Becoming a Scrum Master

So you’ve sat down and thought “I’d like to be a Scrum Master! … how?”

I regularly have people ask me how I got started, which usually leads to a lengthy discussion on 1) where to start, 2) what you could/should learn, and 3) ‘best’ next steps. Ultimately I try to point everyone in the right direction … and typically wonder (usually much later) if I should’ve written more of it down for them.

So, hopefully some of the following will help launch your next career step.

First question, and to provide context for “What do I need to know?”, is that you will find many points of view doing a simple Google search. Some will be helpful, others not so much, and many will contain just a small piece of the overall puzzle.

For example, you will find sites that say you must know about “framework ABC”, and others will say “No, ABC is going against the fundamentals of this other XYZ” and you should follow that way instead … and the answer (especially for when you are just starting out) is that it’s actually a good idea to know a bit about many of the different Agile methodologies. In the end though, for that first job interview, you really just need to focus on 2 to be confident you’ll know what you’re talking about when asked a question.

Which typically leads into “Well, what are the most ‘common’ ones?” and to anyone starting out I recommend they become familiar with:

  1. Scrum from the Scrum Guides,
  2. and Kanban.

But (and there’s always a ‘but’) as I mentioned above, it’s definitely to your advantage to know a little bit about a few of the more prevalent frameworks. So don’t be afraid to click through on some of those Google searches, and have a quick read of what each community advocates as their preferred Agile ‘way’. As landing that first job often depends upon understanding the Agile principles endorsed by the company you’re specifically applying to.

Second question, so what makes my thoughts on how to become a Scrum Master applicable to you?

Well, 3 things:
– I’m a working Scrum Master / Iteration Manager … so have some experience to share 😊
– A hope that this page helps someone reach for, and succeed in that next career step,
– and I think it’s something that many people I’ve met over the years could do easily, but because it’s not as well known as say Project Management they don’t give it a try.

I recently had a former colleague and good friend lose her job and say to me “What you do sounds really interesting, how do I get into it?” and I proceeded to list off all the things official and unofficial that had helped me get to where I am. But then I found myself clarifying a lot. For example I found myself offering suggestions on both what she would need to do to get a position, but then also running over my own experiences and explaining how things really work. Basically I found myself saying (with the applicable finger quotes) “In reality …”

Getting your resume together
I’ve had to apply for many positions, and I’ll admit that it took me a long time to figure out how to get my resume noticed – even now it’s sometimes just playing ‘Resume Roulette’, i.e. sending out many copies of your resume and hoping someone picks up on the big highlighted points you’ve added to the front page. Unfortunately, when you’re starting out this may be the only way you can get to that next step interview – and for a really good explanation of why this is sometimes the worst way to apply for a job, Forrest Brazeal from A Cloud Guru has a video that you really should watch. However there are things you can do to help get your resume to the top of the pile.

So first off let’s answer “Do I need to get some certifications?” … and the answer is yes. But (again, sorry) don’t overdo it i.e. don’t think that you need to spend a lot of your time and money getting everything. Initially you only need enough on your resume to be able to land your first Scrum Master interview.

The first step is that you need your resume to meet the requirements of the position.
E.g. when a recruiter looks at your resume, they will often have a predefined list of things they need to see to move your resume on to the next person. And here’s the catch, for large companies that person probably has no idea what a Scrum Master does – they are just working off a list provided to them from the actual team that you’d be working with.

So this is my first suggestion, jump onto LinkedIn and do a search for ‘Scrum Master’. You’ll inevitably get a large number of results and then (admittedly I know this will take some time) open up quite a few of them and have a good read.

Why do this? well, you will often find somewhere on the page the list of requirements that that hiring person is working from, i.e. it will probably say something like “Must have a Scrum certification” or words to that effect (really this applies to any position, it doesn’t just have to be Scrum Master). Plus it might also list a few other ‘things’ the company thinks are beneficial, e.g. “ITIL certification would be highly regarded” – giving you a big hint for what else you should highlight at the top of your resume.

OK, so that defines what the person at the door is going to need to see on your resume to move you along in the getting a job at “XYZ” company process.

The next thing is gaining a certification.
This is where I say yes you will probably have to spend a little time and money getting a cert … or maybe 2. But don’t be disheartened, as certification is sometimes the easy part (trust me, I’ll explain later). There’s several sites that offer recognised Scrum certifications – or Scrum Alliance are the most popular, with both highly regarded for their work in advocating the Scrum framework.

But, there’s a couple of things to consider
Some places will say you need to do a 2 day course before they offer you a chance to sit the exam, some will just say “Read this doc at your own leisure, and when you’re ready to sit the exam, pay”. Both ways have their pro’s and con’s, and I really can’t say what might be best in your situation, but saving a few $$ is a priority for a lot of people these days so for example will let you sit their exam for a lot less than what a 2 day course will cost. The only down-side is the pass mark in the exam is a bit higher.

Again, remember, the goal is to get enough for your resume to be able to look at that LinkedIn job ad and say “yep, got that!”. And then make sure you put that up top, on the front page!

A note or 2 on Scrum exams
The first thing to know (and in the immortal words of Douglas Adams) is “Don’t Panic!”.
Scrum, and really Agile exams, are firstly about people and from there depending on the framework you choose, about how to organise and combine those people to achieve specific results. So, many of the questions you might find in an exam will seek to test your knowledge / understanding of how you might approach a situation within the context of Scrum, and can be thought through (i.e. are logical). Whilst the remainder will often be along the lines of “If you are a … then what is your role in the team ?” and are a straight reference to the Scrum Guide.

OK, so you’ve now got a Cert for your resume, what’s next?
This is where it starts to get a bit interesting. And probably time to go over a few concepts / ideas that come up regularly.

And just a note here, I’m going to make a few generalisations, and yes even a few comments that might be considered sacrilegious in some circles. But I should definitely outline here that I’m not an evangelist for any 1 type of Agile methodology (there are an abundance of them on the internet) … just type “Scrum vs Kanban” in Google and you will soon learn that the Agile community already has it’s fair share of people with intractable opinions and enough animosity to go around.

So … Scrum huh?
The move to Agile has been great for the wider IT community, and is even now seeping into the business world – see SAFe, if you want to add another framework to your list. And there are many flavours of Agile, of which Scrum is only one (and in some use cases not even the best one).

Typically one of the first questions I get asked is “What is Scrum and what is Agile?” and I often end up doing the full 5 min history version as I know it, including showing people the original Agile Manifesto page. For reference this page is very important in the overall picture of things, and is most definitely worth the time reading. I also won’t go over the history of Scrum here, but it is an interesting story, and like the Agile Manifesto it’s worth the time to go over when you have a few min’s spare.

To make one of those generalisations I was talking about, and to give the term Agile some context – it is the overarching term that everything else sits under. I.e. Scrum / Kanban / XP are just sub-sets of the bigger Agile world.

To tie it all back (and this can be where it gets interesting at the interview stage) I’ve applied to positions where early on in an interview I’ve discovered they are a company focused on practising Scrum exactly as it’s laid out in the ‘Scrum Guides‘. Whilst I’ve also had interviews where I’ve been asked to highlight times that I’ve used other frameworks to help achieve “Agility” in an organisation.

So you’re just starting out on your journey, and you are really just wondering what you need to know.

Again I need to stress, that this is just my own experience, and for every word I say there will inevitably be someone out there that would argue – but I’m trying to help you get the job you want, and at some point it comes down to “Well if you start with these then you’re going to get past 99% of the questions you get asked”. And for that I would say if you were to gain a certification (or maybe 2) in Scrum, and do a fair amount of reading on Kanban, you will have almost all the technical knowledge you need to pass the requirements of landing your next job.

Both the and Scrum Alliance websites have very helpful forums and blogs, and interesting articles around some of the current / trending topics of the day (just remember to keep perspective … vested interests and all)

A note on Kanban
If you’re unsure about Kanban, it’s something that almost everyone who’s ever worked in an office has some experience of. For example if you’ve ever worked in a position where the team would stick a whole bunch of Post-it notes on a wall and move them around in columns, you’ve ‘done’ Kanban. And from an Agile perspective it can be as simple as that, with a few extra guidelines thrown in for good measure (e.g. Work-In-Progress / WIP limits) to help your team succeed.

It’s also important from the perspective of what you will often use day-2-day in your Scrum Master role. As the ‘big player’ in this field is the Atlassian suite of tools (Jira and Confluence), and Jira – often as default – will be utilising some form of Kanban board to manage your team’s daily work.

OK, the next big question … Experience?
This is often the hardest part, and revolves around the old adage ‘What came first, the chicken or the egg ?’ – as you need experience to land a job, but the only way to get experience is to have a job.

A big way to get disheartened after reading all those LinkedIn Job adverts is to see that most of them will say something like “Must have 3-5 years of Scrum Master experience …”. This is often not true, as whilst some companies will strictly enforce that requirement, many will not – i.e. they are happy to overlook that if you really shine in other areas. Many businesses are just looking for people with the right ‘fit’. For example they are looking for people that work well with others, have integrity, and can deliver in a fast paced environment (which I’m sure you do).

So, how do you write up all that experience, that you’re sure would make you a great Scrum Master?

First up, if you’ve ever been a Business Analyst / Project Lead / Admin / Developer / Support Analyst … anything at all, and managed to get 9 people / that are heading in 7 different directions / trying to achieve 5 different things, and getting them all to focus on a single set of goals and head in the same direction for a short period of time … you’ve fundamentally done Scrum.

It’s taking a situation, understanding it, and then focusing efforts to achieve an outcome (in Scrum it would be achieving the “Definition of Done”). So while you’re writing your resume, have a good think about all the things you’ve done over the years, and then judge how they relate to working in an Agile way. You’d be surprised how many things would be considered great skills for any potential Scrum Master.

Know how to organise … fantastic.
Know how to engage stakeholders … awesome.
Know how to negotiate and accommodate … write it down.
Know how to focus a group of people … fundamental.
Know how to encourage and teach … you are the right person for the job!

To go back to a previous point, when you were reading through all those LinkedIn ‘Scrum Master’ job adverts – many would’ve outlined what experience they were looking for in a future employee, and most of those things we all do already – day-in day-out. Sometimes it just requires a bit of thinking back, analysing, and occasionally

… recognising your own awesomeness!

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