A reader writes:

Are traditional certifications (PMP, ITIL, CSM) necessary or relevant to digital project management?

Well, I think it depends on who you ask.  As I tend to do, let me get too personal with you on this answer:  I didn't graduate from a 4 year college.  Now that I'm in my 40s, I don't feel quite as ashamed about this as I used to.  And being a PM for digital projects, anything I would have learned about my craft back in the mid 90s would have been woefully out of date now, so I feel like I'm not shooting myself in the foot too much by saying this.  The reason I bring it up is because not having that degree has caused me a LOT of agita in the past.  What if they think I can't do this work?  What if there is some sort of Big Lesson they teach in college that no one is allowed to talk about that everyone else knows and I don't and will cause me to completely fail at everything??  It's the same sort of agita I hear some PMs talk about when they are anxious that they don't have a certification in something or other.  What I found, though, is that my on-the-job experiences have shaped my PM abilities and has put me on par with peers that do have a degree. 

Now, of course, if I could have done the 4 year college deal back in the 90s, I would have, and I would never tell anyone to just not go to college.  There's value there, a lot of value.  Especially if you're trying to get into the field or really want to expand your knowledge beyond what you've experienced on your own.  But not having gone to college doesn't doom you to a career where you can never advance.  It's just harder.  

The same can be said for certifications.  Like college degrees, some companies won't even look at your resume without it.  Some "strongly prefer" a certification.  And many people who are fantastic PMs don't have a certification, and some feel pretty insecure because of it.  Most others do not.  It's TOTALLY possible to be a really great PM without a certification.  It might just be harder.  (NOTE:  There is NO certification that can replace experience!)

The good news is, unlike a 4y college degree, certifications are easily attainable!  I have my CSM, via training I got from LeadingAgile.com (and my favorite agile instructor, Dave Prior) and it has been so helpful.  I did know a lot of the mechanics of agile, but I didn't know the vernacular, nor all the ins and outs of the "typical" workflow.  I certainly didn't understand a burndown chart and that gave me a lot of imposter syndrome, so it was such a relief to understand that it isn't as mystical as it sounds.  Plus, just having my CSM makes me feel more confident.  I know stuff!

Now, not all certifications are equal and not all people agree on which certifications are the "best" - just like colleges.  You have to decide what is most important to you and what fits best with the industries you want to serve, as well as your career trajectory, and balance that out with cost and time.  Here's what I told someone about this recently:

Do you want to get your foot in the door in more places?  Do you have some money but not a ton of time?  Are you trying to stay in the digital or software realm? Do you hear/see the words "agile" a lot in the job postings you're looking for?  Get a Certified ScrumMaster training and certification.

Do you want to expand your PM roles outside of digital?  Do you like to really understand why certain long-standing PM things are done the way they are?  Do you feel accomplished if you have a hard-earned set of letters behind your name? Do you have more time to devote to studies?  Have you been turned down for a job because you don't have this?  Get a Project Management Professional (PMP) certification from the Project Management Institute (PMI).  

Do you want to be a technical project manager?  Do you work more with services than products?  Do you already have your PMP and CSM and just like letters?  Get an IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) certification - they do have definite ties to project management.

Or...collect all 3!  (And any of the other myriad certifications and certificate courses that focus on project management.)

*** One thing I will tell you is to BE CAREFUL who you use for trainings for any/all of these certifications!!  There are some straight up scams out there (especially for CSM) so do your homework.  Research and then research some more.  If someone approaches you out of the blue, or tells you you can get any of these certifications in "less time" than you've seen on official websites, these are giant red flags.  The last thing you want to do is spend time and money on something that isn't what you think it is.

If you don't want to get any of these certifications, that doesn't mean you're doomed to a life on the lowest rung of the PM ladder, or that you will ultimately fail and die alone.  You may have all the skills and knowledge that someone with one of these certs has, but you just don't have the paperwork.  Or you might have all you need to know for the career track you're on, which is the case for probably about 85% or more of non-certified PMs.  And there's nothing stopping you from getting certifications if and when you feel you need it.  (Pssst, get your current employer to pay for it!)

Good luck!