The role of Scrum Master in the IT industry is often hard to understand. There is also a lack of clarity in the responsibilities and set of tasks that a Scrum master must perform. Below is an excerpt from an interaction where Saket talks to one of the Scrum professionals and clears few core concepts regarding the role of Scrum masters and how the Scrum masters should present themselves during an interview.
Scrum Professional: I got through many interviews lately, and there are some of the critical questions asked to every person applying for this role. Since facilitation is considered the crucial role of Scrum master, people are willing to know: What is your daily routine? Now, most of the time as a scrum master goes in communicating with the team, reviewing various dashboards, attending ceremonies, etc. What do you suggest can be the best way of answering such a question?
Saket: That sounds interesting. What do you think the interviewers might be trying to find by asking such a question?
Scrum Professional: I think there can be two reasons for asking such a question:
• The interviewers might want to know: How, as a Scrum master, we fill our eight hours of work at the job. What is our contribution in these eight hours?
• Second, the interviewers might want to test the waters of Scum master. They might be interested in knowing whether the person is just operational and only resolves the issues posted to him, or he is a proactive person and takes self-initiatives in a forward-going manner. It may be a second perspective to it.
Saket: Perfect! So, I think the first point you mentioned automatically gets taken care of if we focus on the second one. My understanding is more aligned with your second point. See, the title and designations are organization-specific. So when somebody tells me that I am working as a Scrum master, I get about 30-40% of clarity of what this guy might be doing at his job. Only when I get a view of his daily routine will I come to know about all his roles and responsibilities. The interviewer is trying to extract what you do to facilitate your team to become an effective team. How do you make them high-performing? How are you helping them grow and deliver something that they are supposed to provide? Also, a critical perspective here is that the interviewer is indirectly trying to find out your efficiency in managing the team. The kind of activities that you perform as a Scrum master also reveals the health of your team. For example, if you say I remind my team of filling their JIRA activities, it tells a lot about your team. To me, it is an indicator that the team is at an elementary level. They have not yet crossed the first boundary, and they are still struggling with the basics of Scrum. They are still struggling in communication and collaboration, and you, as a Scrum Master, are working on a very superficial level to manage the basics of Scrum get done. Another example: If you say there are many conflicts in the team and resolve them regularly, it shows what might be happening in your group. Again, to me, it shows that there is a lack of transparency. The team is struggling in communication, and you, as a Scrum Master, are working as a bridge between various members to help resolve the issue and get the delivery done. Take another instance; if you say I keep myself busy discussing with the Product owner, it might pass on an impression that the team is talking less to the product owner. You, as a Scrum Master, are not responsible for discussing requirements alone. It is the responsibility of your team. So it again put a question on your role, efficiency, and above all on your understanding of the SCRUM.
Scrum Professional: Ok. I think I get it now! The interviewer is trying to get the perspective about the team to understand my role in a better way. So what do you suggest? How should we frame our answer to this question?
Saket: While it is essential to talk about your role in the scrum ceremonies and daily routine activities, I suggest emphasizing forward-looking things. As you mentioned earlier, the interviewer might be interested in the kind of self-initiated activities that you might be taking up apart from the bookish definition of a Scrum master. You can try to reflect more on the team development and product development activities. For example, You conduct a one-to-one discussion with each team member in every iteration. The purpose of such a discussion is to understand the clarity that every person has at any moment.
Another thing that you can reflect upon is the discussion that you have with the product owner, not regarding the current sprint tasks or upcoming requirements but as a holistic approach to design and shape the product in a better position than it currently is. So, a forward-looking approach is a way to present yourself in answer to such a question. Another important thing while answering such a question, your response should reflect on your aspirations and the kind of work that you want to do in the future, even if you are not performing those tasks entirely in your current position. The job should meet your aspirations if you are going to perform well.
Scrum Professional: Great insights. That was detailed and made perfect sense. The next question that I have is around the client expectations. In a country like India, where most industries are service-based, the client is regularly pushing for deadlines. Sometimes, the scope is changed even after the sprint planning. So, the question, “how do you manage the client expectations in such cases” is asked?
Saket: We need to balance our answer so that we do not look too idealistic as well as it does not look that we will just get carried away in the situation and unable to take care of our team. We need to find a balancing act. We all face such problems many times when there is a conflict between the client’s expectations and the project timelines. In my understanding, two key points can help:
You relate to the person, make him understand the pain of the other person. It is more about you empathizing with the customer, product owner and making the product owner empathize with you and your team. It would help if you created a sense that only by empathizing with each other can we achieve something. You need to make the client understand that pushing will not alone bring the results. It is creative work to think, design, code, test, and execute many other processes. Quality is also an important aspect. You cannot just afford the delivery at the cost of quality. A healthy environment for the team is also essential. A healthy environment is a must for delivering a healthy product. Once you have empathized with your client about these things, things get easier to tackle. Secondly, transparency is of paramount importance. It would help if you were transparent with the client regarding all your processes and challenges. Clarity brings mutual trust, and that is the key to a long and healthy customer relationship. Make things transparent and have confidence because, without these, two shows cannot run.
Scrum Professional: I agree with you. I recently faced a similar situation where negotiations and teams indeed came up with the best possible solution. I have also seen examples where the team recommends the items those need to be picked from the backlog, which can be delivered effectively based on the team’s current situation.
Saket: Yeah, that is a perfect example. We can always share insights into internal development with the product owner or client. It will increase the team’s confidence and reduce any conflicts with the customer’s expectations.
Scrum Professional: Right. So that is that. Another point that I want to discuss is regarding the Job description of a Scrum master. I have worked as a Scrum Master in 3 different domains, and I found that I could manage each one of them well. However, most of the time, the Job description is so domain-specific that it becomes to get even shortlisted. Even if you land at an interview, it is hard to convince the interviewer of your capabilities due to cross-domain concerns. What do you think of such a situation?
Saket: I understand that. Often, the organizations can be looking to sort out a specific problem, and therefore the team is framed with particular skill sets in mind and might also want a Scrum master from the same background. However, this problem is generic. For example, if you consider hiring for a project manager profile. There are specific requirements like Java manager, .net manager, data science manager, etc. So, this problem has nothing to do with any particular role. Now to answer your original question, I think there are two aspects to it. First, if you have landed yourself at an interview, communication becomes essential. You must demonstrate the similarities between your current role and the expected role. You must justify how your skillsets and experience can be of use in this role. The idea is to bring out an analogy that the same skills that you apply in your current job can equally be involved in this one too. Also, it is helpful to share the details of how you managed the projects for different domains in the past. Second, if you face problems with getting shortlisted, I suggest you try to get a referral. See, most of the organizations these days prefer to hire based on an internal referral. Suppose an internal employee refers a person. In that case, the chances are high that the organization can consider him, even if the person is from a different domain. Whatever is the case, I think you should keep trying.
Scrum Professional: Which brings me to my next question. As a Scrum master, it is your job to keep the team motivated, but how do you keep yourself motivated?
Saket: I think there are two key things to keep you motivated. First, If you do something you care for, something that you enjoy, you will remain motivated. On the other hand, if you do something to impress your boss, meet your KPIs, or fill in your eight hours, you will soon get distracted. So If you do something like this, you will automatically align your attitude and timelines. Second, you should get to see the impact of what you are doing. Once you have seen the effects of your work, it motivates you back to work even harder to see the next set of implications, which results in a continuous cycle of feedback and self-improvement and keeps you motivated.
Scrum Professional: Another interesting question for Scrum master is: How do you maintain the sanity of the data? How do you ensure that the indications given by various dashboards, charts, etc., are accurate on the ground level? Personally, even I feel that maintaining the data up to date is a challenge. What do you think about this?
Saket: That is a good question. Maintaining the sanity of data is very important. It is the essential step of any Scrum-based project. However, I see a good percentage of the organization is still struggling with maintaining the data. They are struggling to keep a single source of truth for their data-driven process. I think the real challenge is that people do not want to update anything. Firstly, they do not see any value in filling up some basic form to showcase their activities. Secondly, they also think that updating the data can be more of a trouble to them. For example: If a person has timely achieved a task, he still might want to sit on it until its estimated time rather than proactively delivering it.
Similarly, a person might not want to show up the delay in his work to avoid any embarrassment or negative impressions. That is the problem part, and believe me, this problem is widespread across every domain. For example, I have observed many scenarios where the Sales Manager or the Marketing managers are not maintaining accurate customer data. Due to this, the CRM system cannot produce effective results. The solution part is spreading awareness about the benefits of timely updating the data. As a Scrum Master, you must do that, and the best and the simplest way to do it is to bring that data to day-to-day use rather than only keeping it for high-profile presentations. The more utility you derive out of the data, the more people become dependent on data. Once the team has started to rely on the data for their day-to-day work, you will see that the data will begin taking proper shape. For example, instead of relying on the team member’s words during any meeting, bring up the data and discuss based on the figures. Make it a habit to base all your conversations and decisions on the available data points. I understand that it is not always possible to talk in terms of numbers and figures, but still, we should make an operating agreement around the usage of the data. The idea is to bring the maximum utility out of it to understand that they are losing more than gaining by not updating the data.
Scrum Professional: Good thoughts. I liked the idea of showcasing the benefits of the data. I will now move to the last question. Most of the time, people do not want to talk about the apparent problem. They do not want to address the big elephant in the room. How do you suggest we can make people talk about uncomfortable situations or issues?
Saket: This is a prevalent issue. I have been asked this question many times at many forums. I think there can be multiple reasons for people to do this.
• They can be in fear of pulling up a discomforting topic in a discussion.
• There can be indirect political pressure because if the topic is discomforting, it will look bad on one or the other person.
• Sometimes, people are just hopeless about the resolution. They think even if they raise the issue, there will not be any proper solution to it.
• Most of the time, people do not realize the magnitude of the impact of their negligence. And the last point perhaps is the most dangerous one. An issue that might appear small in importance today can suddenly convert into a showstopper the next day. Therefore, as a Scrum Master, you should present the consequences of not addressing the problem on time. The audience should feel that it is better to address the issue now than to sit on it for a while or park it later. For example, Most of the time, when there are multiple teams involved in the development, members knowingly do not address the problems created by each other. However, they fail to realize that a problem created by someone else today can come upon them to fix later. Therefore, it is beneficial to upfront discuss a situation and arrive at a conclusion. Once the team members have such awareness, they will automatically start addressing issues proactively and at a very initial level.
Scrum Professional: Yes, definitely, as they say, you should raise the problems as soon as possible. Well, Saket, it was quite a helpful session, and I think I got some excellent insights from you regarding the role of a Scrum master and the way one needs to present oneself for a Scrum master position. Thanks for your time, and looking forward to the next such session soon. Thanks a lot for your time.
Saket : Well, I think the learning is both ways. It is always helpful to talk to the actual industry professional and get an insight from the ground level. Thanks to you too.