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How to recruit a great Scrum master

Beth Stackpole Freelance Writer, Beth Stackpole, Sole Practitioner

When Scrum master Lance Dacy thinks back over the course of his eclectic career, he says a decade spent managing hub operations for FedEx was the best preparation for the subsequent years he spent as a successful Scrum master—more so than any formal software development training or his scrum certifications.

Dacy transitioned from a director of project management role at a software startup in 2008 to the firm's Scrum master, after the software development team picked him as their designated leader.

"Dealing with a two-hour sort window [at FedEx] certainly challenges your ability for critical thinking and ability to plan ahead," says Dacy, currently an agile coach, certified Scrum master, and founder at BiGAgile LLC. "While I didn't know anything about Scrum at the time, I had demonstrated an ability to lead through challenges and was almost like a warm blanket to the team. I had developed trust, I had proved my facilitation skills and was able to get people in a room, keep them on task and on target while still having fun."

Scrum masters in high demand

Dacy's skill set was a natural fit for the role, but it's not always that easy to hone in on the perfect Scrum master, whether your company is sourcing the role internally or courting an outside candidate. The key to success lies in knowing what skills and certifications matter, asking the right questions, and most importantly, finding the right personality fit.

A Scrum master, one of the core roles for the agile software development discipline, serves as the coach or process referee working alongside the product owner, who is a cross between a traditional product manager and a project sponsor, and the development team, a self-organizing, cross-functional group that maintains authority over how work gets done.

Scrum masters are in high demand today as companies get serious about embracing agile—nearly 15 years after it first arrived on the development scene. According to an HP survey of 601 developers and IT professionals, two-thirds of respondents described their companies as either "pure agile" or "leaning toward agile," while only nine percent were "pure" or "leaning toward" the traditional waterfall development approach.

In Forrester Research's soon-to-be published Q2 2015 Global Agile Software Application Development survey of professionals with knowledge of their firm's agile practices, 86 percent said they're using Scrum.

What makes a good Scrum master

Finding the right Scrum master to lead this charge is a tricky endeavor, notes Dave West, chief product officer at Tasktop, a provider of DevOps integration technology. West says he has hired his fair share of Scrum masters. A good one possesses a unique combination of talents: they're equally adept at agile development methodologies as they are at problem solving and people skills. But unlike traditional leadership or project management roles, effective Scrum masters don't try to command and control to get things done. Rather, the key to Scrum master success lies in his or her ability to mentor and motivate a team to perform well and achieve the best possible outcome.

"A Scrum master is responsible for getting work done through others—they are not responsible for making sure what they think should be done is done," explains Ken Schwaber, a co-creator of the Scrum methodology, head of Scrum.org, and founder of the Scrum Alliance. It's that subtle nuance—the ability to coach, not direct—to facilitate, not be hands on—to foster effective collaboration but not take ownership of the final outcome—that makes the role so unique and consequently so difficult to fill.

"It's a little like being a parent with kids and trying to help them learn and grow," Schwaber adds. "The biggest change is stepping back and realizing the job isn't about telling people what to do or what you think should happen. You have responsibility to ensure a project is the best it can be, but you are not accountable for its success—that's a tough one for people to get their arms around."

Personality is a critical hiring factor

Even among accomplished agile practitioners, it remains a challenge to find people with that unique spin on management style, according to Ruth Kim, chief learning officer at VMEdu, which markets a training platform that can be used for Scrum training. Kim says while training and certifications certainly advance an individual's knowledge of Scrum methodologies, much of the people-oriented, soft skills have more to do with personality and character traits, which are more difficult to teach and learn.

"The servant style of leadership is important to how Scrum works—it's about encouraging, mentoring, and lifting up the team to do what it can do, leading by example and inspiring, not directing," Kim explains. "While some of this can be taught in terms of values and different techniques, whether or not someone will actually be good or great as [Scrum master] really depends on their soft skills and personality."

Unlike hiring a developer who can easily demonstrate competency in a particular skill set, there isn't a straightforward way to judge a potential Scrum master's core talents, given that success is heavily weighted to personality traits rather than programming skills. "If you are hiring a Perl developer, you can look at their experience and give them some coding problems to solve, but it's not that cut and dry for a Scrum master," says Pat Norton, senior project manager at OmniTI, a software consulting firm that regularly employs Scrum methods for client development projects. "What I look for is their experience and then I ask them a series of behavior questions and give them project scenarios to try to understand how they would address a particular situation."

Questions you should ask any Scrum master candidate

Scrum co-developer Schwaber agrees that scenario-based questions and role playing are the best way to gauge if someone has the right personality to make it as a Scrum master. For example, quizzing a potential candidate on what they would do if a team was clearly lacking the automated testing skills to get a sprint done, or asking them how they would handle a situation where team members were at odds, will reveal a lot more about competency than a Scrum master certification, Schwaber says.

"Have the team they will be working with come up with problems they are running into and see how they would handle it," he explains. "If you give them situations that require a different way of thinking, you can see if they exhibit the right instincts."

While this type of interview process is invaluable for zeroing in on the right candidate, certifications can be useful in the hiring process, primarily as a benchmark to prove that the candidate has competency in Scrum fundamentals. Beyond standard certifications, consider advanced certifications available through Scrum Alliance and other venues. These are designed with similar scenario-based questions to pick up on the attitudinal issues, Schwaber says.

Additionally, Scrum certifications, along with certifications in other agile and quality methodologies, are a sign of a potentially strong candidate because it shows a commitment to continuous learning—an important attribute of a good scrum master. "The difference between a mediocre Scrum master and a great Scrum master is what they have in their tool kit in terms of being able to assist in creating a high performance team," said VMEdu's Kim. "Having strong knowledge of other methods and tools is helpful when you need to pull out the right technology or exercise to motivate the team."

The project manager debate

The most logical choice for a Scrum master may be a project manager. However, while there are definite synergies between the roles, there's an ongoing debate about a project manager's suitability to the role. Opponents argue that traditional project manager's duties violate the very nature of Scrum concepts, including the self-organizing nature of a team and the focus on achieving the best possible outcome. Others, including Schwaber, say project managers have long been the pivot point for software development projects and are familiar with all the constituents, so they should have the first crack at the job—if they can make the proper adjustments.

"My experience is that the really good project managers are not little Napoleons—they have your back, they facilitate, and they enable a team to be successful," says Tasktop's West. "A bad project manager is going to make a bad Scrum master, but a good project manager can make a good Scrum master."

Internal vs. external candidates: The trade-offs

Another question is whether to try to nurture internal employees—developers or project managers—into the Scrum master role or to look for a proven outside candidate. Again, there are two schools of thought. Mike Sudyk is vice president of US operations at EC Group, which provides outsourced software development services. It's no surprise to hear Sudyk say that hiring a seasoned Scrum professional from outside company ranks is the preferred strategy. "Someone who came up organically and doesn't have as diverse a background isn't quite as influential or valuable typically," says Sudyk. But, he concedes, it's highly dependent on the individual.

Scrum masters coming up from inside company ranks also need to make a conscious effort to be open to changing culture and processes, not institutionalizing them, which goes against the very grain of Scrum principles, Schwaber cautions.

On the flip side, West says his firm has never hired an outside Scrum master but rather has always nurtured and primed internal employees for the role. "They tend to bubble up—people with a natural way of leading the team, who take initiative, and who have an opinion," he says. "By cultivating someone from within, they have credibility with the team. It might be hard for an external person to get that unless they are a known brand."

The search for that special blend of talent might seem elusive at times, but the payoff is worth it. After all, it's the Scrum master who holds the key to an agile team's success.

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