Certification Spotlight: PMP or ITIL Expert?

4820274356_5e5db8f128_zI’ve seen various posts and conversations over the last year or so on certification where the recurring question is posed…


PMP or ITIL Expert?

Some may consider that the PMP certification is only useful for Project Managers or that the ITIL Expert certification only for ITSM professionals. This would be a limited view on the usefulness of both certifications. Either pursuit will certainly be more helpful than harmful to a career and if you can do both, it would be beneficial.

However, depending on where you are in your career, what you aspire to be, you may be more inclined to pick one over the other. Most of us are pressed for time and may not have the option of pursing both certifications, so we will have to choose.

So which one do I think is more useful and valuable? Let me take a minute to make my case…


Cost Containment versus Revenue Generation

There are two primary ways to increase profit – reduce your costs or increase your revenue. Which of these two aspects are you more interested in? Which of these two aspects are successful businesses more interested in pursuing? If we read “The Three Rules: How Exceptional Companies Think” we know that successful companies tend to focus on being better before being cheaper and chase new revenue before cutting costs.

This would imply that a company is more likely to look favourably on and fund projects and efforts that generate revenue more so than they are on projects and efforts that look to contain costs. Take a moment to look up “CIO Revenue Generation” or “CIO Cost Containment” and you will find more articles about revenue and value creation than about pure cost containment.

Let’s take a moment and think about how this relates to ITIL and Project Management…


ITIL and Cost Containment

While ITIL does cover a wide range of subjects and aspects of IT Service Management, it is in practice primarily focused on IT Operations such as Process Management/Ownership and, more specifically, Service Desk processes and functions. This is evident by the number of job postings, discussions on social media  (it is interesting to note that here on The ITSM Review the top 10 searches are all related to process and Operations), and even Intermediary Certification results show a focus on Incident, Problem, Request and Change Management, with Service Operations and Operational Support and Analysis being the two most popular taken Intermediate Exams. At the same time there are very few jobs that require ITIL Expert certifications that have anything to do with Service Strategy or Service Design.

Focusing on IT Operations is generally about being more efficient, which essentially translates to cost reduction. There is also a strong case for ITIL helping the organisation be “better” – mostly through customer service interaction in Operations and continual service improvement (CSI) which is usually focused on Operations or Transition but is rarely done to improve something in Strategy or Design. Think about this, what is in your CSI Register right now? Is it “inside-out” (making IT run better) or “outside-in” (making a new product/service)?

These programs are often hampered by the difficulty in quantifying “soft costs”, they don’t generally create revenue and it is hard to measure how much money they will save the company. However, it is usually fairly easy to see how much the program cost. Ordinarily these types of efforts are not funded at all, not funded fully or brought to a premature end leaving everyone a bit unsatisfied with the results and a host of “lessons learned“. For example in his article 6 Barriers to Proactive Problem Management, Stephen Mann clearly states this is an internally focused, hard to quantify effort that is focused on cost savings not revenue generation.


Project Management and Revenue Generation

Project Management however is not primarily focused on IT operations but more likely to be involved in IT Strategy and Design on a more frequent basis than ITSM programs or efforts. Being part of IT Strategy and Design increases the opportunities you will have to be part of an effort to generate revenue not just opportunities to cut costs. Being a PM will more likely allow you to gain experience with a wider variety of IT Services and products and not just back-end IT (operation) processes. This type of experience will be much more useful as you manage your career and look for more leadership opportunities.

A PM will be involved in any new product or service being rolled out. These have a much higher probability of being “high profile” as they are much more likely to be tied to increased revenues or improving the company brand (making things better).

Keep in mind any major IT Operations effort (such as implementing an ITSM solution such as ServiceNow, BMC Remedy etc) will also likely be treated as a “project” and may come with a Project Manager. The ITIL Expert may be there as the Subject Matter Expert but may not be the one briefing senior leadership on the status – that is a job that is usually left to the PM.


Road Warrior or Career Ladder

So we can see that being a PM does not exclude you from ITSM efforts and is also more likely to include revenue or value creation projects. Being an ITSM professional is likely to be mainly focused on cost containment and nearly entirely within the ITSM space.  But what about the total number of job opportunities or types of opportunities?

Well, how many ITIL Experts does an organization need? At most maybe a half a dozen, but usually just one or two will suffice and quite often there are none. Organizations are much more likely to have several PMPs, maybe even 10 or 20 of them. It quite likely that the CIO or IT Director is a PMP as well whereas there are fewer that are also ITIL Experts.

Also, a job search will show that the majority of ITIL Expert jobs are for short term contracts (or Consulting Firms). You are more likely to find more long term employment opportunities as a Project Manager than you are as an ITIL Expert.

If you go down the ITIL Expert route, you are more likely going to find the majority of your opportunities on the road. You may have to start looking for new opportunities while still working the current one. This can be exciting for some, but for others, this can be a major source of concern. You can live that same kind of life as a Project Manager but if you want to land a more secure working life, you will find more opportunities to do so as a PM than as an ITIL Expert.


Higher Ceiling

As an ITIL Expert, because the majority of the focus is on back-end processing and more specifically on IT Operations (cost containment) you may find it difficult to make a transition to a leadership or management position that is not on a Service Desk or narrowly focused on process improvement.

As a Project Manager you will be leading people, and many projects are about new functionality, new service offerings, and may be more centered around new revenue streams. This is far more interesting to the business and as such far more impressive when looking to achieve a higher level leadership position within a company.

Also ITIL Expert is essentially as high as you will go in the field. Yes, there is the ITIL Master level, which there are approximately zero jobs for, and maybe…50 people in the world who have achieved this level. It is hard to know beyond an ego boost this certification would do for you and your career.

For the PMP you can go on to achieve the Program Management Professional (PgMP) certification. Which there are hundreds of jobs postings for and have an average salary that is higher (as shown by this salary comparison) this certification is worthwhile and raises the ceiling on your income potential.

If you wish to become specialized then you can focus on Agile Project Management. There are several certifications you can achieve around this including ScrumMaster (CSM) and the Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP). These open up more job opportunities especially as Agile and DevOps becomes more widely accepted and practiced.

In the broader ITSM world you also have options for other certifications such as COBIT or ISO/IEC 20000 certifications but neither quite have the job market demand to justify it. Neither will lead you to a higher salary but they may be just enough to make a difference on a bid or job interview for a specialized ITSM role.



While there is certainly value in getting an ITIL Expert certification I feel it is more limited and less applicable than the knowledge, skill and experience one gets as a PMP. If you absolutely love IT Operations, and process improvement and you don’t mind being a gun for hire (maybe you like being your own boss) then being an ITIL Expert is a great way to go. There is plenty of money in it, and plenty of opportunity out there.

However, if you career is more angled for long term career growth inside a company and you want to know more about the business aspect of IT then the PMP is the better bet. Being a PMP does not exclude you from ITSM efforts (as noted above) and in fact may make you better at pitching, managing, and implementing various ITSM efforts. It will also give you a better foundation to explore other aspects of IT.


Agree/disagree? Let me know in the comments below.


Image Credit

15 thoughts on “Certification Spotlight: PMP or ITIL Expert?”

  1. Stephen – great article and nice to someone make a definite stance or opinion rather than a pale comparison of two things.

    Whilst I’ve not done PMP, I did do the PRINCE2 Practitioner course a few years back and was a junior PM when I start in IT. My approach to ITSM has largely been a project-based approach like PRINCE2’s “product-based planning” as it makes mapping out things like processes, artifacts and milestones much easier.

    Although I’m resitting my ITIL Expert exam soon, going into the course, I naively believed it would be about ITIL processes and more operational focus not unlike what you argue in your article. However, I had forgotten that ITIL is fundamentally much more than mere processes – it’s about value, strategic leadership and partnership with your customers.

    Anyhow, back to your point about Project Management offering opportunities about service offerings, exposure to customers and projects being far more interesting to the business – this is true to an extent.

    I’ve been on both sides of the coin and been involved in some really successful pieces of work but also on the receiving end of the customer’s wrath when a project has failed to deliver and it’s the “operational aspects” of ITIL and the heroic efforts of the support teams to turn things around – often many months and at IT’s own cost later.

    As for ITIL being more operational, that is not ITIL’s fault but largely an industry’s fault of using it in the ‘support world’ rather than integrating it effectively into the ‘project world’. As a Transition Manager, this is something I’m trying to build into both psyches in our project and support teams.

    For more, it’s about a broad range of qualifications and experience rather than solely ITIL or PMP. Some of the really successful stuff coming out involves Agile, Testing, COBIT and Architecture qualifications. I know a few ITSM senior leaders who do not have an high level of ITIL or PMP qualifications who have brought other qualifications into the mix.

    1. Jon,

      Thanks for reading and posting some feedback.

      I agree that in theory and in the books ITIL is not solely limited to Operations. My point is in practice that is what the vast majority of jobs are centered around. So, yes, you can get an Intermediate ITIL Certificate in Service Strategy (I have one) you are not likely going to find a job that is looking for that particular certification or focused on Service Strategy

      Look at this:


      There are a lot of jobs posted with an Intermediate Certification as a qualification – but what kind of jobs are they? They are Service Desk, Support Center, Service Operations focused with at least 1 I saw that was a Change Manager (so, Service Transition). None at Service Strategy or Service Design.

      The MALC is rightly focused on the width and breadth of ITIL. The exam is interesting (or at least the version I took) – a Use Case with the questions/answers being more about thinking like a consultant to the C-Level than about being a practitioner in the coal mine (so more theory focused than practical focused). Good luck on your exam.

      Truth be told I actually preferred the way the ITIL Exams were structured as compared to the PMP Exam. I did however appreciate the PMP qualification process more than the ITIL one (there isn’t one, just take a class and take an exam). Perhaps some blending of the two would be ideal (according to me at least).

      Anyway, you are absolutely correct in saying that to be an effective leader you need more than a few pieces of paper (certifications). Experience will matter more in the end. However, in order to get that chance, that experience, you sometimes need the piece of paper first – it is much more likely you will be given an opportunity to lead even a modest sized effort if you already have…say PMP or even an Intermediate ITIL Cert…than you would if you did not. Have success there, gain your experience, get another opportunity, apply what you’ve learned along the way, rinse and repeat.

      The point of this is, the types of opportunities and experiences you will have with a PMP can be different (more likely broader, more involved with Strategy, Design) than you will get with an ITIL focused path. Your experience as a PM on a project that did not quite go to plan is very different than what you will find as a Transition Manager. The PM is usually the “face” of a project, they will feel the warm bask of success and the hot fire of failure more acutely than those more involved behind the scenes. This is not to say those behind the scenes are less important (they are in fact crucial) to the project’s success – they will just be viewed and rewarded differently.

      1. Friends, I am an ITIL Expert 🙂 Take a moment to understand that you are not going to be ITIL expert just when you are out of education span. You need to play several roles like System analyst, developer, Technology specialist. And once you acquire 7-8 yrs of experience to work as Team member/project team member you aim to become a Manager a next level. Here I am sure PMP is the certification and study which will fetch you the JOB(change over). Instead I would like to continue in the same organization and aspire to contribute to other areas of IT which is processes.. and here being ITIL consultant does get you good chair.
        1. ITIL grows with organisation ex. CMMI SVC level 3 to 5
        2. ITIL Expert market is very low, as you do not need people at that level to stay with you after implementation or transition completed.
        3. PMP is Project Manager role, if attached with Service Operation, Service Transition manager, Problem management manager, Change management manager is the best buy in IT to fetch the JOB
        4.Do not forget ITIL is for IT, where as PMP is for any industries across and hence the market share.

  2. Stephen

    No argument from me in regards there being no “ITIL Strategy or Design” jobs generally being published.

    My point was exactly that, because in general, the industry has allowed ITIL to be too operational focused and sadly turning incident, problem, change and so on to be box ticking exercises for support staff to worry about.

    One of the things we’re trying to achieve with the ITIL Manifesto is improve the understanding, value and future benefits of doing it. Any outside of the Operational world – business or customer – are highly unlikely to follow such a wide syllabus. Sadly, this reinforces the cycle of the lack of strategy or design jobs requesting ITIL qualifications and Projects being more the centre of focus for the customer.

    I started off as a PM and it is through that route my career in ITSM has taken off more than I could’ve hoped for had I have being doing something else. So on a personal career POV, I’m totally in agreement with you.

  3. To solve this issue we created a program that develops the main capabilities you need as a professional with a big umbrella : Enterprise Architecture so you begin with TOGAF then you move to SOA, ITIL, BPM,and COBIT TOGAF Based where they are guidelines you follow in order to manage success projects. Then you move to a selling best practices academy in order you can be able to talk with business areas. Then we move the student to an online practice community where you can put into practice these concepts. Students are invited to apply innovation techniques too. So you will be able to know the basic concepts of each one with a business perspective. If you to know more please visit http://arcasg.expert

  4. I perfectly agree with the content of this article. I intended pursuing both the ITIL and PMP certifications and shall continue in that Path.

  5. I am a PMP and ITIL Expert. I doubled my salary becoming an ITIL Expert. Lots of PMP people out there. Only a few ITIL Experts. Combined with TS/SCI you can really bring in the money.

    1. Scarcity always drives up the cost of a good/service. Is the demand going to be sustainable though? How is that world adopting/adapting to the changing paradigm of Dev/Ops and ‘cloud’ – and are you confident ITIL will stay relevant during and after this shift?

  6. Dear Stephan,

    I would like to thank you for this site ! In my opinión it is useful!

    I would like to earn the ITIL expert and PMP as well but i don’t know which i should do .
    I work as quality manager in a telecommunication and Our procedures are based on the e-tom standard hovewer i know the ITIL standard and PMP as well.

    Which of them can you recommend?


  7. I am looking to obtain both certifications, however, my problem comes in finding the best place to get certifications. Which company would you recommend for taking courses to get the PMP certification and ITIL cert?

Comments are closed.