Using Sprints To Study For the PMP Exam

Introduction

In Winter 2015, I decided to fulfill a long-term career goal of attaining the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification. Although different for everyone, my own reasons for wanting to become PMP certified were (in order of importance):

  1. Learning. Studying for and passing the PMP exam would require me to learn a significant amount about project management, and in particular the methodologies, tools and techniques detailed in the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK).
  2. Challenge. The reputation of difficulty in attaining the PMP attracted me to successfully achieving it.
  3. Career development. As a functional and project manager, the PMP designation would increase my skills with my employer, and provide both company and personal legitimacy when interacting with customers and external stakeholders.

In September 2015 on my first attempt, I successfully passed the PMP exam with “Proficient” in 4 out of 5 process groups: Initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring and Controlling, and “Moderately Proficient” in the last process group, Closing.

My objective with this post is to detail how I used agile project management methodologies to successfully study, and pass, the PMP exam in the hopes that someone else finds this approach useful in their studies.

Prerequisites

You should have a basic understanding about what a sprint is, and what a retrospective is. Other agile and studying experience may be helpful to tailor this approach better to your needs, but certainly isn’t required.

What’s not covered

As there are several other, excellent resources out there on the following topics, I’m not going to detail the format of the PMP exam or the requirements of applying to take the PMP exam.

For information on the above topics, I suggest you read:

Study Tools and Materials

Below are the tools I used to study for the exam; feel free to swap out equivalencies for whatever works for you.
I don’t have any financial or other affiliations with any of the below resources (aside from being a member of PMI and a PMP, who creates and maintains the PMBOK).

  1. The PM Prepcast. There are often deals and sales for this (as well as bundles that include the exam simulator) available on their Facebook Page.
  2. The PMP Exam Simulator.
  3. Rita Mulcahy’s PMP Exam Prep, Eighth Edition  (make sure you’re getting the latest version) OR one of the many alternatives.
  4. The PMBOK Guide (latest version). Do not read this cover to cover, it’s a reference text.
  5. PMP Test and Exam Results Spreadsheet for tracking and identifying areas requiring improvement by sprints.
Man who has read the PMBOK cover to cover. Oil, tempera, pastel and crayon on cardboard (1893)
Man who has read the PMBOK cover to cover. Oil, tempera, pastel and crayon on cardboard (1893)

Method

The approach is simple, and uses 3 separate, but equally important approaches:

  1. Active study: every day, read and take notes on one of the knowledge areas using one the books mentioned above.
    I prefer to read through a chapter without taking notes, then read through again creating mind-map style notes, but choose whatever works best for you.

    • At the start of every study session, copy table 3-1 “Project Management Process Group and Knowledge Area Mapping” (5th edition) from the PMBOK, and as many of the math formulas as possible (I focused on Earned Value, PERT, and Network Diagram formulas). These will serve as a reference ‘map’ to help you during the exam.
  2. Passive study: every day, lsiten to the PM Prepcast during ‘downtime’ such as: commuting, mowing the lawn, walking the dog, etc.
    You will begin to hear Cornelius Fichtner’s voice narrating your life and in your dreams, don’t worry, this is normal and should fade after several months.
  3. Sprints: Structuring studying into 1 week sprints, where in each sprint you study at least one knowledge area.

How To

  1. Sprint: During each 1 week sprint, you will study at least one knowledge area using active and passive study methods.
  2. Sprint Retrospective: At the end of each sprint, take a test (30-50 questions) in the PMP Exam Simulator that covers the knowledge areas you have studied for that sprint. Copy the results of this mini-exam into the appropriate sprint test score column in the “Test Results” tab of the PMP Test and Exam Results Spreadsheet. Think, and take notes on where you went wrong and how you can improve your score.
    Reward yourself at the end of the sprint with a treat (piece of cake, a bike ride, whatever you like).
  3. Full Practice Exam: When you have studied all of the knowledge areas, take a FULL practice exam in the PMP Exam Simulator. Copy the results of this test into the appropriate exam score column of the “Exam Results” tab in the PMP Test and Exam Results Spreadsheet.
    Reward yourself at the end of a full mock exam with a full day off.
  4. Full Retrospective: Analyze the PMP Test and Exam Results Spreadsheet to see where you need to improve. To do this, simply sort the exam score from lowest and highest and identify your worst 3 knowledge areas.
  5. Repeat steps 1 – 3, dedicating a sprint per each of your worst 3 knowledge areas.
    • After you’ve improved your worst 3 knowledge areas, continue your sprints until you have achieved a passing mark of 80% on each knowledge area.
In a nutshell: study, test, measure, improve.
In a nutshell: study, test, measure, improve.

Final Exam Prep

  1. 3 weeks prior to the exam, take a FULL practice exam once every week, and brush up on any knowledge areas, formulas, etc that you may still be a bit hazy on.
  2. Take a few days off prior to the exam – seriously, the PMP exam is a marathon, not a sprint (see what I did there), and you need your stamina.
  3. Take a deep breath, take (and pass) the exam! At the start of the exam, write down the table 3-1 and any math formulas you memorized.

Don’t forget to reward yourself. It’s taken a lot of time, effort, and courage to get to where you are, and you deserve to acknowledge your efforts with a nice reward. Even if you fail – reward your effort, and then get back to studying to try again – and then when you pass, reward your success.

Do what works, throw away what doesn’t

A big part of being a project manager is finding the best way to deliver your project, in this case, studying for the PMP. So be a project manager. Pick the best approach. If this approach doesn’t work for you, throw it out and try a different one.

About This Approach

Aren’t agile and the PMBOK/ PMP two different (and opposed) methodologies?

Many people equate the PMP/ PMBOK to the Waterfall project management methodology, which is a predictive (plan-based) approach, and is therefore in opposition to agile methodologies,  an umbrella term for change-driven project management methodologies. To those who support this idea, reading a guide about using agile methodologies to study for the PMP is a little bit like reading a guide entitled “How I used steak to become a vegetarian”.

If you have read the PMBOK, or PMP study materials, however, the PMBOK does not specifically advocate how you should undertake a project, and in fact it details Waterfall and Agile as being two different approaches to achieving the ultimate goal of every project manager: successfully delivering the damned project.

Finally, the PMBOK also indicates that a successful project manager must tailor her approach to project management to achieve this objective within the boundaries of her organization’s culture, styles, mission, beliefs, expectations, regulations, methods, and procedures.

In short: the project manager must use her expert judgment to choose the best methodology, tools, processes and plans in order to deliver the project.

So why agile and not waterfall?

In looking at the project that was my studying, agile was more appropriate for the following reasons:

  1. The planning, processes, and documentation used in waterfall is unnecessarily heavy, and burdensome for a ‘team’ of 1 person.
  2. The notion of being ‘ready enough’ for the exam is largely an abstract notion depending on my definition of done, and not dependent on a specific date or deliverable beyond me ‘feeling ready’.

Additionally, as a software development manager, my teams had been using agile methodologies with great effect for some time. Using agile on a personal level would allow me to:

  • Learn more about the agile methodology
  • Discover lessons learned that I could apply to my teams at work
  • “Eat my own dog food”. Woof.

What about memorizing all the ITTO’s?

I’ve seen some people online memorize all of the Inputs, Tools & Techniques and Outputs. However, I personally believe that your objective and focus should be on actually learning and understanding the material so you don’t have to memorize every little thing for the exam.

A word about constraints, aka ‘Life’

I’ve read many accounts of people studying for the PMP and passing the exam with as little as 3 to 4 weeks (!) of study. At the time I was studying for my PMP, I had 3 children under 5 and I was working full time, so most of my study time was in the evenings and weekends. I took several months to prepare for the exam to ensure that I really knew the material and wasn’t just memorizing for a brain dump. Since I had significant work and family commitments that often took precedence over studying, when I was too busy with other things to study, I simply re-prioritized my studying behind other, more important things, then made up for the time later.

My point is, everyone has constraints in their life that make preparing for something as major as the PMP difficult, or in rare instances, downright impossible. Set as much time as you can aside to study and prepare, work hard, and truly be committed; but stressing yourself out will have a detrimental effect on your efforts, so be aware of your commitments and priorities, and be prepared to manage your stress as well as your time.

 

Published by

Nik

Nik is a project manager and web technologist that enjoys solving peoples' problems through web technologies. When he isn't doing those things, he's lifting heavy things up and down repeatedly, and cooking with his 3 children, who are actively trying to eat all the ingredients.