If you master the skills necessary to become a Scrum master, you have a better chance of landing a job at companies that utilize Agile and Scrum methodologies. It’s a complicated job that combines elements of coach, product manager, cheerleader, and developer—but with the right training and skills, anyone can become a scrum manager.
But which skills? Technical mastery of project management platforms such as JIRA is a must. You’ll also need strong communication and organization skills, as well as management capabilities, to ensure all team members are pulling in the same direction.
How to Start in Scrum
Many Scrum masters learn Scrum as part of their company’s existing workflow. Janet Lunde, Scrum Lead at Sonatype, got her start as the QA Manager at a small company that decided to adopt Scrum for planning.
“The team read a book together, and I took on the Scrum Lead role along with my other work,” she says. “After a few months, several of us went to a Scrum Lead training workshop.”
Lunde completed the Scrum Lead certification when she first started doing Scrum, then joined an Agile-focused meetup. “I also started attending Agile Open Northwest, a fantastic open space conference,” she says. That’s in addition to continued reading, most notably Larsen & Derby’s “Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great.”
Organizing Information, Managing Effectively
"A Scrum master is a servant leader role—you facilitate the work of the team members," Lunde explains. "You don’t assign work to anyone, set deadlines, or choose what is worked on. You organize information and facilitate meetings to help the team members manage themselves to get the work done effectively."
Scrum master may be a full-time job, or it may be a role that someone takes on in addition to their job. "Quite often, someone performing the role of Scrum master also works on the team, perhaps as a software developer or QA engineer," she adds.
From Lunde's perspective, a Scrum master needs to be organized and good at sharing information, typically using a tool such as Rally or JIRA and an internal Wiki.
They also need training in Scrum processes, and ideally should be familiar with other Agile methods like XP (Extreme Programming) and Lean.
“If someone is a full time Scrum master, they need some general understanding of the team’s work – design, development, testing, deployment,” she notes. “They don’t need to know how to do every job the team members are doing.”
Helping Teams Be Self-Managing
If your team is doing Scrum very successfully, the Scrum master isn’t quite as active by design—the goal is for the team to largely self-manage. The product owner (PO) sets the priority of the work to be done, but the team decides how much they can get done in a sprint. They collaborate on the design, development, and testing.
At the end of the sprint, they demonstrate the software changes that they completed to the stakeholders, and then they reflect on what did (and didn’t) go well and decide what changes they want to make in their processes in the next sprint.
"All the Scrum lead does is to facilitate the meetings and make sure the tool used to manage the list of work items is configured to work correctly," Lunde says.
But when the team isn’t working together smoothly, the Scrum master has more work to do. They may help team members analyze their processes and suggest changes (that’s where knowledge of XP and Lean can come in handy), and they may work with team members and managers on issues within the team.
“In organizations that have a lot of development teams, Scrum masters often help with collaboration between teams, and that may require the kind of work that project leaders do,” Lunde explains.
Planning Out a Career Path
For those looking for a career as a Scrum master, it's important to ask yourself what you enjoy, and what your salary needs are. According to Lightcast (formerly Emsi Burning Glass), which collects and analyzes millions of job postings from across the country, the starting median salary for jobs that prominently mention “Scrum master” as a skill is $98,000 annually. However, not all full-time Scrum master jobs will rack up that kind of compensation.
"Working as Scrum lead will not pay as well as being a developer, so don’t take that path if pay is important to you," Lunde says. Also, some Scrum and Agile experts choose to work as consultants rather than as full-time employees of a particular company.
When Lunde did her Scrum Lead workshop and became certified, there was no requirement (or process) to keep the certification current. “That process exists now, and someone without a lot of experience needs to be conscious of keeping their certification up-to-date with on-going certification classes,” she advises. “There is more than one organization doing certifications, and classes from one organization may not count as prerequisites for classes from another.”
If you do choose to pursue a Scrum-related certification, examine the ones offered by organizations such as Scrum Alliance, Scrum.org, SAFe, PMI, and ICAgile. “Agile practitioners really can’t go wrong with a certified Scrum Master and/or Product Owner from either the Scrum Alliance or Scrum.org. Typically, this involves attending a 2-day certified class and a relatively simple exam administered online,” Stephen Gristock, Agile Delivery Leader at Eliassen Group, recently told Dice.
While many Scrum certifications are widely sought-after, keep in mind that many employers simply want to know you possess the necessary skills for the job. When applying for roles with a heavy Scrum component, make sure you come armed with stories about your previous Scrum experience, especially narratives where you used your skills to help the team overcome challenges and/or complete a particularly difficult project. Whatever your path in tech, a background in Scrum adds to your toolbox. “Over about 12 years, I’ve moved back and forth between being a Scrum lead and doing software QA—sometimes doing both together, and sometimes doing just one,” she explains. “I enjoy both challenges.”
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