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Becoming a non-technical Scrum Master

Becoming A Non-technical Scrum Master

If you work in the tech industry then you’ve no doubt noticed the recent explosion in demand for qualified Scrum Masters. But, what’s more interesting is the surge in interest from individuals hoping to fill these positions who are coming from outside of the tech industry. In fact, in the last month alone I’ve received several questions from individuals without a technical background who are interested in becoming a Scrum Master. While the background of each individual is different, all of the emails end with a common question: “Can someone who doesn’t have a technical background find success as a non-technical Scrum Master?”. While opinions on this may certainly differ, I’m thrilled to say that in my experience the answer to this question has been a resounding “Yes!”.

Learning The Skills To Be A Great Scrum Master

While there’s no question that having a strong technical background can be advantageous to becoming a successful Scrum Master, it’s in no way a requirement. In fact, some of the best Scrum Masters that I’ve ever worked with have come from completely non-technical backgrounds.

So, if a technical background isn’t a requirement for becoming an effective Scrum Master, then what is?

The Scrum Master role is all about fostering collaboration across your team. And to do this effectively you need to be able to build connections with others and communicate with them in a way that makes sense to them. Therefore, great Scrum Masters need to be great communicators and understand how to adapt their communication style to a variety of situations and individual preferences.

Teams who are new to the Scrum framework are often skeptical of the number of ceremonies and artifacts that are required to adhere to the rules of the framework. It’s your responsibility as a Scrum Master to communicate the value of each of these ceremonies and artifacts in a way that resonates with each member of your team so that everyone is on board with fully participating in the framework.

In addition, great Scrum Master have a knack for setting short-term goals with their teams and then visualizing the steps necessary to reach those goals. In this way, the Scrum Master helps their team understand the value of each of their sprint goals and helps them build a plan to reach those goals.

But What About Technical Skills?

Both of the skills mentioned above are non-technical in nature, meaning that anyone from any background could be capable of employing these skills successfully. But, does this mean that there are no technical skills required for becoming a great Scrum Master?

Not exactly.

Truly effective Scrum Masters also possess a deep understanding of how their organization delivers software. However, this is not the same thing as being a skilled software developer. Great Scrum Masters have a clear mental picture of all of the steps their organization takes to deliver an increment of product to market and how each of those steps fit together. This doesn’t mean that the Scrum Master understands every line of code used to bring a product to life, or the specific nuances of each step of the product’s deployment pipeline, but they do understand how each step of that process fits together and how changes to one step can affect other steps.

In addition, while they may have a deep understanding of their organization’s software development process, they also understand that their organization’s process is almost guaranteed to differ from another organization’s process…and that this difference is ok.

The goal of understanding their process is to better position them to spot impediments that could be affecting their team, especially those impediments that their team may not even see themselves. And another goal is to help them to spot opportunities to improve and optimize that process so their team can deliver software more effectively.

So while some level of technical understanding is necessary, the good news is that this level of understanding can be learned on the job by anyone willing to invest the effort to do so.

Finding Success As A Non-Technical Scrum Master

But despite the skills above, a large part of your success as a non-technical Scrum Master will depend on how willing your team is to accept a Scrum Master from a non-technical background.

For some teams, this won’t be an issue. They’ll be happy to have the aide of a great Scrum Master and won’t care about your level of technical chops…or lack thereof. For others, however, this may be more of an issue.

For some teams, a Scrum Master from a non-technical background may need to work a little harder to gain their team’s trust. This can be particularly true for teams who are new to the Scrum framework and are already a bit skeptical of the Scrum Master’s role to begin with. But don’t despair, if you find yourself in this situation all hope is not lost.

When working with a team whose trust you may have to work harder than usual to earn, your first order of business should be to invest in building strong relationships with each individual on the team. This can pay huge dividends since people whom you have strong relationships with will be more likely to support and follow you as you begin to drive change in your role. Or, even if they don’t always agree with you, they’ll at least be less likely to publicly detract from you when they disagree.

But beyond this, you must also work to really learn the skills and responsibilities that are expected of a Scrum Master. And then, make a visible effort to put these same skills to work bettering the lives of your team.

As mentioned above, it’s not unusual for teams are who are new to the Scrum framework to also be skeptical of the Scrum Master role in general. Often this skepticism is rooted in a general lack of understanding of purpose of the Scrum Master role as well as the value that this role can bring to their team.

But, by working to truly develop the skills of an effective Scrum Master you’ll not only start to show your team how you can add value to their work but you’ll also demonstrate that the Scrum Master role is a craft of it’s own that requires a commitment to mastery comparable to their own roles and therefore worthy of their respect.

Beginning Your Journey To Becoming A Great Scrum Master

So, you’re confident that you can become a truly effective Scrum Master even without a technical background but you don’t know where to start? Luckily, getting started is easier than you think.

First, there are a wealth of books and online courses available to help you deepen your knowledge of your craft and to teach you the specific skills you’ll need to be successful. Becoming an effective Scrum Master is a career-long pursuit and there’s always more to learn, but luckily you’ll never be at a loss for inspiration.

Second, finding an experienced Scrum Master who can serve as a mentor can be an incredibly effective way to accelerate your own growth as a Scrum Master. A great mentor can give guidance as to what materials or learning would be most appropriate for where you are in your journey, provide insight and advice to problems that you may be facing based on their own experience with similar problems in the past, or just act as a sounding board and listen encouragingly as you reason out the best approach for yourself. If you’re looking for a mentor, a great place to start are the more experienced Scrum Masters in your own organization, Scrum Masters from outside organizations that you may encounter at local user groups or conferences, or even those Scrum Masters who can provide coaching and mentoring remotely via the internet.

And finally, jumping into your role with both feet is the most effective way to quickly find success as a Scrum Master. Truly effective Scrum Masters are great communicators and great facilitators, but above all, truly effective Scrum Masters are great problem solvers. This is because every situation you’ll face will be different and therefore the problems you’ll face with one team will differ from the problems you’ll face with another team. Great Scrum Masters don’t have all the answers, but they excel at putting their problem solving skills to work to find those answers. And there’s no better way to do this, then to dive headfirst into your first team and start solving these problems for yourself.

Are you ready to take the first step in your Scrum Master career? Or, are you an experienced Scrum Master whose ready to take your craft to the next level? Check out my course series, Scrum Master Fundamentals, to learn how to set yourself apart as a Scrum Master and help your team reach their highest potential.

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Scrum Master Demand Is at It’s Strongest Point Ever

It’s no surprise that the Scrum Framework is quickly becoming the framework of choice for teams interested in adopting an agile methodology.  In fact, VersionOne’s 2016 State of Agile Development survey puts the number of teams currently following a pure Scrum approach for their agile implementation at 58%. Furthermore, this number increases to 75% if you include hybrid approaches such as those which combine Scrum with another agile approach such as Kanban to create Scrumban.

But despite the simplicity of the Scrum Framework its adoption by a team new to an agile approach is still not for the faint of heart. If you’ve ever been on a Scrum team you’ll know that a large part of most team’s success is the presence of a skilled Scrum Master. This individual is responsible for ensuring that the team is adhering to the Scrum Framework in a way that helps them to deliver their product in the most effective way. Given the growth in popularity of the Scrum Framework it should come as no surprise that this growth is also fueling an unprecedented demand for Scrum Masters.

Scrum Framework Growth Breeds Scrum Master Demand

So much so, in fact, that the Scrum Master role has found itself square in the middle of LinkedIn’s list of The Most Promising Jobs for 2017. This list, culled from LinkedIn’s unique position to analyze job trends and growth, placed the Scrum Master role at #10 of the 20 most promising jobs for 2017. According to LinkedIn, this uptick in demand has given the role a median base salary of $100,000 USD and a year-over-year job growth of 400%, which will likely drive base salaries even higher as demand for the role continues to increase.

If you’ve seen many “hot jobs” lists in the past then the dominance of jobs from the tech sector should come as no surprise. As a matter of fact, 12 out of 20 jobs on LinkedIn’s Most Promising Jobs for 2017 list come straight from the technology sector.  So what makes the Scrum Master role any different?

Becoming a Scrum Master Is Easier Than You Think

LinkedIn’s Most Promising Jobs list contains many roles which are highly specialized and thus can require years of developing both specialized skills and experience, such as a Data Architect or Site Reliability Engineer.  But unlike these roles, the Scrum Master role can be very accessible for someone who already has a technical background which makes this path more of a lateral career move for many who are already in the tech sector.

This is because some of the most important skills for a successful Scrum Master are an in-depth understanding of your organization’s software delivery process and a willingness to connect with and build relationships with those both inside and outside of your team.  By combining an overarching view of the steps necessary for your organization to bring your product to market with a willingness to build relationships with those individuals who are involved each step of the way, you can build the skills necessary to clear the path for your team to keep them moving as efficiently as possible.  And this ability to keep your team on a clear path is one of the most important responsibilities for a Scrum Master.

This means that if you’ve already gained some experience in your organization’s software development ranks in a role such as a developer, tester, or designer and you like interacting with others in your organization then the Scrum Master role can be an attractive option for your career path and one that’s much more accessible than a highly technical specialization requiring years of training and experience.

What It Takes to Become a Great Scrum Master

If this appeals to you then you’re probably wondering what it takes to land a job as a Scrum Master. Well, in addition to the skills that I described above you’ll need a strong understanding of the practices and components of the Scrum Framework and the ability to help your team learn to interpret the Scrum Framework in the way that’s the most effective for them. You’ll also need a thorough understanding of the broader agile concepts and methods that the Scrum Framework embodies so you can be sure that your team is always adhering to the spirit of the agile methods that underlie Scrum.

But in addition to these skills, many candidates find that holding one of the more recognizable Scrum Master certifications can be a helpful step to getting their foot in the door. The most recognized of these certifications are the Scrum Alliance Certified ScrumMaster© certification, commonly known as the CSM, and the Scrum.org Professional Scrum Master™ I certification, commonly known as the PSM I. You can see the specific requirements for each certification on the respective website of each certification body but, in general, the path to each certification includes attending a multiple-day in-person training event and then passing a written exam testing your knowledge of the Scrum Framework. However, while multiple-day training events are available for both certifications, please note that in the case of the Professional Scrum Master certification attending this event is not required before taking the exam, though it can be extremely helpful.

Building on Your Experience

Without question, in addition to a strong understanding of the inner workings of the Scrum Framework and a well respected certification, the most important ingredient for success as a Scrum Master is the ability to interpret and ford the political waters of your organization to help your team to succeed. This ability can be gained only by an investment of time in learning the ins and outs of the environment and culture in which you will function as a Scrum Master. This is because regardless of the number of certifications they’ve earned or the depth of their knowledge of the Scrum Framework, a Scrum Master who unable to navigate the trade winds of their organization will ultimately be ineffective.

The Scrum Master role can be an incredibly rewarding role for those interested in blending elements of technology, leadership, and business acumen in a way that allows them to help their team deliver great work in a way that’s both productive and enjoyable. And the recent surge in demand for individuals who are able to serve this role, combined with the lateral nature of moving into this role for those individuals who are already from a technical background paint a bright picture of the future demand for this role. All of these elements combine to make this role the ideal choice for anyone who is looking for the next step in their career or who is simply interested in trying their hand at something new.

Does the Scrum Master role sound like the right next step for your career? Or, are you an experienced Scrum Master who wants to become more effective in you role so you meet the increased demand for your skills? If so, then check out the course series, Scrum Master Fundamentals, to learn how to set yourself apart as a Scrum Master and help your team reach their highest potential.

Don’t have a Pluralsight membership yet? Try the entire Pluralsight course catalog free for 10 days here.

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Every Team Member Is a Scrum Master

There’s a saying in the US Navy that every sailor is a firefighter.  This is because when a ship is threatened by fire, there are few worse places to be than trapped on a ship, miles from land, with no place to go.  When this happens, regardless of your title, everyone on the ship becomes one thing and one thing only…a firefighter.

A similar principle could be applied to Scrum teams.

What If There’s No Scrum Master?

Scrum teams are comprised of 3 different roles…the Development Team, a Product Owner, and a Scrum Master.  The Scrum Guide tells us that the Scrum Master is the team member responsible for keeping the team on track within the context of the Scrum Framework and for helping the entire team perform at their highest potential.  This is great if you have a talented Scrum Master who’s always around to help the team.  But what happens when that person isn’t around?  Maybe she’s taken a vacation, has suddenly come down with the flu, or simply isn’t feeling up to the task?  If so, then the responsibility of keeping the team on track must fall to the other members on the team.

In times like these, every team member is a Scrum Master.

Does your team seem to be falling behind your expected velocity?  Or, are you in danger of missing your goal for the sprint?  If so, then it’s your entire team’s responsibility to pull together to understand why your velocity is less than you expected.  Or, to pull together to understand what you can do to accomplish your goal before the end of your sprint.

Is there someone on the team who seems to be struggling this sprint?  Or, is there someone who just doesn’t seem to be connecting with the rest of the Scrum team?  Then the rest of the team must work together to help that individual find their footing and get back to producing at the level that they’re truly capable of.

It’s Everyone’s Responsibility

When the sprint is in trouble, it’s everyone’s responsibility to to help right the ship…not just the Scrum Master.  Sure, the Scrum Master may be who we think of first as the individual responsible, but if the Scrum Master is unable to right the ship by themselves then she’s not the only one who suffers…the whole team suffers.  So if everyone is at risk, then why shouldn’t everyone pitch in to correct the problem?

Great Scrum Master’s don’t define truly high functioning Scrum teams.  Teams in which every member is willing to contribute to the Scrum Master role define truly high functioning Scrum teams.  This is because truly great teams know that when times get hard, every team member becomes a Scrum Master.

Are you new to the Scrum Master role and are just trying to find your way? Or, are you an experienced Scrum Master who has your feet wet but now you’re ready to take your craft to the next level? Check out my course series, Scrum Master Fundamentals, to learn how to set yourself apart as a Scrum Master and help your team reach their highest potential.

Don’t have a Pluralsight membership yet? Try the entire Pluralsight course catalog free for 10 days here.

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Choosing the Right Sprint Length

One of the most common questions facing teams that are new to Scrum is “What’s the best sprint length for us?”.  Although this question can seem daunting at first, there’s actually a simple way to arrive at the right answer for your team.

The Scrum Guide places an upper limit of one calendar month on sprint length.  And although there is no “official” lower limit, 1 week is most commonly accepted as the shortest duration that a sprint can last and still be effective.  This gives us a window of 1 week to 1 month for valid sprint durations.

So, how do you find the length that’s best for your team?  The simple answer is that the best way is to experiment until you find the length that allows your team to deliver in the most predictable manner.

Beginning the Experiment

To begin, start your team running in 2 week sprints and continue this length for a few sprints.  If you find that your team either consistently misses their forecasted velocity or that they’re often unable to hit the sprint goals set out at the beginning of each sprint due to unexpected developments during your sprint, then your sprints may be too long.  In response, try shortening your sprints to 1 week in duration to see if they’re able to more consistently meet their forecasted velocity and deliver their sprint goals.

On the other hand, if you find that your team consistently meets their forecasted velocity and delivers their planned sprint goals but they struggle to make meaningful progress on the product in each sprint, then your sprints may be too short.  This is a common problem that can affect teams working in very complex domains where significant time is required to advance the product in meaningful increments.  If this sounds like your situation then experiment with lengthening your sprint to 1 month to see if that better enables your team to deliver a meaningful increment each sprint.

And, of course, if neither of these problems seem to be afflicting your team then you’ve likely discovered that a 2 week duration is just right for your team.

Tuning the Sprint

finish-lineA general rule of thumb when working with Scrum teams is that it usually takes 4 sprints for a team to fully assimilate any new practice or behavior.  If after 4 sprints a team is still struggling with a new practice, then it’s unlikely that the team will ever find success with that practice.  This is often more of an indication that the practice simply doesn’t fit with how the team works best rather than a reflection on the team, themselves.

We can apply the “4 Sprint Rule” in this context, as well.  If a team has found the sprint length that’s right for them then by the 4th sprint their velocity should have normalized to the point where it can be reasonably well forecasted and they should have established a history of successfully delivering their stated sprint goals.

Knowing When Good is Good Enough

Once a team reaches this state the time that they invest in process improvement will be better spent exploring ways to improve the work that happens inside of the sprint itself, rather than continuing to invest in tuning the sprint’s overall length.  Although there is a tendency with new Scrum teams to want to continuously evolve towards shorter and shorter sprints teams should be wary of falling into this trap.

Continuously changing sprint lengths can wreak havoc with a team’s velocity forecasts making longer term planning unnecessarily difficult.  The effects of these changing sprint lengths are often not as simple as a “a team who delivers 50 points in a 2 week sprint should deliver 25 points in a 1 week sprint, or 100 points in a 1 month sprint”, therefore changing the sprint duration often requires several more sprints of observation to see where the team’s new “normal” velocity lands.

It’s not out of a question for a team to begin a new project that has a high amount of unknown using 1 week sprints before eventually transitioning to 2 week sprints as the project becomes more stable.  However, such duration changes should not be taken lightly as they can have significant impacts on a team’s overall cadence.

Discovering the optimal sprint length for your team may take time but will significantly improve the team’s overall performance.  Make the investment in finding the sprint length that best suits your team and encourage the team to stick with that length once they’ve found it.

Want to see more about how to get the most out of agile with your team? Check out my course, Agile in the Real World, for tips and techniques for making agile work in your organization.

Don’t have a Pluralsight membership yet? Try the entire Pluralsight course catalog free for 10 days here.

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Blocker

The 3 Levels of a Scrum Master Removing Impediments

Often when someone becomes a Scrum Master the only instruction they are given is to “remove impediments”, but what does that even mean?

Impediments can come in many forms and have many effects on a team.  Some can simply slow a team down by slowly eating away at their progress one bite at time while others can stop a team dead in their tracks.  How successful a Scrum Master is at identifying and removing these impediments tells a lot about how they are growing in their role.  To dive deeper into this, let’s look at some of the most common types of impediments a team can face and how a Scrum Master can detect and remove them.

Blockers

Blockers are the classic stop a team in their tracks problems that most people tend to think of when they picture impediments.  Maybe the hard drive cracked on a tester’s laptop taking him totally out of action for the next 2 days.  Or, maybe a developer’s daughter suddenly became sick and she needs to leave early to pick her up from school.

BlockerWhatever the reason, blockers are often easy to spot because someone on the team grinds to a halt as soon as they occur.  In fact, these are typically the types of issues most people think of when asked “What’s in your way?” at the morning standup.  As a Scrum Master, it’s your job to listen to these issues and do everything in your power to clear these blockers so the team can keep moving forward.

Many of these you can probably address yourself, directly.  Is there a spare laptop somewhere a tester can work from in the meantime, or can he pair with another tester to test his stories in parallel?

Others, however, you may be able to do very little about.  Can the team work around the work in progress of the developer who suddenly had to be out of the office due to a family illness?  Or, can she work remotely while her daughter recovers?  You may have to stretch yourself to remove these issues, or you may have to get creative to help the team work around them while these issue are in their way.

Classic Impediments

Classic Impediments are a bit trickier.  These are the things that slow your team down but don’t necessarily ground them to a halt.  Often the team is aware of these issues but have become so accustomed to working around them that they have simply written them off as “that’s how things will always be”.  In some cases, the team may have become so used to these issues that they don’t even notice them anymore or have forgotten that they even exist.  Examples of common impediments include a team who is not empowered to make changes to their production environment in order to deliver new features or a team that has to frequently stop to correct merge conflicts as a result of dealing with an antiquated source control system that they don’t have the freedom to replace.

ImpedimentIt can take an adept Scrum Master to detect these impediments since the team has often become so used to dealing with them they no longer even bother to mention them at the daily standup.  Your job as Scrum Master is to first bring these issues to the team’s attention and remind them that they exist and are slowing them down.  Once the team has accepted these issues, though, impediments often aren’t as easy to remove as blockers.

This is because impediments are often more of a global, systemic issue that affects the team as whole rather than a single individual.  In addition, impediments tend to be more subtle artifacts that arise as a result of factors in your organizational structure or culture.  These can make them very difficult to remove.

While your first task as a Scrum Master may initially be to remove these impediments so your team can operate at their full potential, ideally your long term goal should be to empower your team to start to remove these impediments for themselves.  I’ve mentioned previously that impediments tend to be symptoms of deeper issues in your organization’s culture.  If this is the case then the team working to identify and address these impediments themselves will have a longer lasting effect than the Scrum Master swooping in to correct these issues for them.  This is because the most effective way to address deep organizational issues is for the organization to acknowledge and address these issues for themselves.  Even if the Scrum Master is also a member of the organization, simply fixing issues for others on the team often becomes more of a band aide than a meaningful change in behavior.

Landmines

The final type of impediment a Scrum Master may find themselves removing are the landmines and pitfalls that lie in wait for their team to trip over.  These can be the trickiest type of all since, unlike a classic impediment which the team may have once been aware of but has since faded to the background, they likely have never even noticed the landmines before.  Often these are issues that a Scrum Master recognizes only because he’s seen them befall similar teams in the past or because it takes a second set of eyes to notice them.

LandmineSome landmines a Scrum Master may spot but aren’t entirely obvious to the team at large include an aggressive functional manager over participating in ceremonies such as retrospectives or daily standups thus limiting the transparency or honesty that the team is comfortable sharing.  Or maybe daily standups moved from the morning to the afternoon turning them from an opportunity for the team to plan and synchronize at the daily level to a mere afternoon status meeting.  Or even a Product Owner who is overcommitted to multiple teams thus limiting their ability to effectively clear a path for any of them.  Note that in all of these cases while the presence of such a landmine isn’t a guarantee of disaster it can at least be a warning of possible issues to come.  It’s up to the Scrum Master to evaluate each situation in the current environment and determine how likely it is that the landmine will detonate at the worst possible time for the team or simply become a harmless dud that fizzles out before the team even blindly wanders past it.

To make things even tougher, it’s not uncommon for a team to be initially resistive when a Scrum Master first attempts to point out landmines to the the team.  This means that a Scrum Master must have a sensitive touch when coaching their team to identify and to remove this particular type of impediment.

As with classic impediments, it’s often best to coach the team to remove these impediments for themselves.  But, how you coach may depend on how open your team is to such issues.  If you find that your team is particularly responsive to learning about and addressing landmines then simply guiding them to identifying them with a series of leading questions may be quite effective.  On the other hand, if your team resists the possibility of such landmines due to a strong cultural bias or organizational gravity then you may be better off standing aside while the team sails towards the brink to help illustrate the possible downfalls of not addressing the landmines that lie in their path.  Although this approach isn’t ideal, often it’s only necessary once or twice before a team becomes more receptive to feedback on where the landmines may lay.

A Natural Progression for Scrum Masters

In all cases, how a Scrum Master progresses through identifying each type of impediment, removing it, and ultimately coaching the team to clear it for themselves are important steps in the journey from Scrum Master to coach.

Although we often describe the Scrum Master role as the one who must remove impediments for their team, it’s important to remember that true success with agile only becomes possible once the team has become empowered to identify and remove such impediments for themselves.

Want to see more about becoming a great Scrum Master? Check out my course, Scrum Master Fundamentals: Foundations, for tips and techniques to help your team perform at the highest level.

Don’t have a Pluralsight membership yet? Try the entire Pluralsight course catalog free for 10 days here.

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