How to choose a SAFe certification

August 31st, 2020

The most common enquiry we get – both prior to and during courses – is how to choose a SAFe training course? Those who are yet to take any Scaled Agile certifications want to know which one is right for them and those who have taken one want advice on which SAFe agile training course they should take next. Given there are currently 13 SAFe certifications provided by Scaled Agile, Inc. I can appreciate their confusion! 

List of  SAFe Courses and Certifications
List of SAFe Certifications, © Scaled Agile, Inc.

All 13 classes are plotted at least once on the SAFe Implementation Roadmap. While this informs where the course fits in the context of implementing SAFe and which classes should be included in an ART Launch it is less helpful when trying to work out which class an individual should attend.  Most of the 13 SAFe certifications are role-based, which leads some people to think the way to choose a class is to pick the role you have, or the role you aspire, and take the appropriate class.  While that is certainly one approach, it is not one I would recommend. To get the most out of your investment in training you should take a considered approach in choosing which class or classes you want to attend. 

SAFe Implementation Roadmap
The SAFe Implementation Roadmap, © Scaled Agile, Inc.

How do the Scaled Agile Certifications Differ?

Implementing SAFe with SAFe Program Consultant (SPC) Certification (4-days)

The most complete class is the 4-day Implementing SAFe class with SPC certification. This is the only class that covers all Seven Core Competencies of Business Agility and the full SAFe Implementation Roadmap. This means if you want to be on the front-line helping organisations implement SAFe this the course you want to take. This class is also taken by a lot of people who want to train others in SAFe. While the SPC certification is the first step on this journey, experience with applying SAFe and delivering training are also essential ingredients to becoming a successful SAFe Trainer. 

There are a couple of myths about this course that I would like to dispel. Firstly, the inclusion of Leading SAFe as part of the content creates a misconception that attending this class is equivalent to attending a Leading SAFe class. In my experience this is not true. When we teach a two-day Leading SAFe class we are focused on introducing participants to SAFe. When we teach the Leading SAFe content in the context of Implementing SAFe we are focused on helping participants become effective SAFe Program Consultants, so it is a much deeper and detailed conversation. This can be overwhelming for those new to SAFe.

The second myth is that Implementing SAFe is only useful for people who want to train others in SAFe. This could not be further from the truth. This class is primarily for those leading and supporting an organisation’s journey to implementing SAFe and launching successful Agile Release Trains.

Seven Core Competencies of Business Agility
The Seven Core Competencies of Business Agility, © Scaled Agile, Inc.

Leading SAFe with SAFe Agilist (SA) Certification (2-days)

The class that gives the best introduction to SAFe is Leading SAFe with SAFe Agilist certification.  I like to think of Leading SAFe as a “crash course” in the Scaled Agile Framework. It provides an overview of the big picture and covers four of the Seven Core Competencies of Business Agility: Lean-Agile Leadership, Team and Technical Agility, Agile Product Delivery and Lean Portfolio Management.  This class has the most comprehensive content on the SAFe Principles and includes a PI Planning Simulation.  Participants should obtain a solid understanding of Portfolio SAFe and the “Ten Critical ART Success Factors”. The SAFe Agilist certification is also the most popular of all the SAFe certifications. 

Portfolio SAFe
Portfolio SAFe, © Scaled Agile, Inc.

SAFe for Government with SAFe Government Practitioner (SGP) Certification (2-days)

Content-wise, SAFe for Government is very similar to Leading SAFe. For those working in the context of the US Federal Government there is some specific guidance on working with FAR. The class also covers Solutions Trains and working with suppliers, which is content that was removed from Leading SAFe in version 5.0. Like the other introductory level classes, this course also includes the  PI Planning simulation, in which it adds the complexity of multiple Government contractors needing to collaborate on building a solution. 

Unlike Leading SAFe, there are only a couple of slides on Customer Centricity and Design Thinking. Instead, the course dives into areas like lean-agile contracting, compliance and governance in a government context. We see this as an alternative Leading SAFe for those working in the Government space. This class is not widely available in Australia.

Lean Portfolio Management with SAFe Lean Portfolio Manager (LPM) Certification (3-days)

The Lean Portfolio Management course provides a deep dive into the Lean Portfolio Management competency that is one of the Seven Core Competencies of Business Agility in SAFe. This class is primarily attended by PMO leaders and their team members. It is recommended that participants have attended either Leading SAFe or SAFe Product Owner/Product Manager before attending this class.  Participants in this course experience using the full LPM toolset in a simulated context then build a plan to start  or improve the LPM competency within their own organisation. 

SAFe Product Owner/Product Manager with SAFe POPM Certification (2-days)

SAFe Product Owner/Product Manager is for people doing, or planning to be doing, the Product Owner or Product Manager role on an Agile Release Train within an organisation that is using SAFe. This course is 70% Producer Owner focused, 30% Product Manager focused. The course covers the role of the Product Owner and Product Manager in planning and executing a Program Increment and Iterations. Participants experience writing epics, features, stories and acceptance criteria. 

Leading SAFe is a highly recommended prerequisite for the SAFe Product Owner/Product Manager course. While it is not mandatory, it is important to understand that the POPM class does not include a deep dive on the Lean Mindset, SAFe Principles or PI Planning. If you are looking for this knowledge you should consider taking Leading SAFe.

SAFe Scrum Master with SAFe Scrum Master (SSM) Certification (2-days)

The SAFe Scrum Master course is intended to help new, existing and aspiring Scrum Masters prepare for the role of Scrum Master on an Agile Release Train within an organisation using SAFe. It provides an introduction to Scrum and Agile and how Scrum fits into SAFe, then deep dives into the coaching role of the SAFe Scrum Scrum Master. Participants get to experience PI Planning, as well as planning and executing an iteration. The class also covers all the Scrum and SAFe events that a SAFe Scrum Master facilitates. 


I am a Certified Scrum Master (CSM) do I still need to do SAFe Scrum Master?

This class is not the same as the Certified Scrum Master (CSM) certification or at least is very different from the CSM I took from Mike Cohn back in 2014! The focus of a CSM course is how to do scrum well, the focus of the SAFe Scrum Master class is how to be a servant leader and support a team executing Scrum in the context of SAFe. I do not see these certifications as competing and, in fact, we see having both as valuable. We often refer clients to Certified Scrum Trainers like Ilan and Colin at AxisAgile, who are both excellent Scrum Trainers and not anti-SAFe. 


SAFe for Architects with SAFe Architect (ARCH) Certification (3-days)

SAFe for Architects is for people doing, or planning to be doing, any of the SAFe architect roles – System Architect, Solution Architect or Enterprise Architect. It is recommended that participants have attended at least one SAFe course prior to attending this class. We recommend Leading SAFe. The SAFe for Architects course explores the SAFe architect role within every facet of the framework from steering the portfolio to working with agile teams. 

SAFe for Teams with SAFe Practitioner (SP) Certification (2-days)

SAFe for Teams, which leads to the SAFe Practitioner certification, is intended to prepare members of an Agile Release Train for their role in a team on an Agile Release Train. This class is primarily used as part of launching an Agile Release Train. Once the ART is up and running, new team members that are also new to SAFe should take this class. We also see developers, testers and business analysts taking this class as part of preparing to join an organisation that practices SAFe.

This course provides an introduction to SAFe and Agile and an understanding of the roles on an agile team and an Agile Release Train. Students get to experience breaking down features into user stories with acceptance criteria, estimating backlogs and participating in PI Planning.  The class also teaches participants about the Scrum and SAFe events that SAFe Agile Teams participate in.

Agile Product Management with SAFe Agile Product Manager (APM) Certification (3-days)

Agile Product Manager is for people doing, or planning to be doing, the role of Product Manager on an Agile Release Train (or Solution Manager for a Solution Train).  It is recommended that participants have attended at least one SAFe course. We recommend Leading SAFe and SAFe Product Manager/Product Owner. This course is 70% focused on the role of the Product Manager and 30% focused on the role of the Product Owner. 

This class has a large focus on the Customer Centricity and Design Thinking dimension of the Agile Product Delivery competency, as well as the Continuous Exploration component of the Continuous Delivery Pipeline. The SAFe POPM certification has a greater focus on the Develop on Cadence, Release on Demand dimension.

APM vs POPM
How APM and POPM cover the Agile Product Deliver Competency © Scaled Agile, Inc.

SAFe DevOps with SAFe DevOps Practitioner (SDP) Certification (2-days)

The SAFe DevOps course is almost more workshop than training. It works best when a group of people from the same organisation attend together. Participants start by value stream mapping their current development process and then over the course of the rest of the two-days identify opportunities to improve both cycle time and quality. This class is suitable for all members of an Agile Release Train and works best when attended by cross functional teams. It is a great follow-on class for those with existing SAFe training that want to bring focus to their relentless improvement efforts.

Agile Software Engineering with SAFe Agile Software Engineer (ASE) Certifications (3-days)

Agile Software Engineering is designed for members of an agile team to improve their application of technical agility and techniques for building quality into their solutions. It is tool and language agnostic. This class assumes participants has some basic SAFe knowledge and therefore best taken after one of the more introductory courses like SAFe for Teams or Leading SAFe.

SAFe Advanced Scrum Masters with SASM Certification (2-days)

The SAFe Advanced Scrum Master course is designed for people with an existing Scrum Master certification to “level up”. We recommend attendees have either taken SAFe Scrum Master or have experience with SAFe before taking this class. For more information on the difference between this class and the SAFe Scrum Master class check out: Demystifying SAFe Scrum Master Certifications.

SAFe Release Train Engineer with RTE Certification (3-days)

SAFe Release Train Engineer is designed for existing RTEs and existing SAFe Scrum Masters to “level up”. The class assumes the participants have been working in a SAFe environment for at least one Program Increment and have completed at least one SAFe certification.  The class explores the role of the RTE in every aspect of operating an Agile Release Train. 

We are often asked why this class is not earlier on the Implementation Roadmap. While I cannot speak for Scaled Agile, Inc., when we launch Agile Release Trains, the RTE attends – Leading SAFe, SAFe Product Owner/Product Manager, SAFe Scrum Master and SAFe for Teams – in the circa 8 weeks leading up to the ART launch. This in addition to coaching before and during the first couple of Program Increments feels like enough upfront education.

Where should I start with SAFe Training?

If you are still wondering where to start – there are six SAFe certifications training that do not have SAFe experience or prior SAFe training as a recommended prerequisite: Leading SAFe, SAFe for Government, SAFe Scrum Master, SAFe for Teams, SAFe DevOps and Implementing SAFe. Choosing the right one for you is very much a matter of context, specifically your current role and what you aspire to do.

Of course for those who “just want to learn about SAFe” or “just want a SAFe certification” to improve their job prospects, the answer is easy – do Leading SAFe.. This is the most popular and widely recognised of all the SAFe certifications.  We also recommend Leading SAFe to anyone in a leadership or management role, including project managers, program managers, program directors, portfolio managers, architects, development managers, product managers, test managers etc.

As you may have already gleaned from the above the SAFe Scrum Master class is a great place for existing or aspiring Scrum Masters to start and SAFe for Teams is designed to help agile team members new to SAFe get started.  

As for SAFe DevOps, if you have no prior SAFe experience or training, then the learning curve is steeper, as the class is definitely set in the context of SAFe. However, this class is a good starting point for those looking to build the business case for SAFe. 

What about Implementing SAFe, can I start there?

While Implementing SAFe does not have SAFe experience or training as a prerequisite, many SAFe Program Consultant Trainers (the SPCTs that teach the Implementing SAFe class) believe that Leading SAFe should be a prerequisite and I happen to agree! While the two-day Leading SAFe course content is included in the Implementing SAFe class, most people struggle to absorb 4-days of brand new knowledge. Taking Leading SAFe, or in fact almost any SAFe training class, prior to Implementing SAFe is a way of priming the brain for this intense learning experience.  Bottom line – we don’t recommend Implementing SAFe for beginners to agile or SAFe.  

I already have one (or more) SAFe certifications, what class should I take next?

What sort of consultant would I be if I didn’t answer that one with – it depends! 😉 While it is impossible to provide an answer for every possible scenario, there are some patterns that we recommend. You can download a free copy of our SAFe Certification Pathways below.

No matter which class you choose to start or continue your SAFe learning journey, I hope you have found this little guide useful. ‘Til next time #StaySAFe.

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