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What Scrum Master Are You Hiring?

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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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