would test the brave-hearts who have paid the fees and gone to the examination hall gallantly, on SCRUM & XP to a very large extent and on the other methodologies like Crystal / DSDM / Lean etc. minimally. However, you may ignore any of these less used or yet-to-become-popular-methodologies at your own peril.

God, the Saviour, then as miraculously showed a small glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, in the form of sample ACP questions from the PMI site. This book, ‘PMI-ACP Exam Prep: Questions, Answers & Explanations’ by  Tim Bagnall and Christopher Scordo ( ) is available for PMI members. Based on the latest PMI-ACP exam outline, this detailed and straightforward book provides practice tests that are designed to help students adjust to the pace, subject matter, and difficulty of the real PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP) exam. The questions were framed from most of the 12 books recommended by PMI. The most beautiful part was, the answers had reasoning for why a certain answer was right and why the others were wrong and also the source of the book that contained the relevant answer.  This is very important because then and only then you will know, how to decipher the question and given the context, zero-in on what could be the best answer. This also meant that I need not go through all the recommended books individually. On attempting each question set one after the other, I found my confidence and the scores steadily raising which I needed very very very badly.  

MSAcademy (, the place from where I completed the 21 hour Agile coaching, had provided a few hundred sample questions that I attempted

This is all that worked for me in achieving the PMI-ACP credential.

The Modus Operandi


Immediately after taking the mandatory 21 hours session, I had visited the PMI site and filled in the on-line application form. It is free up to this part. It takes close to 10 days for verification of credentials before the clearance is given for you to pay the fees and choose the exam date / venue. Once, my application was through, I gave myself a clear one month time (Timeboxing) and chose the exam date.

The reasoning

If I set a date for myself, I can time my other activities and focus better on exam taking. The high fees was one big motivator (can’t afford to lose out J).

If you don’t set a date for yourself, you would find your exam date getting postponed as per parkinson’s law. In this case, you would never take the exam, since there is no pressure on you to deliver and you always find something that is more higher up on your priority list, that you have to tackle immediately. Also, the high fees acts as a dampener (Why invest in a hurry and fail?) J.

Now that you have committed the money, every small waste of time will loom large upon you with extra doses of guilt pangs and as a side effect, you will find yourself devoting more time for studies J.

The team dynamics conundrum

I found the Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing stages of team dynamics working well with respect to understanding the ACP exam syllabus. The relationship with team dynamics just ends here.

The forming stage:

In the beginning, you had some knowledge of Agile (Good, bad & ugly) which you thought was all that there is to Agile (At least, I thought so J). Then came along the 21 hour session that feeds you on with more knowledge and some aspects contradicting the ones you already have known and been practicing as Agile. J. Enter the Storming stage.

The Storming Stage.

You are disgusted at how you could be practicing Agile wrongly (We used to even market the wrong practices as Hybrid Agile J). Your whole system revolts in trying to understand whatever is right. There is an internal fight between what is actually claimed by Agile and what you have been practicing. There is anger, Self-doubt, resentment, depression and all that worthless stuff that strikes you when you are down. When you experience this phase more frequently, sufficiently for a few weeks and at many levels, you strangely find an order emerging where your acceptance spectrum becomes more accommodating J. Enter the norming stage.

The Norming stage

Now you are able to appreciate when a certain logic works and when something else works and are also intuitively able to fathom this wisely. Thus you start really understanding Agile and you appreciate the variety and also the beauty & depth of all that stuff called Agile. Your horizons broaden and you do not end up fighting with yourself or uselessly arguing with another rookie on what real Agile is all about. Enter the Performing Stage

The Performing Stage

You will find that this stage coincides with your increasing confidence levels and also the increasing scores in the tests you are taking and you intuitively seek to discover the mind-set of the questioner and are able to come up with the correct answer most of the times. Of course you will trip on those occasional mines, but now they are much less and infrequent. Ah! Finally you have arrived. Now go for the exam and crack it!! J

The Adjourning Stage

Immediately, after you see the Congratulatory note on the monitor announcing that you are now an ACP, all that you have painstakingly learnt and retained with such great difficulty in your memory, would miraculously evaporate, immediately followed by thanks giving to the PMI (After all, your investment in terms of money and time has been amply rewarded J). 

All the other stuff you must know to crack the exam

At the time of filling up the application form, you are asked for the language preference. I had chosen English (US). There are other languages of preference too. I remember having seen English (UK) also. The English language spoken in India is more the UK variety than the US variety (though a lot of US stuff also floats around these days). Even Griffiths cites an example of this difference jocularly in his book. Am not sure, if this would have a bearing on the exam but one thing is for sure. We need to know the subtle differences between synonyms which could make or break your fate with respect to the ACP exam. It sometimes is irritating because you are not sure, whether the test you are taking is for Agile or for English. All said and done, every punctuation, every word matters in changing the meaning of the question and the answer. So Beware!!

Choose the best of four

You have four options for every question. Generally, you will be able to eliminate two of the answers straightaway. The correct answer would be one of the other two answers and the devil might well be hiding in your understanding of the language than your understanding of Agile. (To a certain extent, this is an exaggeration, but better be armed J

Also, it is quite possible that all the four answers may be tending towards the correct answer and each option would be correct in a given situation. However, you need to choose the most correct answer. The trick here is get back to the basics – The 4 values of the Agile Manifesto and the 12 principles. The better you remember these, the easier it would be to crack such questions

There are some absurdly straight forward questions too. However, look for the correct spellings before choosing the answer.

In some cases, if you find outrageously unheard of terms, you may reject them outright. But it is also possible that it is you who have not heard about them (your width of coverage of the subject is in question here J)

There are a few questions that would take a lot of time to even understand. Give one reading and put it in the back burner (Mark it to review later) and go to the next. This applies to particularly long questions with short answers and vice versa. This way you will have enough time to attempt the easy ones available that could fetch you sure shot marks.

Of the 120 questions, I had marked about 37 that needed more reading. I still marked an answer but was not very sure, if it was correct. This way, I had finished all the 120 questions in the first 90 minutes. 

Reviewing the 37 marked questions took me close to the next 75 minutes.

Try to be mentally tough and expect late breakers such as the below:

I had close to 45 minutes of time before the final stroke of 3 hours and I was reviewing the marked questions. Suddenly, a power outage switched off all the systems and I was numbed beyond belief with a crashing feeling that my money is lost. Luckily, the software systems are designed such that everything that you had done till the last second before the power outage gets saved. Everything was brought back – including the question you were working on last and the timer also, however, the shock was really rude and had completely disoriented me completely.

Suggest that as you read the books, maintain an excel sheet that has the topic name with the book name and the page numbers. You may then sort the topics alphabetically and then simultaneously refer to multiple books based on the page numbers at a later date for quick and complete reference in respect to a single topic.

Refer to the Glossary at the end of Crowe’s book, so you will be able to relate to the terms and concepts easily. I found it really useful to run through this on the morning of exam.

I recommend a day of rest immediately before the exam because, frequently attempting the tests multiple times in a day numbs you. The mental fatigue is telling and you become disoriented. A good night’s sleep on the penultimate day of exam is very beneficial. 

Please note that I had taken a break to gain this certifiation and had all the time I needed and I could also study at my pace undisturbed. The whole time that I had devoted could run up close to 250 hours. If you are working and still planning to take the exams you are forewarned to plan for the final exam more prudently. 

The flip side is, if you fall prey to Parkinson's law and repeatedly postpone the exam, the chances of you ever getting certified also decrease accordingly. 60 to 90 days after the 21 hours Agile coaching is a good target to achieve with razor sharp focus.

Feel free to throw your questions so I can make my experience of ACP exam taking more useful to you. All the Best!!


  1. Thanks for sharing detailed experience and Tips on passing out PMI-ACP in agile way Well written article. Surely helpful for PMI-ACP aspirants like us.

  2. Thanks for sharing the important tips and relevant information. Raman G V

  3. Congratulations Suresh. Thanks for the details 'retrospective'. I will share this with all MS Academy students. Any PMI ACP aspirant here. I am Ganapathy who run MS Academy that Suresh has mentioned in the article. You can contact me at 9840757994 for your 21 PDU 2 day training program on ACP. More details here

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Thank you very much for sharing the detailed information on ACP. its very useful to the aspirants and professionals. Looking forward for more discussions and knowledge sharing happens through the blog visitors.
    wish you all the best and goodluck.

  6. Thanks for sharing wonderful Article Suresh. Its giving us more confidence..

  7. You are welcome Pazhanishubbu :-)