The Top Traits of an Effective Agile Scrum Master

The Top Traits of an Effective Agile Scrum Master
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Anand Narayanan

Last updated November 21, 2016


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Congratulations! You’re thinking of embarking on a journey that takes you through the world of Agile and allows you to turbocharge teams around you. What could be better? (Other than chocolate, of course…)

All jokes aside, though, becoming the best Agile Scrum Master you can be is quite a daunting task. At their best, Agile Scrum Masters (ASMs) are change agents. They transform organizations, act as ASM coaches and visionaries, show the way things are done; they are seen as heroes, removing obstacles for teams in distress. So what makes for the ideal Agile Scrum Master? How can you get there? What are the rewards if you do make it there?

What makes a world-class ASM?

Trait #1: Servant Leadership. The best Agile Scrum Masters have no other motive than to make sure their teams are running at the speed that the “laws of physics” will allow them to. They will stop at nothing to make this happen. I have seen scrum masters escalate to the CEO when organizational structures break, and I have seen scrum masters also double up as DevOps leads simply because the team required it. The only driving force for them was to allow the teams to sprint hard.

How do you cultivate this trait?

Some have a natural gift of being good at this, but if you are like me, then you are not naturally oriented this way. A technique you can employ to get better at this is to list out and track the key areas where you believe the team needs help to determine issues like: where are systems breaking, or where are the largest growth opportunities? Then you can structure your actions around the biggest opportunities quickly. Force yourself to learn new areas outside your comfort zone, and over time, you will gain the knack for solving problems for your team without thinking twice.

Trait #2: A strong nose for data. The best scrum masters understand why a team is not delivering to potential. Control charts, delivery graphs, velocity charts, issue lists, and other data tells them where things need to improve. These can be subtle pieces of information that the team may not comprehend in retrospectives but should. The best ASM not only learns how to improve based on data, but shares this knowledge with the team.

How do you cultivate this trait?

Consider taking a good Analytics course to help you with creating the right views, analyses, and outcomes for your team.

Trait #3: Sound technical abilities. While an ASM is almost never a coder, the ASM should understand how the various parts of the process interact to be able to guide the team and assist where needed. Continuous build systems, source control, planning tools, and engineering practices are just a few areas the ASM needs to comprehend. I have generally found that ASMs with a technical background are better able to help technical teams.

How do you cultivate this trait?

This is the hardest one to gain if you are not a technical person in your field. While you don’t have to understand the intricacies of the code, a fairly good understanding will help you quickly define actions in case the flow breaks down. There is no other way than to work with the team to better understand the systems they use. Over time, and with enough questions from your side, you will gain the depth you require to effectively help your teams.

Trait #4: Influential Communicator. The ASM should be able to go to the right channel to get help when needed. For this, the ASM should be able to build bridges and influence at a variety of levels. The ASM also needs to have the sponsorship of the business head to be able to execute well. This is a skill that takes time to master, but with increasingly larger projects this will come naturally.

How do you cultivate this trait?

This is hard to accomplish if the organizational leaders are not bought in. In some cases, this is where your task begins; you’ll need to gain support for your efforts—however briefly—to demonstrate success. Make sure the positive outcomes and areas for support are clearly communicated to the leadership team. Gain their trust through a high level of transparency and a focus on metrics that measure success.

Trait #5: A keen sense of Agile patterns. Problems typically repeat even though the symptoms might vary. Being aware of outcomes and systems, and identifying common themes are a key trait I have found in strong ASMs.

How do you cultivate this trait?

Read online forums on Agile adoption teams, read books on Agile and join your local Agile community. These are the best ways to gain a quick understanding of the most prevalent issues in adopting Agile as well as how to overcome them.

Trait #6: Not averse to thoughtful rule-breaking. The best ASMs question the status quo and are willing to break rules—if the rules are not allowing the team to move faster. To be able to break rules, though, it is important for the scrum master to know what it would imply downstream and apply judgement before breaking rules. ASMs also encourage the team to look outside of traditional norms to drive additional improvements in terms of velocity and thus spread this quality around.

How do you cultivate this trait?

Get a clear understanding of the systems and processes at within your company and your teams. Understand the downstream impacts of each of the process aspects. Experiment with changing one at a time to see how it impacts your velocity. Over time, you will be able to guide the team on when to follow the rules and when not to.

Got it! I can do all these things...now how do I grow my career?

The Agile Career Path

The first step to any career move is to determine why you want to make the change, and whether it’s for the right reasons? Do you think you have the right skillset—or know how to get the right skill set to achieve your goals? I would recommend putting your action plan down in the following form to learn whether this is a career you will excel at and enjoy.

Agile table

If you believe you can bridge the gap over time, then you are ready to take on this role. But once you master the above aspects, what’s next? *Significantly less important than the other parameters. Technical expertise beyond a 3 is unnecessary for an Agile role. 

The software industry does not follow the same progression path as most other jobs. More often than not, managers in software have a working knowledge of computer languages, but they aren’t engineers. Agile-specific positions allow you to be a part of a software team, even if you don’t have the skills to be an engineer or tester.

Those who specialize in Scrum careers are preparing for managing and organizing the progress of a product as well as the development of a cohesive team environment.

A truly Agile environment has three roles, only two of which are Agile specific, so all three roles are defined below to help you better understand the two Agile roles. Agile positions are generally staged like other career paths; a person can move from any of these positions into other areas. Typically, Scrum masters and product owners can move on to other managerial positions.

Scrum Team

The team is made up of numerous positions, and the members of the team are the people who get things done. Typically, teams consist of between three and nine people, with an average of seven team members. Teams include developers, architects, UI designers, analysts, Quality Analysts, and writers. While employers often prefer to hire team members who are already familiar with and experienced in working in an Agile environment, Agile experience is seldom the deciding factor in whether or not a particular candidate is hired. These positions are not Agile specific, and are therefore not defined by this particular career path.

There is no established median pay, as the positions within a team are too varied.

Scrum Master

The Scrum Master is often compared to project managers, but this description is not entirely accurate. The primary job of a Scrum Master is to facilitate progress. From coordinating daily standups to removing any impeding issues to keeping meetings short and to the point, the Scrum Master manages processes, not the team.

Scrum Masters are considered part of the engineering team, but don’t require the same education as a software developer. A wide range of Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees are acceptable, with the certification providing a significant boost to the candidate’s chances of being hired. The median pay is $87, 579 for a certified Scrum Master, while uncertified Scrum Masters have a median salary of $78,139 a year.

Product Owner

The Product Owner’s primary responsibility is Scope management. Like the Scrum Master, the Product Owner does not need to be from the same technical background as the developers, but does need to be knowledgeable about the product. One of the most important functions of the Product Owner is to talk to clients and stakeholders and ensure that the project meets their expectations. Once the Scrum team determines its schedule, it is up to the product owner to prioritize tasks and finalize the schedule.

Typically, those with an MBA earn the most (between $108,090 and $128,487), although candidates who have both a BS in computer science or business administration have nearly as much earning potential (between $68,500 and $125,020). The median salary for uncertified Product Owners is $81,451.

Career Outlook

Because both Scrum Master and Product Owner positions are managerial in nature and are largely specific to the software industry, these are not designations that can be tracked to analyze career path performance. Instead, the outlook for team members is tracked by specific job titles, such as architect or developer. The outlook for the Scrum Master and Product Owner is difficult to determine; there is no official tracking for these positions since they are lumped in with other managerial positions.

Therefore, it is difficult to provide an outlook for this particular career path. If you think of the position in terms of project management, however, you can feel safe in striving to obtain these roles because you will be better positioned to transition to other managerial positions whether or not the organization uses an Agile environment.

About the Author

Anand leads the overall experience, roadmap, and delivery of the Simplilearn brand, with a focus on enhancing the learning experience for professionals and enterprises. Prior to this role, Anand headed the compute portfolio for the public cloud division at Rackspace in San Antonio, Texas. He was also associated with Dell, where he championed the delivery of server and storage solutions while leading the modernization of the engineering function through Agile methodologies.


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