In the Star Wars franchise, becoming a Jedi master takes many years of rigorous physical and psychological training. Fortunately, learning how to become a Scrum master is somewhat of a less burdensome commitment — and there are no Sith Lords or Death Stars to worry about, and Yoda isn’t constantly finding fault with your efforts (which is certainly a welcome bonus).
What is a Scrum Master?
Before we look at how to be a Scrum master (who may also be called an Agile coach), it is helpful to take a step back and ask a more fundamental question: just what is a Scrum master, anyway?
To start with, let us debunk a myth that many people outside the software development world subscribe to: contrary to the lofty title, Scrum masters are not all-powerful entities who command Agile armies. In truth, they are humble, wise, and mostly “behind-the-scenes” servant-leaders whose primary function is to facilitate the Scrum process, and ensure that teams and work remain on track.
Key Roles of a Scrum Master
1) As highlighted by the Agile Alliance — which is the leading global non-profit member organization founded on the Manifesto for Agile Software Development — Scrum masters perform six critical functions: They clear obstacles that would otherwise impede — or in some cases, outright block — teams from carrying out their agreed-upon tasks and moving forward through sprints (we will take a closer look at sprints in the next section).
2) They implement and enforce a work environment that enhances team performance, success, and results. In the past, the work environment typically referred to a physical space within which team members were co-located. However, in recent years and especially in light of COVID-19, this activity now extends to remote working environments as well. Indeed, it is not uncommon these days for Scrum teams to be distributed around the world, and to connect through video conferencing, online task management software, chat/SMS tools, and email.
3) They address and result issues related to team dynamics. The importance of this cannot be underestimated, because Agile project management is inherently fast-paced and, at times, quite stressful. This can lead to tension among team members. When these individuals cannot resolve their issues amicably and in a manner that supports the overall team, then the Scrum master must intervene and establish a resolution. This process may involve one-on-one discussions with specific team members, or addressing the group as a whole (note that while there is no absolute rule for how many people can be on a Scrum team, they are generally small and rarely exceed 10
4) They facilitate effective communication between the Scrum team and external stakeholders, which includes the product owner (the individual who represents the customer’s expectations), and other teams and departments as necessary.
5) They protect the Scrum team from external disruptions and distractions. Of all the core tasks of a Scrum master, this can be the most challenging — but it is also essential. If Scrum teams are constantly interrupted by requests by the customer (either directly or through the product owner), then they will not be able to fulfill the objectives of each sprint; and on top of this, the work experience will be chaotic and stressful. It can also lead to a condition known as Scrum master fatigue, which occurs when Scrum masters — despite their best efforts — are overwhelmed and exhausted by unreasonable demands and unrealistic deadlines.
6) They oversee the four Scrum ceremonies that compose each Sprint. These include: Sprint planning, daily Scrum (a.k.a. “stand-up”) meetings, soring reviews, and sprint retrospectives. We discuss this further in the next section.
About Scrum Sprints
Sprints are at the heart of Scrum. These are fixed-periods of time — typically no longer than two weeks — during which the Scrum team surges forward to produce the highest value product available. Note that product in this context does not mean a finished product. Rather, it means the core element of what will eventually be a finished product (in most cases a software solution, but bear in mind that not all Scrum/Agile projects involve software).
Reflecting on the four ceremonies highlighted in the section above (core role #6), Scrum masters are responsible for leading:
- Sprint planning, which is when the team gathers (in-person and/or virtually) to determine what goals they want to achieve during a specific Sprint. While the customer (who is typically represented by the product owner) certainly has input, ultimately it is the team that decides what will happen during the Sprint. Achieving consensus can be difficult, but it is generally easier to do this on smaller teams vs. larger teams.
- Daily Scrum meetings, which usually last about 10-15 minutes. This is when team members share their progress from the previous day, share their plan for the current day, and highlight any actual or potential issues or obstacles. These are also sometimes called “stand-up meetings” — but don’t be misled by the title. Team members do indeed sit down if they wish. The term derives from the notion that the meeting should be so brief and efficient, that attendees could remain standing and not become exhausted (there is also the idea that nobody should really relax and unwind at these types of meetings — the goal is to rapidly and clearly convey information and then get on with work!).
- Sprint reviews, which occur at the end of each sprint. This is an opportunity for team members to showcase their results to the customer (again, who is typically represented in these meetings by the product owners), as well as any other relevant external stakeholders (external to the Scrum team; not necessarily to the organization).
- Sprint retrospectives, which are similar to Sprint reviews in that they occur at the end of each Sprint, and analyze what has taken place: the good, the bad, and alas, sometimes the ugly. However, the critical difference is that while Sprint reviews focus on the product, Sprint retrospectives focus on the team. For this reason, product owners are typically not part of Sprint retrospectives, unless they have been heavily involved in day-to-day Sprint planning.
Sprint masters are not solely responsible for these ceremonies, as everyone on the team has to contribute and participate. However, Spring masters do play a pivotal role in facilitating efficiency, communication and success. And in situations where issues cannot be resolved internally — for example, customers/product owners are dominating the agenda during Sprint planning or Sprint reviews — then the Scrum master must intervene, educate, and if necessary enforce clear rules.
Different Ways of Serving as a Scrum Master
One of the most interesting aspects of how to become a Scrum Master is that there are various ways of making a contribution, depending on one’s experience level, availability and aptitude. Here are some of the possibilities:
- Full-time dedicated Scrum masters, who spend all of their time serving a specific Scrum team.
- Part-time Scrum masters, who spend part of their time serving a specific Scrum team, and the rest of their time serving in a non-Scrum master role.
- Full time non-dedicated Scrum masters, who shift between various Scrum teams (i.e. they serve as a Scrum master for Team A in the morning, and then serve as Scrum master for Team B in the afternoon, etc.).
- Rotating Scrum masters, who share administrative responsibilities across the team (e.g. one team member may be responsible for Sprint ceremonies, another team member may be responsible for liaison with the product owner/customer, etc.).
- Scrum coaches (sometimes called Agile coaches), who are not assigned to a specific team(s), but are available as an on-demand resource for specific issues.
How Do You Become a Scrum Master?
Unlike the journey to becoming a doctor, lawyer, or teacher, there is no official path on how to become a Scrum master. Obviously, however, it is critical to have extensive experience on Scrum teams. Indeed, the most effective — and by no coincidence, the best-compensated — Scrum masters have spent many years on the Scrum/Agile landscape, and have worked with a variety of team members.
Notably, while extremely strong project management skills are necessary, what tends to separate average Scrum masters from elite ones is the ability to communicate, coach, educate and negotiate within and outside the team. Remember: Scrum masters are first and foremost servant-leaders. They are not around to wield their authority or inflate their egos. They exist to empower the individuals on their teams, and their teams as-a-whole. To put this another way, Scrum masters only succeed when their teams succeed.
How to Become a Certified Scrum Master
Aspiring Scum masters are also advised to become certified, which verifies their level of knowledge and experience. There are several certification options available. Some of the most popular and credible include:
- Certified ScrumMaster (CSM) by the Scrum Alliance.
- Professional Scrum Master Certification tracks (I, II, and III) by Scrum.org.
- Scrum Master training by Scrum Inc.
- Disciplined Agile Scrum Master (DASSM) certification by the Project Management Institute.
All of these certifications require continuing education, and ongoing re-certification. Indeed, the journey of how to become a Scrum master never has a definitive finishing point — because there is always something new to learn and explore.
The Final Word
Serving as a Scrum master is challenging, interesting, and rewarding — both professionally and personally. We hope that this basic information has provided a starting point that, eventually, will have you facilitating Sprint ceremonies, empowering team members, and driving customer satisfaction with seasoned skill and confidence. Yoda would be proud!