A number of years ago I was working for an up-and-coming software development company. The development team was talented, had lots of energy, and was driven toward coming up with great new products that could be offered to the marketplace. The only thing that was a bit strange to me at the time was their vocabulary.
This team was using a relatively new development methodology called scrum. They were throwing terminology around like “sprint, backlog, burn charts, story time” and the most impressive of all terms was a mysterious person called the “scrum master”. This of course piqued my curiosity. What superpowers did this ubiquitous scrum master possess? Did this person walk in the footsteps of Jedi Knights ahead of them? Exactly what was the role of this all-powerful scrum master?
Since that time I’ve learned much about scrum and how it is implemented. For the most part, I believe that it is a viable and workable methodology for software development. A big part of its success has to do with how the scrum master operates in their particular environment. So, what exactly is the scrum master definition? Below are some of the functions this person serves:
One word that can be used to describe what the scrum master does is to be a coach. This can be correlated to what a sports coach does for their team. They guide, admonish, strengthen, and push their team to perform their very best. They manage resources to ensure the right people are assigned to the right tasks on the team – you wouldn’t put your star kicker in goal, for example.
This is typically somebody who has a deep understanding, love, and appreciation for the sport and wants to share this experience with others on the team.
It is similar with the scrum master. This person is typically very knowledgeable about how the scrum methodology works and is passionate about its success. This excitement is then shared with others on the team in their various roles. The goal of the scrum master as coach is to push their team to always work better together, self-organize, and increase their performance.
Despite the term ‘master’ that is used in scrum master, the scrum master is not the ‘boss’ or manager of the team. This may be hard to understand for conventional project managers who have come from a hierarchical, top-down approach to managing people on their team
The scrum master is not higher in rank than anyone else on the team. It is their responsibilities that give them this name and separate them from other team members. The scrum master has certain functions that they are responsible for fulfilling and this is done in their capacity as an equal peer with the rest of the team.
Whether certified ScrumMaster or learning on the job, the Scrum Master will typically serve as the scrum expert on the team. This means they are responsible for helping the team optimize the use of scrum as the methodology they have chosen to build their software.
This expert role is implemented in a number of ways. This can range from the scrum master facilitating meetings, making sure team members understand their respective roles on the team, to helping others use and understand the various scrum artifacts that are necessary to keep a team running smoothly.
One thing the scrum master should be careful to stay away from and that is constantly pointing out to their team members when they are “doing scrum wrong”. This is counterproductive and does not fit into the description of what the scrum master should be doing. Rather, the scrum master should catch people doing things right, and then, in the spirit of a coach show them how things can be done better.
Remover of Obstacles
An obstacle or impediment may be anything that slows the team down from getting their work done. This could include unnecessary approval processes, slow responsiveness from other departments, or maybe even updating outdated hardware or systems.
The team should be able to count on the scrum master to clear the path ahead of them. This will allow them to focus on the work that is currently on their plate to accomplish and get it done as efficiently and effectively as possible.
Dispenser of Information
Another big role that the scrum master plays is to constantly dispense information to project stakeholders about where the current sprint and development effort stand. This can be done via the various artifacts of scrum (i.e. backlogs to burn down charts) and just common-sense communication efforts.
‘Facilitate’ is a great word and sums up what a scrum master should do for their team. Facilitate means “to make easier or less difficult, help forward”. The goal of a scrum master is to make the tasks, activities, and day of each of their team members easier and less difficult. This can be done by doing each of the items above and keeping the attitude of being a peer at the forefront.
Is the Scrum Master a Dedicated Role?
There is some discussion about how involved the scrum master should be when it comes to the actual development work that is underway. One school of thought is that the scrum master should be exclusively dedicated to their role described above and not get buried in the day to day pressures, deadlines, and constraints that come from actually having to do the work themselves. Others feel as if the role described above may not consume 100% of the time that is available and any leftover time can be devoted to toward development work.
There are pros and cons to each approach. If a scrum master is involved in development activities they could find themselves in the critical path of a project that is underway. This means that when the going gets tough or deadlines are looming they will most likely default to getting their own work done. This is understandable based upon the pressure that is put upon their particular deliverable. But, it could also let the team suffer during a time that they especially need someone filling the role of scrum master.
The upside of a scrum master filling both roles is that the company may feel as if they are getting more for their money by not having to invest in two people to fill the roles.
On the other hand, a person that is a 100% dedicated scrum master focuses exclusively on the activities mentioned above. They are the person that constantly has the big picture in mind and is always looking around the corner for what could be in the way of the project moving forward, or what opportunities could be taken advantage of to bring the sprint to a more expeditious completion.
The downside of this approach is that there may need to be more resources applied to the project from a technical perspective and may cost the company additional money.
Is the scrum master some mysterious super-being that wields their mysterious power over their minions? Absolutely not! Rather, a scrum master is just one part of a highly effective team that is focused on getting the right features into each product release. The end result is a working piece of software that brings the greatest amount of satisfaction to the end user.
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