Why I don’t hire Scrum Masters

I don’t hire Scrum Masters. I don’t hire Scrum Masters because the role is the wrong shape to fit into my team, with the wrong set of responsibilities, and the people who might apply have insufficient qualifications for the job I need done.

I’m not attacking the people who categorise themselves as Scrum Masters. I’ve met and worked with some fantastic folk who apply that title to themselves. I would hire those people, for example, Mike Lowery is the servant-leader par excellence and I’d snap him up if he didn’t live on the other side of the planet.

It is the Scrum Master role itself that I have a problem with. I just don’t need it. At least I don’t need the role as described in the Scrum literature and covered by the Certified Scrum Master course. In particular I don’t need:

  • Scrum police
  • Somebody whose view of project management is restricted to removing impediments
  • A small scale Agile coach
  • An Agile coach whose only Agile experience is a two day course

Scrum Police

The Scrum Master’s responsibility is “ensuring that the Scrum Team adheres to Scrum theory, practices, and rules” (Scrum Guide 2011). That sounds a lot like process police – not surprising in a culture where deviation from orthodoxy carries a derogative term, i.e. Scrumbut.

So I don’t hire Scrum Masters because I don’t need somebody to enforce Scrum. I do need somebody to own the development process and this is something I share with my project managers, technical leads, and to a certain degree the whole team.

Just a hint of Project Manager

One of the specific responsibilities of a Scrum Master is “Removing impediments to the Development Team’s progress”. Which is why Mike Cohn characterises Scrum Masters as bulldozers.

Removing impediments is really important but there is lots about project management that a Scrum Master doesn’t do – Planning, Monitoring and Control, Quality Management, Risk Management, etc. I have a particular beef about Scrum Masters and Risk Management. An impediment is an issue. It has manifested. It is already smacking you in the face. We shouldn’t even get to that point – that is the distinction between Issue Management and Risk Management.

So I don’t hire Scrum Masters because I don’t need somebody who only removes impediments. I need somebody to take responsibility for delivery and manages accordingly, and that is what I hire project managers for.

Small scale Agile Coach

Despite the enforcement implication I mentioned above, the specific responsibilities of a Scrum Master are those of a coach. A quick analysis of the bullet points in the sections on service to the Scrum Product Owner, Scrum Development Team, and wider Organisation in the Scrum Guide 2011 reveals these verbs: Coaching (3), Teaching (2), Facilitating (2), Leading (2), Understanding (2), Helping (1), Communicating (1), Finding (1), Planning (1), Removing (1), Causing (1), Working (1). The number in parenthesis is the number of times the verb appears. Lots of coaching, teaching, and facilitating. All good stuff. Wouldn’t change any of that.

The caveat is that this coaching is mostly for a small team. Scrum is for teams of up to 10, 1-8 in a Scrum Development Team + Product Owner + Scrum Master. My last team had 43 people on it including 34 in development.

So I don’t hire Scrum Masters because I don’t need a coach for only one of my development teams – particularly not if they only coach Scrum. I do need somebody to coach the wider programme team on Lean-Agile – in all its various incarnations – and this is something I usually share with an external consultant. (Currently I’m using Andrew Jones and Ed Scotcher from Agility in Mind. Great guys. Know there stuff. Give them a call.)

Only two days to become a “master”

The Certified Scrum Master (CSM) course is two days long. A flood of people go through those courses and get certified.

To be fair I quite like the course. I’ve done it myself and still recommend people attend the course. Admittedly I don’t expect those people to assume a Scrum Master role when they returned to work. I just used the CSM course as a general introduction to Agile, and if somebody like Mike Cohn is running it then that is an added bonus.

you can’t learn anything in two friggin days

Ron Jeffries (@RonJeffries) 06 Nov 2013

But a two day course does not equip people to do a useful job as an Agile coach or project manager. It certainly doesn’t make the candidate a “master” of anything. Not of Scrum let alone Lean-Agile.

So I don’t hire Scrum Masters because I don’t think a two day course equips them adequately for the job they are intended to fulfil. I need people with experience, experience of delivering large scale software products successfully and experience of using Lean-Agile to do that. That is why I hire people based on what they’ve done rather than the qualification.

To summarise the Scrum Master role is the wrong shape for my team. So I don’t hire for Scrum Masters. I hire competent software professionals who can help me deliver complex products often in challenging circumstances.

This post is part of a series on Agile Roles and Responsibilities.

14 thoughts on “Why I don’t hire Scrum Masters

  1. I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment! In my experience, ScrumMasters position themselves as little more than development team managers and don’t have the wider vision required to manage delivery. Far too much is pushed back onto other roles (notably the Product Owner), while fairly basic delivery controls such as risk and issue tracking are deposited on to the “Product Backlog” with no real understanding of how to deal with them.

    I like Scrum as a method. I think it can add a lot of value and deliver the right things quickly. However, someone still needs to do the project management, and unless you’ve a project manager in the role you’ll need to find someone to fill that gap.

  2. Interesting read and I’m intrigued by your point.

    “The caveat is that this coaching is mostly for a small team. Scrum is for teams of up to 10, 1-8 in a Scrum Development Team + Product Owner + Scrum Master. My last team had 43 people on it including 34 in development.”

    I would see this as an opportunity to split your team into several smaller development teams, at this point the Scrum Master becomes your “man on the ground” on each of the teams and can provide feedback at a much lower level when you lose a greater degree of control by having 34 developers in one team.

    How do you manage 34 developers easily?

    In my experience, it’s useful to have a scrum master to allow the team to feel protected enough to make accurate estimates without the influence of business pressure. As both a Software Developer and a Scrum Master I see the need for this but I guess it depends on the make up of the team in question?

    • My big dev teams are always split into small dev teams. I just don’t have scrum masters in those small teams. I have project managers across one or more of those teams.

      In the case of the team of 34 I had a PM/BA in each the three dev work streams and a delivery manager across the entire piece.

      Protection from business pressure – and I agree it is needed – came from myself, the delivery manager and the PM/BAs.

      Of course I was also “on the ground”.

      • It was really good to come across with your post Steven. I found out about Scrum by reading Jeff Sutherland’s book “Scrum – Get twice things done in half of the time”. I had being studying for CAPM certification and ultimately I want to work in Software Development. I know som Ruby on Rails and Javascript. But I don’t consider myself a developer. The idea behind getting CAPM certified was to become a Project Manager and then work as one within Software Development. Scrum showed to be a way more motivating methodology than Waterfall. So I got really excited about it. I even got a certification yesterday through scrum-intitute.org. Although I had the feeling it was ‘too easy’. I thought by learning more about Scrum and Agile I could end up entering the industry. I thought I could be a Project Manager by using Agile instead of Waterfall. What would your advice be? I really like the Agile values and the Scrum implementation. But ultimately I want to find a job and work. I know that my drive, passion and excitement make a whole difference to actually become good and hireable. But knowing I am heading on the right direction (qualification wise) would be good and a time/money saver.

        • Any agile training is going to help. But, as you say, drive, passion and excitement are the biggest factors. Good luck.

  3. Interesting thoughts, but the ‘Just a hint of Project Manager’ needs discussion. Needing to have an extra person above or on the team responsible for “Planning, Monitoring and Control, Quality Management, Risk Management, etc” gives me the impression the team members are solely focussed on their individual tasks and not truly engaged in a project as a fully functioning team. Much of the planning, quality and risk management would naturally come from the team members as they work, discover, interact and from group sprint planning and retrospectives. Trust in the team members with the help of the scrum master and guidance of the product owner OR is it really just command and control with a veneer of agile/Scrum.

    • Ernie, thanks for the comment. I’m curious why you think a specialist role called a Project Manager interferes with a “fully functioning team”. Also why you believe this hints of “command and control” and a lack of Agility. I don’t see any of that.

      Although all team members contribute to planning, monitoring, quality etc, I find it helpful that one person concentrates on these things. In orthodox Scrum that person is actually the Scrum Product Owner – although the language differs. Personally I believe the Scrum Product Owner role is overloaded so I choose to use a project manager alongside a non-Scrum product owner. But then I don’t claim to be doing Scrum. Agile, yes. Lean, yes. Effective, yes. Scrum, no.

      • Hi Steven. Thanks for the reply.
        Why my thought about the project manager role? Experience of what I have seen in various places. Yes I agree that many product owners are overloaded, sometimes in multiple projects. In this case the project manager becomes the proxy product owner. However they are 1 further step removed from the problem being solved. I would always prefer members of the team to distribute the tasks like planning. Hopefully this leaves the product owner available to concentrate on business guidance and making the required business decisions in close consultation with he team rather than having a project manager role in the middle.

        Every workplace is different and requires a different set up. I would be happy to see a situation where a project manager works within a team, but from experience this is not how it goes.

  4. As a ScrumMaster that’s shipped over a billion dollars worth of software for Microsoft, Adobe, and billion-dollar online retailers, I’d say you’ve completely missed the mark on the role of the SM. Yes, hiring a SM straight out of class is useless. That’s why after 6,000 daily standup meetings a good SM adds more value than an agile project manager and dev manager combined. I could say that I hate all pilots and I hate hiring them. Unless they have experience. Then they’re really useful. lol

    • IanW, I suspect I know what a Scrum Master is really for. My point is the Scrum Guide isn’t the place to look for this. And a Scrum Master course is not the place to learn it.

  5. “Removing impediments” is such a overused, cliche buzzword bingo business term. Who is the one actually “removing impediments”? It’s someone doing the ACTUAL work. Simple example:
    A developer can’t login to a database to complete his work. Normally, the developer contacts the dba right away to see if they can get the credentials. The dba is the one removing the impediment. The scrum master role has a different idea and tries to be the middle man between the dba and developer. This is unnecessary communication overhead. As long as the issue is publicly known within the group, the impediment is usually resolved quickly. No additional role is required to “remove the impediment”

  6. To harp upon the “removing impediments” b*llshit bingo term, how does a role as non technical as scrum master remove a technical impediment that has real financial consequenses? Example:
    A proprietary trading firm using a software trading system is experiencing decreasing profits quarter after quarter. Their current trading system is using an algorithm implemented over five years ago. There is a suspicion amongst developers that the decreased profitability is due to the algorithm itself. A non-technical scrum master who doesn’t understand the details of the algorithm is definitely not going to “remove impediments” at all. They can only watch as the people with ACTUAL skill “remove the impediment” to profitability.

  7. One of the biggest issues with perception of the SM is calling anyone a master – right off the bat it’s a negative. I can’t even call myself a SM (see) – I like Agilist or Agile Chick. And to the technically gifted – if you communicated about your hunch like above and it was deemed a priority by the acting PO – I’d have the PO re-prioritize the backlog and spin up your spike to allow the team to focus on resolution or if the team was toiling with it much past their timebox, I’d get more skilled resources in to help them figure it out – a direct profitability impact would be an easy sell to the budget owner or executive.

Comments are closed.