How Relevant is a PMP?

How Relevant is a PMP?

About a year ago, I wrote an article called “Is the PMP Losing Its Value“. To date, that article remains the most commented-on piece on this blog.

This year, I wanted to revisit that article, for a couple reasons. Firstly, I know this subject rankles Derek Huether and I derive perverse pleasure from getting under his skin (because his blog is better than mine). Secondly, I’ve seen this same conversation recently in LinkedIn discussion groups. In fact, the one I’m thinking of was started in February of 2011, is still active as of this publication and contains over 1692 responses. It’s a subject that gets under a lot of people’s skin, apparently.

But one of the things that stands out to me, are the sheer number of people who insist that the PMP is nothing more than a gateway into the field of project management. Frankly, I don’t think that could be any further from the truth.

The PMP is a lot of things. Different definitions are appropriate to different groups of people. What’s even more important are the different purposes the PMP serves. And that’s what I’d like to write about today.

Is the PMP Relevant?The diagram at right demonstrates different groups who revolve around the certification, each of whom have a particular view. Does the PMP serve the PMI in the same way it serves a hiring manager, for example? I would say no. What about a training company that offers preparation material to pass the PMP exam?

In fact, if you sat down to think about it, you could probably write down several different definitions for what the PMP is, depending on one’s point of view. These definitions could range from fully altruistic to fully self-serving. I think these distinctions are important, especially for an aspiring project manager who must make the decision whether or not to get certified.

Possible Definitions of the PMP Certificate:

Altruistic Self-Serving
The PMI An acknowledgement that the PMP-holder is versed in the very basics of modern project management techniques. An offering, when combined with membership fees, examination fees and fees for companies who want to offer PDUs for PMP-holders to maintain their certification, makes a lot of money.
Hiring Managers An indication that a candidate possesses a vocabulary common to the project management body at large and, in conjunction with other factors such as experience, may be suitable for a PM role. A screening factor that makes the tasks of reading candidates’ resumes and carefully matching experience to position unnecessary.
Training Companies A goal toward which the training company can help aspiring PMs reach. A certification frequently linked to higher salaries that the training company can use to lure prospective students.

You’ll notice I’ve left project managers out of that table. That’s because before PMs can choose to certify, they must first justify to themselves why certification is a good idea. Essentially, that means embracing one of the definitions in the table above.

Does one get a PMP because:

  • They want to learn the basics of project management and thus broaden their knowledge? Perform better in their jobs?
  • They believe if they don’t get a PMP they’ll be screened out when applying for jobs they might otherwise qualify for?
  • They believe the hype that becoming a project manager will make them a lot of money?

And do the reasons even matter?

In the discussion at the end of this article I gripe a lot about the PMI’s ability to properly audit a decent proportion of their applicants. Looking at the 2010 numbers of new PMP holders, there’s between three and five thousand new PMPs every single month. Let’s assume for a moment, due to these volumes, the PMI can’t effectively ensure their application and experience requirements are met. Doesn’t that leave one’s motivation as the primary factor that will determine whether or not the knowledge gleaned from the program will go in one ear and out the other? Motivation can’t reliably be measured, of course, so the PMI relies on PDUs to ensure lifelong development in the field. If you have the money, PDUs are pretty easy to get.

I guess, to all those so adamant about their definition of the PMP, I’m trying to say the PMP doesn’t exist in a vacuum. And the PMI isn’t the only one making promises to prospective certificate holders. There are other influential definitions out there, that I think have a direct impact on the quality of learning that takes place during certification.

What do you think?

I’m a professor of project management at the college where I work. My students continually amaze me with their insights, passion and all-around awesomeness. I figure they deserve access to more answers than I can give them by myself. This site is for them.
  • Peter Taylor

    Interesting – and yes I am a PMP – I was told once that PMI audit 2% of applicants but to date I have not yet come across anyone who has been audited. I am sure people are but it would possibly make for an interesting poll to see what the general experience was out there in PM land.

    That said I am a supporter of certification and the PMI model of 3 year renewal cycle is a good one. For sure, as you say, getting PDUs is not so hard but you do have to at least maintain some activity in the PM world to do so.

  • Thanks for the comment, Peter! 🙂 I myself have eluded PMP certification although I may one day get it just to see if they audit me and can publish my experience.

    I often bash the PMI here but my gripe isn’t with their offering. I actually think the PMI does a lot of good. It’s the quality control that gets me…if you make claims that applicants are expected to possess a certain degree of verifiable competence (and thus influence hiring managers), you need to back it up.

  • Oh yeah, this topic is definitely a big sore toe in the project management community. I wrote a similar post a few months ago and it provoked the first (and thankfully, the only…) “hate mail” I’ve ever received. He told me I should retire to spend time with my grandchildren. Ouchers… my oldest child is only 11! LOL.

    It’s exactly the points you list in the “Self-Serving” column that have always made me a skeptic of many industry certifications. Thanks for providing the “Altruistic” balance as good food for thought.

  • Anonymous

    Peter, I am also a PMP. Though I pay my money and maintain it with PDUs, I recently chose to no longer add PMP to the end of my name. I’m at a stage in my career that I don’t want it to define me. That being said, when I got my PMP, I did get audited by PMI. It took me longer to navigate the audit process than it did to study for the exam. Since then, I’ve known people who lied on their applications. When I contacted PMI, they told me that I could be liable and they would not take action. So, unless the person gets audited and then withdrawals their application, it’s all just an empty threat. Two things to note. The liar’s sole fear was being audited. Since he did not get audited, he sat for the exam. Fortunately, he failed miserably even after attending a PMP boot camp.

  • HAHA what’s the link to your post? I’m sure folks here would love to read it! Isn’t hate mail great? I maintain hate mail means you’re doing an awesome job! 😀

    About the columns, I figure in most cases there’s a continuum between altruistic and self-serving. Few people fall on one side or the other, but somewhere in between. i.e., not ALL hiring managers are lazy, but the desire to reduce workload is present and the PMP makes a convenient marker.

  • Ok, Geoff, since you asked… here’s the link to my original post “PMI Certification– Is It Worth It?” . I am now going into seclusion for the weekend to dodge the haters! 🙂

  • Peter Taylor

    Not hate mail but I was challenged quite firmly at a PMI conference about why I did not put PMP after my name on the cover of The Lazy Project Manager – I pointed out that I did state that I was PMP in my bio but that I wanted the book to be inclusive to all project managers (despite any allegiance to any methods or bodies).

    Such is life.

  • Pam, your article is excellent and I’d encourage readers to take a look! Those are some brain-scorching numbers!

  • Wow. I find that pretty arrogant on the PMI’s part. That would make me grouchy. The PMI is *not* the only body out there, *not* everybody feels certification is an important part of being a project manager, and the tenets in your book are relevant to *anybody* whose building (or built) a career in project management, regardless of how they got there. I would say that was bad behaviour on their part.

  • This happens a lot. I’ve mentioned before how shocked I get seeing some applicants get through when they’ve no business doing so. At least in your story the guy flunked out. It just makes me crazy!

  • I had occasion to respond to a post by Tobias Mayer last week, where he stated that Scrum is not project management (response: obviously). Part of his rant was about the new, as-yet unnamed PMI Agile project management credential / certification / party favor. To that, I replied, “Credentials only matter to those recruiting new talent, and those
    seeking to be recruited. Practice standards, such as Scrum and PMBOK,
    matter only to those who wish to take a rigorous approach to their
    work, and share information with other practitioners using a common
    vocabulary. Those who approach their work like a game of Calvin Ball,
    just shouting out new rules whenever they feel at a disadvantage, have
    as much disdain for authority and rigor as the rest of us have for
    their sloppy work, and dismiss credentials and standards out of hand.
    Over time, they will be filtered out of the work force by the
    recruiters, and the rest of us will move on.”

    Yes, I hold the PMP. I also hold Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR), which has continuing education requirements, and Certified Employee Benefits Specialist (CEBS), which does not. The CEBS was the most difficult and time-consuming to earn, requiring ten exams each roughly the heft of the PMP exam. But that has nothing to do with demand in the marketplace. On any given day, there are literally thousands of positions listed that
    mention the PMP, maybe a hundred or so that mention SPHR or PHR, and a
    dozen or so that mention CEBS. Naturally, the PMP goes in my signature block.

    As for the argument about PMP as an indicator of effectiveness: note the guy who graduates from medical school at the bottom of his class is addressed as “doctor,” and so is the guy whose insurance company won’t cover him any more due to the sheer volume of malpractice claims. In my most recent position, I hired and managed project managers. Sure, I hired someone who didn’t have the PMP on her resume. And eleven others that did. Quality varied, not just individually, but from project to project – “past performance in not an indicator …” But the PMP’s understood the need for a rigorous, standards-based approach, and were willing to follow one, even if the standards varied over time. And as someone who had to manage a portfolio with 12 – 16 projects in flight at any given time, that’s the mindset I needed. Your mileage will probably vary.

  • Thank you for a very fabulous and well thought-out comment, Dave! 🙂

    I quite like your point about the PMP vs. SPHR vs. CEBS in conjunction with market demand. That’s my real issue with the PMI. From the sounds of things, the CEBS is extraordinarily difficult to obtain, but because it’s not sought after, it rarely becomes a position requirement. The PMP on the other hand, is asked for thousands of times per day.

    Why ask for a certification on a job spec? Because you believe possession of that certification qualifies a candidate for the position in a verifiable way that raw experience lacks. Where does that belief come from? From the certifying body, and their marketing teams. If the IFEBP (I looked that up hehe) put equivalent resources into marketing their certification as the PMI, I’d expect the CEBS to be in just as high demand, especially given the onerous pass requirements.

    That brings me back to my point that a certifying body needs to put its money where its mouth is.

    Is the PMP and indicator of effectiveness? I personally don’t believe it for a second. The problem is, there’s hundreds of thousands of hiring managers in the world today who do. And they didn’t collectively wake up one morning saying “oh hey a PMP is the thing my project managers need to have”. That notion came to them externally.

  • Shart81

    Great blog post. The PMP is like anything in life you get out of it what you put into it. I personally found it to be a great learning experience (and I had been a PM for 20+ years when I got mine). As you said the key is to discern people’s motivation to understand what they got out of it. Thanks again for this post — I will definitely share it. Steve Hart

  • You’re very welcome, Steve, and thanks so much for your great comment! 🙂

  • I agree, it is a marketing exercise. That said, given a choice between two resumes from complete strangers with similar experience, I need ways to differentiate them. Credentials are one way; education is another. I’ve worked with several excellent project managers with no degree and no PMP, but many more who had both. If project management were a commodity skill, like network engineer or C# programmer, I’d go for lowest cost. But it isn’t, and bad hires can be expensive.

  • It’s true that bad hires can be expensive. From my own hiring perspective, the presence or absence of a PMP was never a consideration for me. That said, the program environments where I’ve done hiring have been highly specialized and required specific application or domain expertise which I preferred over evidence of standardized PM vocabulary.

    So I guess the question is, given two resumes from complete strangers with similar experience, do you invite both for an interview to clarify their backgrounds? Or do you invite only the candidate who has a PMP, simply because they have a PMP?

  • If it were two applicants, I’d interview both of them. But the last time we advertised an IT project manager position, we got over 40 resumes from all over the country. We did six phone interviews, brought three on-site for multi-person interviews, and extended one offer, which was accepted. For all of you folks who think you might have to look for a job some day, that’s the new normal. Plan accordingly.

  • Hehe that’s the truth! 🙂 Thanks for the input, Dave!

  • Olaf Hinz

    As I’ve said it before in other places. A profound understanding of the methods, be it PMI, IPMA or Prince 2 based, is essential. This is the necessary condition of good project management. But you must also solve the sufficient condition, namely, a behavior that leads to uncertainty, using group dynamics and resistance and handle emergent situations with confidence. …Project management beyond the planned economy…

  • Thanks for joining the conversation, Olaf! 🙂

    I won’t disagree that it’s very important for a PM to understand at least the fundamentals of structured project management (although I’d never go so far to say a PM without education would be unsuccessful). But is the PMP (or other certification) indicative of that knowledge?Anyone can pass a test without demonstration of true comprehension (which is what a PM really needs to do his or her job, regardless of how it’s acquired). The PMI (and others) recognize this fact, and so they maintain experience requirements for their applicants. But to my view, application audits are token at best. If there’s no audit (or a sloppy audit), the “requirement” of experience is just lip service and isn’t really a requirement at all.

    So what’s more important? That a potential PM hire can demonstrate sufficient comprehension of the tenets necessary to do his or her job? Or that they possess a poorly controlled certificate that may or may not speak to the knowledge they possess?

  • Anonymous

    I just wanted to stoke the fire a little bit. I do see relevance in the PMP in different ways than others. The rub here is each of us sees relevance via personal motivations, ranging from the most altruistic to the most egoistic. Some got the PMP to see project management from the PMI perspective and with the hope of becoming better project managers. Some project managers got their PMP because the companies they wanted to work at were demanding them. Some hire only PMPs, because it’s just easier to do a keyword search than it is to see if an applicant will work well with an organization’s culture. Some offer PMP bootcamps, because some have created an ecosystem and market that drives the need for their existence.

    The PMP does have relevance because it holds value to someone. In time, let the market decide if it continues to hold value. When it no longer has value, it no longer is relevant.

    Let me stoke the fire again by deflecting the original question “How relevant is the PMP” to “How relevant is an MBA awarded by certainly online universities”? I knew someone who got his MBA in 1 year from an online university. He paid his money and he got an MBA. He may have learned something in that time but he applied none of it on his projects. How is that any different? He got a new job because he had “MBA” appear after his name.

    Let the flame wars begin.

  • Heya, Derek! You raise a few good points. I guess the question should be more specific: how relevant is a PMP to project success? Probably about as relevant as an MBA from Bob’s School of Business And Tanning Salon.

    You’re absolutely correct that as long as a PMP holds value to someone, then it holds relevance individual to the viewer. But in an organizational context, its the values of the collective that bear it up over time. Of course, an organization’s values tend to belong to the oligarchy at the top…so I guess a further refinement of the question should be, “is the PMP relevant to project success in the eyes of organizational leaders”, in which case I’d have to say the answer is “yes” whether there’s merit there or not.

  • Q: What do you call the guy who graduates from medical school at the bottom of his class?

    A: Doctor.

    Q: Would you rather hire the applicant with a 2.05 GPA from Harvard, or the guy with a 4.0 from the State University of New York at Albany?

    A: If they both graduated more than five years ago, isn’t there something more relevant on their respective resumes?

    The best undergraduate education is the one that produces a critical thinker who can communicate clearly, succinctly, and persuasively. The best graduate education is the one that produces a subject matter expert who can independently maintain that expertise.

  • Elizabeth

    The ability to audit PMPs came up in conversation at the PMI EMEA Congress today. The number of PMPs is growing quickly and the implication was that they don’t have the manpower to audit a significant proportion of the membership applications. I wonder if they will put more resources into auditing PgMP applicants. From what I remember from a hazy discussion at another PMI event last year they are much stricter about auditing those because they are in the early days of the credential and they want to set it up as a credible thing. Does anyone have any more up to date information on auditing for PgMP?

  • Thanks so much for commenting, Elizabeth! I think that’s a good question, and I know I’d like to know more. It’s very timely you’re at the PMI EMEA Congress! 🙂

    I do understand that the burden of auditing so many PMP applicants must be overwhelming, and I can understand why they’d want to pay closer attention to the audit approach for the PgMP, as it’s new and they have opportunities to tackle increased demand differently.

    I do have one concern about that, and that’s that the PgMP isn’t something the hiring world at large really understands. Neither do they really get CAPM, or the SP / RMP designations. These are confusing distinctions to most people–the PMP is what they’ve come to know and ask for. There are certain attributes to that designation that the hiring community expects–but if audits are neglected, those expectations may be false.

  • Anonymous

    I really like your response. It makes me think of a 55-yr-old applying for middle management job and listing he was the quarterback of his high school football team. That’s great but what has he done lately?

  • Anonymous

    I think the PMP is relevant in that it “may” mitigate some risk. But it is certainly no guarantee. I think project success will depend a lot on relationships and leadership. The current version of the PMBOK is lacking content in both stakeholder engagement and leadership topics. The PMI leaves that up to “Expert Judgement”

  • *cough* PMI cop out *cough* I completely agree with you, Derek. I believe those are the two crucial success components of every project and I hate that the PMI glosses over them as if they took a back seat to analytics.

  • Well, as a 55-year-old middle manager, let me just clarify: I was a defensive lineman. 😉

    An undergraduate degree can be excellent preparation for a white-collar career, and your GPA will probably be a useful indicator of whether you’ll be successful in your first five years, but after that, you have a track record. Project management, on the other hand, isn’t an entry level position – it’s management. I roll my eyes whenever I hear someone ask about getting a PMP in order to “break into project management.” To return to the sports metaphor, remember the scene from “Major League” where Charlie Sheen’s character comes to try out? “We wear sleeves at this level, son.”

    Now, if PMI isn’t doing enough audits to filter out the ones who still have their mother’s milk on their breath, that’s certainly a compliance issue that they need to address. But any hiring manager who sees the PMP on a resume and takes it as more than a credential of demonstrated mastery of a common body of professional knowledge needs to switch to decaf. Personally, I want to see both the degree and the credential, and at least six years in relevant project / product / line management, although I can be flexible. Lately, there are far more applicants than open positions; thus the need for filters.

  • Hear, hear!

  • THANK YOU! 🙂

    (nice serve of Mr. Huether there at the beginning too hehehe)

  • Anonymous

    When looking at new hires, I look for those with military or startup experience. To each his or her own, I guess. I’m always looking for flexibility and initiative.

    Just like you wrote, I’ve had people approach me who want to get the PMP to “break into project management”. What’s interesting is PMI says the PMP is to test existing PM knowledge and skill not introduce it.

    Maybe I would feel better if they changed it to “Project Management Practitioner”. How can you call someone a professional just by taking an exam?

  • That’s actually a pretty good point. I hear folks who view the PMP as a gateway as well.

    Of course, if the PMI claims the PMP is a validation of past knowledge and skills (a.k.a. experience), and not an introduction to the profession, then it’s the experience the PMI is bound to confirm, and the exam is a nice-to-know. Correct?

  • Great article! Love the table! As a PM Performance analyst I’ve created (or helped created) several PM certifications (proprietary & generic), so I know how they are put together. I also am aware of how they are marketed and how many informal lobbyists the certifying body employs to get themselves imbedded into gov’t contracting procedures, etc. (But that’s a whole other rant… I digress.)

    For what it’s worth, I just posted an article that highlights or expands on a couple of the points you made in your table above. The article is titled: Seven Benefits of Local PM Certification: Why Pursuing Locally-Relevant PM Skills Makes More Sense Than Buying Generic, External PM Certifications —

    Finally, if anyone, as an individual, would simply take the time to do so, it’s quite possible to document your skills/competencies for yourself and express these in a cohesive collection that is essentially your own, customized PM certification. And to help anyone who wants to do this I wrote a step-by-step guide. The process I’m recommending is rigorous and designed to be defended to your HR professionals — it uses their language! So why not simply certify yourself? Here’s how (& there are no strings attached!): Do-It-Yourself PM Certification: How to Document Your Skills & Get the Credibility You’ve Earned without Jumping Through Someone Else’s Hoops —

    Thanks for sharing all this and for shining a light on the dynamics of the cottage industry that has sprung up around what has become a certification of questionable value.

  • A young man was keen to find out how he could be successful as quickly as possible and so he found an older man who had become a success in his work and life.

    ‘Sir, what is the secret of your success?’ he asked.‘Two words’ came the response.‘And, Sir,what are they?”’ asked the young man excitedly.‘Right decisions’

    The young man wrote this down with enthusiasm.‘And how do you make right decisions?’‘One word’ responded the older man.‘And, Sir, what is that?’ asked the young man.‘Experience’.

    The young man noted this as well and asked his next question.‘And how do you get experience?’‘Two words’ smiled the older man.‘And, Sir, what are they?’ questioned the young man.‘Wrong decisions’.

  • HAHA an excellent, appropriate and very true parable. Thanks for that, Peter! 🙂

  • Totally_Disillusioned

    In the late 1990’s heyday when Top Five firms had widely marketed their SEI-based methods and recruiters needed candidates, the PMI certification was sold as an equivalency to experience for entry level PMs. Money has greatly bolstered the ensuing discussions and in turn bloated the field with ill-equipped wanna be’s and made the trainers/PMI a lot of money. In the end, solid proj mgmt experience is what keeps the PM eating in down times and up times. Frankly I know folks who have NEVER served in the PM role, have no clue about proj mgmt, but paid their bootcamp fee and after several retests, proudly display their PMI certification. Thought PMI audited experience? Would I hire them? Depending on their actual experience I may consider for entry level, but certainly not for mid- to senior-PM roles. Reminds me of the MBA rage of a decade ago when newly minted MBAs showed up on teams with initials embroidered on their cuffs and sat like a lump of coal waiting for me to tell them how to do their job. Just my two cents.

  • Totally_Disillusioned

    Then why do they need 4 day bootcamps and spend endless hours cramming for the exams?

  • Jason Keene

    Great start on the topic. If you read between the lines, you notice there is no mention of “the business”. Let me explain…In my experience as a pm “the business” does not understand the pmp vocabulary, so as a pm I am constantly having to explain or talk in terms they understand. To me, this makes the pmp only valuable to the ecosystem in your table.

  • That’s an excellent point, Jason! I had this discussion in class the other day. One of points on the table was the notion of Earned Value Metrics. For example, is it reasonable to assume the customer will understand an EVM report? If not, how deeply are they likely to pursue their own understanding of such a thing? These are busy people – it’s pretty likely if you can’t frame information in useful terms right off the bat, they’re not going to want to listen to you. That spells trouble for a PM because your customer may wind up making decisions that contradict your advice!