What Scrum Master Are You Hiring?

| Posted by Johanna Rothman Follow 10 Followers on Mar 11, 2013. Estimated reading time: 10 minutes |

Have you looked at some of the ads for Scrum Masters lately? Some ads include the need for PMPs or they say they will give you a bonus if you complete the project at a certain time or to someone’s satisfaction. Some talk about hiring the team or about managing the customer’s expectations. Some talk about setting up team members in several countries or worse, several teams in multiple countries. Some talk about significant coaching responsibilities. All these under the guise of “Scrum Master.”

One thing I know is that every agile team is different, so I would expect every Scrum Master to be a little different. But that different? Clearly, the context is very different for each of these positions. That’s because although these teams are all hiring someone called a Scrum Master, they are not all hiring the same position. Just because they are all called the same thing, does not mean they are the same thing.

How Did We Get Here?

Hiring for technical people has always been a little confusing. We have HR people who mean well, and often don’t know a lot about technical jobs. They know that generic job descriptions work well for other roles, so they suggest to hiring managers, “Can’t you create generic job descriptions?” Hiring managers without management training think, “Gee, this HR specialist thinks this is a good idea, so it must be.” Off they go to create generic job descriptions for non-fungible people. Mistake #1.

HR people also think that certifications mean something. You and I both know that even the best certifications mean that at one time you studied for something and you knew something at the time you took an exam. A certification has nothing to do with your ability to apply that mastery in this environment and yet HR people love using certifications as filtering mechanisms for jobs. Mistake #2.

Scrum is the best-known and best-marketed agile approach at this point, whether or not it it works for your environment. So what do hiring managers and HR people filter on? Scrum Masters, whether that makes sense or not. Mistake #3.

It appears to be easier to use shorthand—generic job descriptions, certifications, or a Scrum Master as a job description—rather than perform a job analysis. However, it’s faster and easier to use a job analysis and learn what you really need in the specific job you need to hire for than go along with a generic job description or a certification filter that you might not need.

Let’s do a little job analysis and see what we could learn from these ads and what we might actually call these positions if we were not so wedded to the term Scrum Master.

Start with a Job Analysis

When you start with a job analysis instead of a title you are more likely to get the person you want and fill the job you need filled. The job analysis template is on my site.

The first four questions are these:

  • Who interacts with this person?
  • What roles does this person have in this job?
  • What level is the company willing to pay for?
  • What’s the management component?

The next two questions are even more telling. They discuss the activities and deliverables:

  • What are the job's activities and deliverables?
  • What periodic deliverables are required?

When you ask these questions, you might be surprised by what you discover.

Here’s what Ruth, a hiring manager said:

When we started listing the interactions, roles, activities and deliverables, it was clear that we needed someone to shepherd the project. We still needed someone to define the degrees of freedom for our project—what’s really driving our project. We needed someone to engage with our corporate sponsors. We needed project management representation at the project portfolio level, because not all of our projects have transitioned to agile. So, we needed someone who was a project manager, not just a Scrum Master. We needed all of the Scrum Master facilitation for the team, but we also needed someone who was a project manager. The real question was this: Did we need two people and not just one person?

Some Scrum Masters Are Agile Project Managers

Ruth was stunned by her realization. She needed someone who was not just a facilitative servant leader for the team. She needed someone who could also perform project management functions (not command-and-control work) and represent the project to the rest of the organization. She thought of this person as an agile project manager.

Once she understood that, she was able to write the job description, and hire someone much more senior than she had originally anticipated. She decided to look for one person, someone more senior than she had originally anticipated, an agile project manager.

You might decide you need a different solution. You might decide you need someone to engage with your corporate sponsors and to represent this project and maybe several others at the project portfolio level and someone separate to facilitate a specific team. In that case, you would look for two candidates: one is more of a project portfolio manager and one is a Scrum Master. In my experience, if you have functional managers and you are transitioning to agile, those functional managers would relinquish their more traditional command-and-control activities and take on these management activities.

Some Scrum Masters Are Agile Managers

Sometimes you don’t need project management. Sometimes you need people who are actual managers in the Scrum Master position.

Harry was thinking about what to do with his organization. This is how he described his problem:

This is the second time we’ve tried to do Scrum. We have functional managers who loan out people to the Scrum teams. The Scrum Master needs to be a really strong servant leader to make sure the people stay loyal to the Scrum team that they are on. When I think about the roles this person has, the peers this person has, and the management component, this person interacts with managers all day long. In a real sense, this person protects the team from managers. This person has to help shape the team, so that the team identifies first with the Scrum team, and second with the functional teams that the people came from. I think that this person is more of a manager, not because this person is going to tell people what to do, but because of how this person needs to interact with his or her peers across the organization. The subtleties involved are key. 

The activities and deliverables are paving the way for the team to deliver. It’s about removing impediments for the team. It’s about acting on behalf of the team. Those are management activities. If I get a manager-type in here, maybe we can get Scrum to actually work.

Harry was surprised. He hadn’t thought he needed a manager. He had bought into the agile myth that no managers were needed.

Some Scrum Masters Are Agile Coaches

When Valerie was analyzing her Scrum Master position, she looked at the team. It was okay, but they never had anything to improve from their retrospectives. Never. Now, I don’t know about you, but I always have something to improve. Always.

She decided the team could use some coaching in their Scrum Master. The Scrum Master would need to be subtle in his or her coaching, but coaching would be a primary activity.

Some Scrum Masters Are Agile Project Managers of Geographically Distributed Project Teams

Remember, a Scrum team is a cross-functional, collocated team of about 5-7 people, all working on a project together. As soon as you have a geographically distributed project, you can still use Scrum, but Scrum is going to be a challenge.

When Anne’s management told her “We’re moving to Scrum,” she said, “great,” thinking it was just another management fad. But when they told her it was time to hire a Scrum Master, she realized they were serious.

When you have a geographically distributed team, everything is more difficult. Anne did some research and came to these conclusions:

I knew we needed someone who understood a lot about all of the agile processes, not just Scrum, so we needed a senior person. This person was going to interact with everyone on the team, and probably everyone’s managers. We were going to go from people being part-time on projects, multitasked to the hilt, to being fulltime on one project. Talk about a huge change! 

Our Scrum Master was going to have to remove impediments not just inside the project, but outside the project. This person was going to need to be able to collect and use serious political capital and the project needed to delivered fast. I needed someone who was really savvy.

Anne decided she needed a senior agile project manager, someone who understood project portfolio management, someone who understood the need for quick wins, and someone who could deliver something quickly.

Some Scrum Masters Are Agile Program Managers of Geographically Distributed Program Teams

As soon as Anne’s initial project delivered some quick wins, her management decided to roll out Scrum to a large program. They’d heard of Scrum-of-Scrums and decided it was perfect. By this time Anne had done her homework and told her management to stop providing her solutions.

I investigated different frameworks for agile program management. There are several. Two of them are lightweight and one is pretty heavy. I decided to go with the lightweight program management framework that looks like something we already know about. It uses the same language we already know and use, and it’s not such a big leap.

Anne is going to hire an agile program manager, not a Scrum-of-Scrums Master. Her organization understands what a program manager is. A program manager is someone who coordinates several subprojects to meet some specific business objective. It’s a strategic role. It’s not tactical. Her organization does not know what a Scrum-of-Scrums Master is.

Some Scrum Masters Are Account Managers

Denise is a manager at a consulting organization where they supply services to the banking industry. They’ve been working in the banking industry for many years and know their clients well. They transitioned to agile a couple of years ago and the clients are happy with the results. The problem is that there is no client or account manager. The project manager used to manage the client and right now the Scrum Master doesn’t do that. Here’s what Denise says:

Before, when the project manager used to manage the project and the customer expectations, everything was fine. Now, we have the customer, who acts as the product owner. That’s okay, but we need someone who can manage that person’s expectations. We need a buffer. Otherwise, that person can start ordering team members to “do this, do that” on a daily basis. That’s crazy.

So the interactions for the Scrum Master and the deliverables for the Scrum Master are more like those of an Account Manager. The SM is not so much a project manager or a regular manager. It’s different when you’re a consulting business.

Denise is right. The Scrum Master for a consulting business who is onsite at a client is a very different Scrum Master than another Scrum Master.

Some Scrum Masters Are “Just” Scrum Masters

Sometimes, you have a small team of 5-7 people who need a servant leader who is a Scrum Master. Wonderful!

In my next article, I’ll talk about the qualities, preferences, and non-technical skills that you might decide are necessary for your Scrum Master.    

About The Author

Johanna Rothman is the author of Hiring Geeks That Fit as well as several other books. She consults, speaks, and writes on managing high-technology product development. She enables managers, teams, and organizations to become more effective by applying her pragmatic approaches to the issues of project management, risk management, and people management. Read more of her writing on


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This is important in reorganizing the org too by suba bose

This is really a great article. This is important to remember as well when orgs restructure themselves with new role definitions, and so on.

Re: This is important in reorganizing the org too by Johanna Rothman

Thanks, Suba. It's hard to know what to do, if every role is called the same name. Talk about an overloaded operator! -- Johanna

Not ScrumMaster+++ by Peter Saddington

Johanna, while I believe the intent of this article is good, it's a bit off-base.
The role of the ScrumMaster (proper) is quite clear:
- A servant leader to a team
- A facilitator who helps a team succeed and removes impediments
- A change agent at the team level
- An individual who grows the team for success and continuous improvement
- And more...

More on the ScrumMaster role here:

What you are asserting here is (in my understanding) the following equation:
- A ScrumMaster can be <anything> that a company wants them to be as long as they are clear on what that role <specifically> means.

This idea would be very much contrary to the whole original intent of what a ScrumMaster is. A ScrumMaster is a ScrumMaster. In a sense, it's like having an employee who does the following:
- Market research, understanding marketing advertising, content generation, sales processes, and the like... and then calling them a "Development Manager." - It pretty much goes against what the general population understands a "Dev Manager's" role to be.

I fully understand that each environment, company culture, etc are all unique and we need to be sensitive to their needs and context... but to dilute the essense of a specific role/title/expectations of a ScrumMaster can be more harmful than good, especially when the majority of ScrumMasters go through training and certification (as you said before) to train them on what it means to be a good ScrumMaster... and... then to go into a company where they don't do anything they were trained on would not only do more harm to the company, but the employee would probably leave in frustration.

Before we dilute the core principles around what a ScrumMaster is, we have to understand the value of doing so. In my honest opinion, there isn't any value in diluting the ScrumMaster title to encompass other roles. </specifically></anything>

listen & learn by Peter Trudelle

Sage advice! I wish I hadn't learned this the hard way.

Re: Not ScrumMaster+++ by Pascal Rieux

Peter, I agree about not diluting the Scrum Master role. Isn't it a consequence of the Scrum marketing going around these days?
Johanna, I appreciate this article a lot and found parts of my activity in some of these categories. But talking about Account Managers, I think the needed skills are more those of a Product Owner than the ones of a Scrum Master.


Re: Not ScrumMaster+++ by Nigel Baker

This article is so profoundly wrong it hurts my brain.

How many legs does a dog have, if you call it's tail a leg?

FOUR. Calling it's tail a leg, does not make it a leg.

Every description above is a disfunction, a complete misunderstanding of agility or just bad bad anti-agile (and by anti-agile, I mean "shitty human") behaviour.

Lets look at these point by point (quickly, or I will get a migraine from this sort of nonsense)

1. "Some Scrum Masters Are Agile Project Managers". Agile Project Manager is an oxymoron. Like military intelligence or accurate estimates. The team manage the project. If you need an external sponsor, some sort of owner of this product... Welcome to that OTHER Scrum job, PRODUCT OWNER. They manage stakeholders and interests.

2. Some Scrum Masters Are Agile Managers: Maybe... Ken Schwaber always used to say that ScrumMaster was a management position. That is different to "Agile Manager". Most people look at that title as representing some form of organisation champion or head of a community of practice.

This line is just nonsense though: "The activities and deliverables are paving the way for the team to deliver. It’s about removing impediments for the team. It’s about acting on behalf of the team. Those are management activities. If I get a manager-type in here, maybe we can get Scrum to actually work."

Management activities? These are LEADERSHIP activities. And since ScrumMaster is not supposed to some jaunty hat that someone wears in their spare time, I would say this phrase is a tautology. ALL Scrummasters should show this behaviour. A ScrumMaster is a Change Agent first and foremost. That is what this should say. ALL ScrumMasters are Change Agents. Sometimes you will even pay them as such.

3. Some Scrum Masters Are Agile Coaches. ALL ScrumMasters are Agile Coaches. Whether they know it or not. They are an exemplar for the team, and their job is to help the team increase it's productivity and do Scrum well. What's the alternative? ScrumMaster as deliberately ignorant?

4. Some Scrum Masters Are Agile Project Managers of Geographically Distributed Project Teams and 5 Some Scrum Masters Are Agile Programme Managers of Geographically Distributed Project Teams.

No they are not. There job is not scheduling the teams or team. If you are doing that, you ARE NOT DOING SCRUM.


The PRODUCT OWNERS can do Product Backlog organisation with the teams, and they pull from that list. Probably co-ordinating with each other. TEAM to TEAM. Use scaled Scrum techniques such as the Scrum of Scrums to assist in co-ordination.

ScrumMaster as Account Manager.

No. ScrumMaster supports, coaches and assists Product Owner. They are the conscience of them, perhaps. Jiminy Cricket maybe to the clients Pinnochio. But they do not "Manage customers expectations." They are not some toady and they are not some sort of gatekeeper or politician.

Pfffft. The amount of misunderstanding in this article is shocking. And the way it represents ScrumBut/Rubbish Scrumming as legitimate, is concerning.

Product Owner is a different job to ScrumMaster. Most of what you describe above can be split amongst the three Scrum roles. And not exclusively loaded into the SM job, turning them back into a PM. A job THAT DOES NOT EXIST IN SCRUM.


ScrumMaster by Stacia Viscardi

Hi Johanna,

I respect your attempts with this article. I was asked just the other day for an Agile role RACI matrix... it's really tough for hiring managers to get their heads around the agile equivalent of traditional roles. But there is no traditional role equivalent for the ScrumMaster.

The ScrumMaster is a Change Agent. That is, the SM is someone who applies the Scrum framework to understand the unique obstacles that impact the team and greater organization, with the intent of illuminating and helping the organization fix these issues. Often these obstacles include the scientific management torch carried by traditional managers and project managers. The ScrumMaster was originally created as a way to combat this mindset. The ScrumMaster is like Robin Hood, breaking the rules for greater good.

Hiring managers first need to know what "being agile" is all about. Then, they need to understand that they're hiring change agents when they say they need ScrumMasters. Finally, the communication from hiring manager to candidate would be something along the lines of, "we need a change agent to come in under the guise of an agile project manager. In other words, you'll look after some teams, but that is just the appearance of your role. Your real job is to shake things up."

Otherwise, the organization is not looking for a ScrumMaster, just an Agile Project Manager (whatever that is).

Re: Not ScrumMaster+++ by Johanna Rothman

Peter, I agree with you. I don't think these *not* Scrum Masters should be called Scrum Masters. Which is why I want people to do a job analysis *before* calling the job a Scrum Master.

How can we help people stop doing this? That's the real question?

Re: Not ScrumMaster+++ by Johanna Rothman

Nigel, thank you for taking the time to reply. I hope your brain is back to normal.

If I hadn't seen these anti-patterns, I would not have written about them. I agree that some of these people are not doing Scrum. And, they *thought* they were, which is part of the problem. Do we help these people become more effective or yell at them, that they are not agile or Scrum? I have chosen to work with them and guide them to a place that is more effective and worry about what they are later.

In many of these cases, the organizations decided to use their own version of agile, not Scrum. Not because Scrum isn't a perfectly good framework, but because it wasn't suitable for them. They didn't have a co-located cross-functional team of 5-7 people.

One of the problems with Scrum is that it requires revolution from Day One. You have to change the organization. Many people in management do NOT understand this or what they need to do change, which is why you see bizarre behavior on the part of hiring managers and strange expectations.

I happen to not believe in Scrum of Scrums for scaling, and am writing about that on my blog now. See for the second part of a series. I am working on the post for the large programs now.

Thank you for writing.

Re: ScrumMaster by Johanna Rothman

Hi Stacia,

I really wish we could help the managers in organizations by making it a requirement for them to go through an experiential agile briefing when their teams transition to agile. I offer one. I bet you do, too. That way, they could feel agile. They would understand that the Scrum Master facilitates the team and is an empowering change agent, and can only facilitate one team at a time, at least until that team doesn't need him or her.

But rarely does a client take me up on my executive briefings. The ones that do? They understand what a Scrum Master is. They understand how agile changes the organization. They are ready. They see how agile can help them. The others? They are stuck in linear thinking.

Oh, and an agile project manager is a servant leader for an agile project. You know, the ones that use kanban instead of Scrum. Or non-branded agile. Or those that have geographically distributed teams. Those teams still need facilitative change agents. Those change agents don't create Gantt charts--heaven forbid! But they are not Scrum Masters, because the teams are not doing Scrum.

If you look at Peter Saddington's job description, or the roles I describe in Manage It! Your Guide to Modern, Pragmatic Project Management,, what you find is an agile project manager.


Re: listen & learn by Johanna Rothman

Peter, thanks!

Re: Not ScrumMaster+++ by Johanna Rothman

Pascal, that could easily be. I think it depends on what that particular organization needs.

You underscore the importance of hiring people who are certified by MIke Dwyer

Hi Johanna
Thank you for underscoring the need for HR and managers to make sure they ask for certified candidates in Scrum and perhaps the new PMI ACP (Agile Certified Practitioner) certification. Between the the CSM and the ACP certifications the scenarios you bring up are covered well enough to hasten the move to a truly Agile organization. For those looking to hire experienced Professionals and Practitioners, I would suggest they ask for people with the CSP (Certified Scrum Practitioners) as this it indicates the holder has demonstrated broad and deep knowledge of all aspects Scrum in an organization including all the Roles (CSM, CSPO, CSD), and have referential experience in doing the job.

Re: You underscore the importance of hiring people who are certified by Johanna Rothman

Mike, Maybe certification is the answer. I don't know. I'm not so sure certification is the answer.

Many of these organizations are not really doing Scrum. Maybe if they went for certification, they would realize it? Maybe that's what you're saying?

My problem is with certifications in general. I hold none by design. Yes, I have my CSM. Yes, I study the BOKs. But, a very bad experience 20 years ago put me off certification. Hmm, maybe I should reexamine that position?? I can hear you laughing with me, nodding your head, suggesting that maybe my experience with a different professional society is no indication of either of these societies :-)) Okay, I'll rethink it.

However, any certification *first* is wrong. You need to do a job analysis first, to determine what the role is. Then you can decide what role you are hiring for, and whether a certification is needed. Otherwise, the cart is before the horse.

Re: You underscore the importance of hiring people who are certified by MIke Dwyer

I am saddened that you would think I would laugh at you, Now laugh with you that's all the time.
I don't have a clue what the answer is, other than people be tougher on themselves than they are. But if HR and Managers are looking to hire folks with a skill set they have no experience with, the best bad approach is to look to organizations that put their credibility on the line when they say someone meets their criteria. Admittedly all certifications have lower than desired entry criteria. I mean how many members make up the Justice League?
The best I can offer to these folks is look to organizations where the members are actively engaged in pushing the envelope. Just as your business needs change, groups like this are trying to figure out how they can meet the changes they face.

Re: Not ScrumMaster+++ by Johnny FromCanada

This comment is so profoundly Scrumdamentalist it hurts my brain.

IMO, the only thing the author is guilty of is not putting quotes around "Scrum Master". Consider re-reading the article with that in mind.

Re: Not ScrumMaster+++ by Davide Noaro

This comment is so profoundly Scrumdamentalist it hurts my brain.

IMO, the only thing the author is guilty of is not putting quotes around "Scrum Master". Consider re-reading the article with that in mind.

I agree. I find the Johanna's article very interesting because it reflects the real world.
When Johanna says that a "ScrumMaster" could be different of the ScrumMaster role as written in the books or taught in courses it's because in the real world the situation is a bit different. Many organizations, that are transitioning to agile, set up agile teams in different environments searching for a ScrumMaster but the role of "ScrumMaster" can be different in such cases. Sometimes you have just small differences about duties or responsibilities but you must be aware of them, especially if you are hiring a person for that position. This is the point of the article.

It's not an article to redefine the ScrumMaster role. It's just saying: do a job analysis before hiring people thinking that you need a ScrumMaster because maybe in your organization and for that particular project and for that particular team you need someone different than the ScrumMaster role as defined in books. The subtleties can be about different skills or different responsibilities.

In many organizations it's difficult to have a Product Owner exactly as written in the books in the same way it's difficult to have a ScrumMaster as written in the books. In my opinion you can still call them Product Owner and ScrumMaster, but if you are a Scrumdamentalist simply don't call them like this. It's not a problem of names, the problem is to put the right people in that roles.


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