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Finding an Agile Employer

Posted by Angela Druckman on Aug 31, 2010 |

The rocky job market of the last couple years has left many people looking for a new place of employment, either by choice or as part of staff reductions. For job seekers in the software industry, this can be an opportunity to consider joining an organization that specializes in Agile software development using one of the popular Agile frameworks, such as Scrum. Agile organizations, with their commitment to Scrum values of trust and transparency, understandably have more appeal than the traditional command-and-control, hierarchical company structure.

But while help-wanted ads asking for “experience with Agile software development” or “Certified ScrumMaster” are growing more common, not all companies seeking Agile team members are alike. Some have misguided ideas about what it means to be Agile. Others are doing their own particular “variation” of Agile that feels decidedly non-Agile to experienced practitioners. Knowing your own desires, being honest about your experience, and looking for warning signs can help you choose an Agile team member position that will be a good match for your expectations and skill set.

Pre-Interview Preparations

Before you begin your job search in earnest, take time to learn the characteristics of the Agile community in your job market. Visit local user groups to get a feel for the level and quality of adoption in your area. Many of these events cost nothing to attend and can yield important contacts.

Additionally, consider these points before you start interviewing:

Get The Training

If you are looking for a Scrum leadership or coaching position, you’d better be a Certified Scrum Master (CSM) with significant experience. Even for other positions within an Agile organization, such as team member, it can be the CSM certification that gets you through the first culling of applicants. ScrumMaster certification is overseen by the Scrum Alliance, a non-profit, guiding organization that manages Scrum education and outreach. CSM courses are taught by Certified Scrum Trainers, whose courses are strictly monitored for content and quality. Many Agile employers consider the CSM certification to be a minimum standard. Experience is important, but keep in mind that your resume has to make it past Human Resources to even be viewed by a hiring manager. A resume lacking the CSM credential may be eliminated from further consideration before it even gets in front of the right people.

Decide How Much Of A Project You Are Willing To Take On

It is a fact that some people enjoy “fixing disasters” and some do not. Many companies do not turn to Scrum until they are overwhelmed with problems. Do you want to take on a company that is in distress, knowing that it may be too far gone to fix? Are you willing to go into an organization as the single person on staff who knows anything about Scrum and build a knowledge base from the ground up? Or would you be more comfortable in an organization that has established Scrum teams? Being realistic about your own desires and abilities here is key. Do not bite off more than you can chew. Turn-around stories are possible, but they are not for beginners unless you have the help and support of an experienced Agile coach.

Be Open-Minded About Who Is “Agile”

There is a belief that certain industries and types of companies are automatically Agile while others are not and never will be. However, agility is not a characteristic of industry but rather of individual organizations and the teams within them. Scrum has enjoyed widespread success in business, in no small part because it can bring value to businesses of all kinds. Companies in such diverse areas as financial services, oil and gas exploration, and government service (yes – government!) have enjoyed success with Scrum. Going to work for a small start-up in no way guarantees that you will be working in an Agile environment.

Resources To Consider

The popular job boards, such as Monster and Dice, can be a great place to start. Be sure to include the key words “Agile” and “Scrum” in your search and see what you find. Likewise, if you are working with recruiters, understand that you will probably have to educate them about Agile and your specific skillset so they can find good candidate positions for you.

The Interview Process

Remember, the interview is a two-way street. The hiring team is trying to decide if you are a good fit for the available position and for their culture, and you likewise are trying to judge if the opportunity is the right move for your career. Because of this, don’t be afraid to ask questions that will help you judge if this Agile opportunity is right for you.

Judge Their Commitment Level

“How long have you been doing Scrum?”
“How many people have been to Scrum training?”
“How many active Scrum teams do you have?”

The answers to these questions will help you judge the organization’s adoption level and their commitment to Scrum, so you can match it up against your own expectations. In particular, it would be good to know how many people in the organization have been to Scrum training. While it is possible to learn the basics of Scrum from reading about it, novices who do not go to training often end up doing “ScrumBut,” meaning a weakened, less effective version of Scrum.

If the company has provided training for at least some staff, are they actually using it? Many companies like the “idea” of doing Scrum but when it comes time to put the training into practice, they seem always to be “thinking about it” and never actually doing it. Ask how many active Scrum teams they have at the moment. A company that claims to be “doing Scrum” should have one or more teams engaged in building products using the Scrum framework.

Identify Their Organizational Impediments

Ask everyone you can this question point blank: ‘What do you see as your biggest challenges to doing Scrum well?” Ideally, ask the question individually to each person you interview with. You are looking for specific information here. First, if you are being considered for a ScrumMaster position, it will be your primary responsibility to help resolve those impediments, so they should be problems that you are comfortable taking on. Second, you are looking for patterns. Does everyone more or less agree on the main problems? Or does it sound more like a blame game where each person is convinced it is someone else’s fault that Scrum is not working? Paying attention to the answers from this question will give you a sense of the organization’s true impediments, even if no one explicitly mentions them.

Evaluate The Scrum Roles

Try to get a sense of how well the Scrum roles are being filled by those currently in active projects. The self-managed team is the cornerstone of Scrum and all Agile software development. Try to determine if their teams know how to self-manage yet. If possible, ask to sit in on a Daily Scrum. Look for teams taking ownership and making and meeting commitments. Likewise, ask about the Product Owner(s). The Product Owner is the individual on a Scrum project who works with stakeholders to determine the priorities for the product. Product Owners are critical to the success of Scrum. Find out if the Product Owners have been to training, if they take the job seriously, and if they are working in tandem with teams and ScrumMasters to create the best products possible.

Finally, ask who currently fills the ScrumMaster role(s). Does the organization under-stand the difference between the ScrumMaster and project manager roles? Some companies slide PMs into the ScrumMaster role without ever changing the organization’s expectations for them. PMs drive people and process, and usually have ultimate authority over the success of the project. ScrumMasters drive organizational change and own the Scrum process—they have authority over no one. An Agile organization should understand this.

Check For Leadership Support

This is another question you can ask flat out of each person you speak with during your interview. A great way to get a sense of their commitment to Agile is to identify the highest ranking person you interview with and ask that individual to explain, in their own words, why they want to do Scrum and why it is important to the company’s future. An executive who truly understands Scrum and has the patience to spread it throughout the organization will have a thoughtful and personal answer for this question. Managers who are chasing the “flavor of the month” management buzzword may answer that “it is the hot thing to do now” or “everyone’s doing it.” If the executive you question answers, “Because we need to get releases out faster,” probe a bit more. Creating software faster is a side-effect of Scrum, not its sole goal. Far more important are raising software quality, improving predictability, and adding features based on business value. If a company has weak software development practices and puts out releases riddled with bugs, working faster will only get more bugs released into production code sooner.

Post-Interview Assessments

After the interview, take the time to do a critical analysis of the opportunity. What skills and abilities would you bring to this employer that they clearly need? And likewise, how could their culture and the position you are considering further your career goals with Scrum? Taking the time to answer these questions in your own mind will help you decide if the position is right for you and also make you better prepared for a second interview.

Don’t Be Afraid To Say “No”

Not every job is a good match for every person. Be willing to walk away from an Agile position that is a poor fit. It can save you the trouble and consequences of having to say “I changed my mind” later, and walk away after only a few weeks on the job. Organizations differ widely in their commitment to learning Scrum principles and putting them into practice. The key to selecting the right position is to find a good match between your expectations and those of your employer.

Evaluate Your Options

If you have the opportunity to do several interviews, you’ll want to take the time afterward to compare and contrast the positions. No doubt each will have their particular strengths and weaknesses but, again, match them to goals and desires. If a particular company stood out as a place you would really like to work, make an effort to stay in touch with one or more of the people you interviewed with, even if you don’t get an offer initially. Additional positions may become available and, by keeping yourself fresh in the employer’s mind, you will no doubt be one of the first candidates they consider.

Conclusion

Helping a company work through the process of learning to become Agile is no small feat. So, commitment must be there on both sides. In order to fulfill your part of the bargain, be honest with yourself and your potential employer about both your experience and the type of opportunity you are looking for. Be willing to ask the tough questions and read between the lines of any mixed messages you receive. And, whether you decide on a position with experienced Scrum teams or novices, know that doing Scrum well is hard work. Taking these steps will ensure your work is not in vain and leads to the next step in your Agile journey.

About the Author

With more than a decade in software, including four years working in a Scrum environment, Angela Druckman has seen first-hand how agile practices and Scrum in particular can lead organizations to project success. As one of CollabNet’s Certified Scrum Trainers and a member of its ScrumCORE™ team, she helps organizations harness the Scrum framework’s potential, conducting dozens of public training courses each year as well as providing on-site, private coaching. Working closely with customers in such diverse fields as academia, utilities, financial services, and consulting services with projects that have ranged from small contract jobs to multi-year, multi-million dollar initiatives, she has repeatedly helped teams surface and resolve organizational dysfunction through Scrum. A graduate of the University of Washington, Druckman studied computing and software systems. Currently, she lives in Seattle with her husband, Ralph, and their four children. Apropos to her career in Scrum, Druckman has become an avid rugby fan in the last year.

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Still not buying the whole certification circus by Martijn Verburg

I can't say I'm happy with the current state of Scrum consultants running around selling Scrum certification training, in turn creating a swath of instant ScrumMasters who don't necessarily have what it takes to facilitate an Agile project.

Excellent points by Theron James

Really enjoyed the read. Many of the point you make I already do when considering a Scrummaster gig, but you have taken it a step further for me. I think folks often forget that you WANT to WANT to work somewhere and not just want to work. Thanks!

CSM - Sham by James Richardson

The only people that recognise the value of CSM are those people that are CSM. Its a self-promoting cabal. CSM is simply a training course that you can't fail. Like a GCSE or a Java Certified Developer, its not worth all that much.

All together now: Scrum-scrum-scrum-scrum-scruuuuuum!

Re: CSM - Sham by mike kisza

Consider that you can take another assessment on SCRUM - Professional SCRUM Master (level I and II) on scrum.org - it's more difficult and valuable

Re: CSM - Sham by Christopher Churchill

James, saying that Java Certified Developer is not worth all that much talks about how much knowledge you have. SCJD (Sun Certified Java Developer) - only 60% pass the exam out of the 100 that take it. Anybody can say "James Bicardson sucks at work". Please respect what other professionals have done in a public forum.

Re: CSM - Sham by Angela Druckman

I appreciate the comments and concerns voiced here. And while there are many for-profit entities out there offering Scrum certification, the Scrum Alliance, being non-profit, is currently recognized as the major certification body for Scrum throughout the world. But I think everyone will agree, there is no substitute for experience! Hiring managers would do well to look beyond any claimed certification on a resume to actual time in the trenches doing Scrum as either a ScrumMaster, Product Owner or Scrum team member.

Re: Still not buying the whole certification circus by Jimi Fosdick

"I can't say I'm happy with the current state of Scrum consultants running around selling Scrum certification training, in turn creating a swath of instant ScrumMasters who don't necessarily have what it takes to facilitate an Agile project."

There are many in our community who agree with you. There is no such thing as an "instant ScrumMaster" and I make that clear in my class. In fact I don't know anyone personally of the 104 Certified Scrum Trainers at the Scrum Alliance who don't feel similarly. A 2 day certification course does not make you a ScrumMaster. What it does do is give you the foundation you need to learn to be a ScrumMaster. After that only hard fought experience will finish the job. Anyone who says otherwise is selling snake oil and should be open derided. :D

Jimi Fosdick, PMP, CST
Agile Process Mentor
Collabnet, Inc. | Scrum Business Line
jfosdick@collab.net

Re: CSM - Sham by Jimi Fosdick

CSM is an entry level Scrum foundations course. Wether or not we agree with the "certified" in Certified ScrumMaster, it has wide recognition and isn't likely to change any time soon. Whatever we would call it, the CSM course provides a base level of knowledge necessary to start your journey. It is the beginning not the end.

PSMI&II are certification exams that are course agnostic. That is, you can take any foundational course (or none at all) and may or may not pass the PSM exams. The PSM exams were developed by Ken Schwaber in conjunction with others in the Scrum community including the self-same Certified Scrum Trainers at the Scrum Alliance who are referred to above as a "self-promoting cabal". Suffice to say I'm confident that anyone who took my CSM course and studied appropriately would pass at least PSM I. Regardless I know for me and my teammates at Collabnet certification is really secondary to teaching people about Scrum.

Jimi Fosdick, PMP, CST, PSMII
Agile Process Mentor
Collabnet, Inc. | Scrum Business Line
jfosdick@collab.net

Re: CSM - Sham by Michael James

Interesting story, a participant was one of four people (all from the same company) who flunked the paper knowledge test I used in a public CSM. I spent time with her 1-on-1 afterwards to cover the weak areas. Then she took the Scrum.org PSM I test by mistake, instead of the (unfailable) ScrumAlliance CSM test. And she passed. My message (see the reference card below) is closely aligned with Ken Schwaber's message, though I've found other instructional methods work better for me than when I've tried to use Ken's materials.

So if anyone wants a hands-on class plus a more rigorous certification, consider taking my class + the Scrum.org assessment.

--mj (also at CollabNet)
ScrumReferenceCard.com

Re: Still not buying the whole certification circus by Martijn Verburg

Hi Jimi,

It's refreshing to hear that! I can only suggest you (and others like you) continue to be heard loud and clear, there's certainly a bit of a backlash going on at the moment because of the shucksters.

Re: Still not buying the whole certification circus by Michael James

Probably the worst thing about the entry-level certification called CSM is the combination of "certified" and "master." We cannot certify someone we've had for two days has mastery of anything, which the credential seems to imply. We can certify they have some knowledge. Scrum knowledge is necessary, but not sufficient, for mastery. I agree with all the comments that CSM alone wouldn't be a smart reason to hire someone, and lack of it wouldn't be an automatic disqualification. I personally think proof of Scrum knowledge/understanding is a good sanity check though, so I appreciate Ken's efforts at Scrum dot org to introduce measurement of this (and I test for this in my own class).

The advantage of a class, guided by someone like Angela who has years of experience Scrum is that most people learn much more by *doing* than reading alone. Even people with Agile experience have told us they benefited from the class because they saw it from a different angle.

--mj (also at CollabNet)
ScrumReferenceCard.com

Re: CSM - Sham by Michael Van Geertruy

Jimi,

As a former student of yours and member of Scrum.org, I wanted to give you my thoughts. The version of Scrum taught by Scrum Alliance is different than that tested by Scrum.org.

For instance, take the idea of a ScrumMaster as manager. In the Scrum Alliance self-assessment and training, we were taught that the ScrumMaster owns the process and shouldn't be a manager, although they can be. In the test, it asks whether a Scrum Master is a manager, and the answer is not the affirmative. In the Scrum.org philosophy, Ken states that "Hopefully, ScrumMasters will be the same as managers in the hierarchy of an organization as the duties of a manager change from command and control to leading and supporting". This is a very different point of view than that taught by SA.

So, my feeling is that the version of Scrum taught by SA is, in computer terms, a fork. Additionally, I feel that Scrum.org has evolved the methodology to the point where they are different enough that someone taking an SA class will not likely pass the Scrum.org test.

All that said, I really enjoyed your class and would recommend anyone take it for Scrum foundations. Then, they should go and take the open assessment on Scrum.org to further their understanding.

Mike Van, PMP, CSM

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