A scrum master might sound like a character in a role-playing game, but it’s a serious job that’s rooted in leadership. The scrum master is responsible for ensuring a true scrum process over the course of a project. They hold together the scrum framework, facilitating the process for the organization, product owner and scrum team.
Scrum, according to Scrum.org, is a framework that allows teams to work on complex projects and deliver high-value products by approaching problems adaptively. It’s a simple, straightforward and easy-to-implement way to handle projects. It can pivot and encourages continuous feedback, which allows a project to more accurately fulfill a customer’s needs.
Thanks to its many benefits, scrum continues to grow in popularity. According to the Scrum Alliance report last year on “The State of Scrum,” 89 percent of agile users use the scrum approach, where 62 percent of those polled have an in-house scrum coach and 86 percent hold a daily scrum meeting.
These statistics show the importance of the scrum master, for no scrum team should be without one. So let’s take a closer look at the role of the scrum master.
What Is a Scrum Master?
The scrum master is the person on the team who is responsible for managing the process, and only the process. They are not involved in the decision-making, but act as a lodestar to guide the team through the scrum process with their experience and expertise.
Not everyone on the team will have the same understanding of scrum, and that’s especially true for teams new to the framework. Without a scrum master promoting and supporting the process, who can help team members understand the theory, practice, rules and values of scrum, the project can flounder and fail.
One way to look at the scrum master is as a servant leader. They’re not part of a hierarchy, barking orders or demanding ROI. Instead, they’re taking a more holistic approach to work, offering service to others while promoting a sense of community and supporting a shared decision-making power.
One thing the scrum master should be careful to stay away from is over-evangelizing, namely 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 the best teachers, show them how things can be done better.
Scrum Master Role
The scrum master has several roles in the project. The scrum master serves the product owner by making sure that the goals, scope and product domain are clear to everyone on the scrum team. They offer techniques and tools to manage the product backlog effectively and help the scrum team know that there is a need to keep the product backlog items clear and concise.
They also know product planning in an empirical environment. Naturally, a scrum master is adept at being agile and can practice agility. They know Agile as a way of approaching a project and can set up meetings as needed to direct or pass on information about the process.
The Scrum Team
When it comes to the scrum team, a scrum master acts as a coach, helping them to self-organize and work cross-functionally. They also assist with getting the team to create a high-value product by removing obstacles in their process and coaching them through meetings or other venues when help is needed.
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 scrum 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.
The Organization at Large
Finally, the scrum master also helps the organization by leading and coaching the transition into a scrum framework. This includes helping the employees and stakeholders work in an empirical product development mode. In this capacity, the scrum master will lead change that increases the productivity of the team while working with other scrum masters to help foster scrum throughout the organization.
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 burndown charts) and just common-sense communication efforts.
What Does a Scrum Master Do?
While a scrum master is a crucial member of the scrum team, they are not involved in planning the release. That’s done by the product owner and the team. A scrum master doesn’t manage; a scrum team is self-organizing. In fact, a scrum master isn’t responsible for the success of the project’s result.
Yet, without a scrum master the whole thing would fall apart. The scrum master is the glue that holds the project together by facilitating, though not participating, in the daily standup meeting (one of the four scrum ceremonies). They help the team maintain their burndown chart and set up retrospectives, sprint reviews and sprint planning sessions.
They also help the product owner by walking them through the more technical user stories and encourage collaboration between the product owner and scrum manager. So, every part of the scrum process is being helped by the guidance of the scrum master. A scrum master is like a mechanic, not driving the car but making sure that it’s in proper working order.
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 ahead 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.
How to Become a Scrum Master
What’s the pathway to becoming a scrum master? The most linear course to becoming a scrum master is through certification. The Scrum Alliance offers a Certified ScrumMaster (CSM) distinction that teaches the candidate how to get scrum teams to work at their highest levels.
The certification process teaches the fundamentals of the scrum framework and helps one become intimate with what the team roles are, what events are, what artifacts and rules are, and other terms and procedures of scrum.
Having such certification on top of real-world work experience will place the certified ScrumMaster in a position to expand their career across many industries. A certification demonstrates a core knowledge of scrum process and how to engage with other scrum practitioners to further continuous improvement.
The requirements for CSM are fairly minimal. First, have some familiarity with the scrum framework. Then there’s a two-day, 16-hour course, which is taught by a Certified Scrum Trainer, who provides an overview of how to organize and support a scrum team.
After the course there is a CSM exam. If you pass and accept the license agreement, you will graduate with a two-year membership into the Scrum Alliance. There are other certifying bodies besides the Scrum Alliance which also offer a CSM exam, such as Mountain Goat Software.
ScrumMaster Certification Exam
The exam contains 35 multiple-choice questions, where 24 must be answered correctly for a passing grade. The test covers the history of scrum and the basics of the process. Specific topics include product backlogs, planning releases, problems that can occur, scalability, scrum roles, sprints, how to conduct daily scrum meetings, tasks, reports and team organization.
While taking the test, test-takers can look at handouts and their notes. There is a time limit to the test, and you can pause it if you’re called away. But the test must be completed within 90 days of starting.
Results are posted immediately upon completing the test. If you pass, you’ll be able to see any wrong answers and the correct answers. However, if you do not pass, while you’ll see those questions that you missed, the answers will not be provided. If you fail, you can take the test one more time without further charge.
Certified ScrumMaster Salary
A certified ScrumMaster makes on average, depending on industry and region, between $70,000 and $100,000 annually. Certification makes a scrum master a more viable candidate for the job, as it provides a unbiased third-party verification of skills.
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