Waterfall or Agile : Should I become PMP Certified or PMI-ACP Certified?

Are you wondering whether you should spend time studying for the PMP® Exam or concentrate on studying for the PMI-ACP® Exam? This is a question that many project managers ask themselves, especially with the increased popularity of Agile Project Management. To answer this question, you really need to look at the benefits of both.  Likewise, how these fit into your specific project management career goals. It may even come down to whether your future holds a waterfall or an agile approach. Read on for some insights to help you make an educated decision.

The answer to this question cannot really come from me. It has to come from within you and depends largely on your goals, desired career path, and preferences. For example, do you want to be managing a 10-Year project for SpaceX to send satellites to Jupiter? Then go for the PMP first. That is because we are talking about serious Waterfall-based approaches. On the other hand, do you want to be working for a small startup company developing software? Then go for PMI-ACP because you need Agility. Therefore, the answer isn’t laid out here. Instead, the answer lies in what you want and what you need. Nevertheless, let’s delve into the benefits of each approach. Then,  you can make your own educated decision.

Waterfall or Agile? – Projects and Career Path

Order to determine which certification is more important for you to obtain as a project manager really starts with the type of career you are seeking in the project management field. Just like many organizations need to decide if Waterfall or Agile Project Management is the right choice for any specific project, so it is also true that aspiring or current project managers need to decide which type of project management training and experience will help them successfully continue their project management career well into the future.

The PMP is based on PMI’s PMBOK® Guide, which outlines mainly a Waterfall Project Management best practice approach to successfully executing projects. In contrast, the PMI-ACP (as well as other Agile Project Management certifications) are based on an Agile Project Management best practice approach.

Waterfall Project Management Overview

Waterfall (sometimes referred to as ‘Traditional’) Project Management involves an in-depth upfront planning process and follows a linear, pre-determined project schedule over a specified period of time. These projects are typically predictable, have a definitive end date, and have explicit procedures of how projects are initiated, planned, executed, monitored and controlled, and closed (Deming’s Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle). The advantages of using the Waterfall method to manage projects is having clear expectations and meeting those expectations by achieving certain milestones. Waterfall originated in the Manufacturing industry because changes in scope mid-project were usually very costly. Generally, companies use Waterfall on their projects when:

  • They have executed a similar type of project previously, and it is almost cookie-cutter
  • Specific project scope and requirements can be determined
  • They can fairly accurately estimate the resources, cost, and work effort necessary to finish the project on budget and on time

Agile Project Management Overview

Agile Project Management is an iterative approach that helps project teams deliver the highest value work possible to the customer within a rapidly changing environment. The essential aim of Agile is to be flexible and be able to adapt to changes rather than being forced to execute against a pre-defined plan that may become obsolete as the project progresses. There is usually no definitive end date because the customer may decide at any point in the project that the functionality already delivered is sufficient for their needs.

Agile also uses Deming’s Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle. The only difference is that product components are delivered to the customer every 2-4 weeks rather than only at the end of the project. These are to provide feedback to ensure the project team is headed in the right direction. Agile originated in the Software Development and Mobile Application industries.  The goal was to help companies to be first to market with new and innovative products. Thus, giving them a competitive advantage. Generally, companies use Agile on their projects when:

  • They do not know specifically what they want
  • No reliable estimate is available for how long it’s going to take to produce
  • They do not know how much it will cost to produce

The Future of Waterfall and Agile Project Management

Thus, you may be wondering about the future of both Waterfall and Agile Project Management. Likewise, what types of opportunities will be available to you as a project manager. I firmly believe that Waterfall will never truly go away.  For example, some of the basic principles are also used in Agile. These include decomposition, rolling wave planning, continuous improvement, and process tailoring, to name a few.

Waterfall or Agile? – What’s Right for You?

If you decide that Agile is the career path for you, you can go a few different ways. The first would be to gain a good foundation in Waterfall by obtaining your PMP certification and getting your PMI-ACP Certification soon after, which will provide you an overview of Agile principles, best practices, and different Agile methods. This will give you a solid background in both Waterfall and Agile Project Management methodologies. That will position you nicely for the new ‘Hybrid’ approach that many companies are embracing.

You can also choose to go with an organization that is new to Agile and become a champion or driving force for change across the company using Agile. And lastly, if you really want to be ‘extreme,’ you can choose to seek out cutting-edge companies and use advanced Agile methods such as Lean Software Development, Kanban, and Extreme Programming, which will require more extensive and specialized certification training outside the realm of the PMI-ACP certification.

Waterfall or Agile? – How About Both?

In my own experience, I have seen that many aspiring or current project managers decide to obtain their PMP first since it is the most globally-recognized Project Management certification and is still the methodology used on the majority of projects being executed, and then obtain their PMI-ACP certification in addition to their PMP. I believe this is a good way to go. Once you understand the basics of general project management by obtaining your PMP, you may start to work on a few Agile projects with your company and decide it’s a better fit for you. And bear in mind again that the majority of contemporary projects are no longer strictly ‘Waterfall-Only’ or ‘Agile-Only.’

More traditional companies in the Aerospace, Medical Device and Government Contracting industries are now embracing a ‘Hybrid’ Project Management approach. That allows them to tailor their processes to a combination of the best practices of both Waterfall and Agile.

So… once again… when you ask me the question,” Should I become PMP Certified or PMI-ACP Certified?”  In the end,… it depends! And it really depends on you!!!

Rob Broadhead

Rob is a founder of, and frequent contributor to, Develpreneur. This includes the Building Better Developers podcast. He is also a lifetime learner as a developer, designer, and manager of software solutions. Rob is the founder of RB Consulting and has managed to author a book about his family experiences and a few about becoming a better developer. In his free time, he stays busy raising five children (although they have grown into adults). When he has a chance to breathe, he is on the ice playing hockey to relax or working on his ballroom dance skills.

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