Alida Arteaga, Regional Coordinator

5 April 2021

What does a SCRUM Master do?

The job title Scrum Master sounds very fancy (the employment record saying you’re a master of anything is cool enough!), but what about the Scrum part? What should you actually master and how will you be showing off that expertise?

SCRUM Basics

Scrum is the most popular approach to applying the Agile philosophy of software development. The key pillars of Scrum are:

  1. Time-limited iterations of the product — sprints
  2. Daily team meetings  — standups
  3. Team of scrum master, product owner, and developers

Sprints are the Alpha and the Omega of Scrum. Software development projects are broken down into goals, and goals are distributed across sprints depending on their priority. Sprints make up the entire timeline of a project and usually last 2 weeks. Some companies prefer 1-week iterations. Technically speaking, sprints can be up to 4 weeks, but the shorter options are much more popular.

As Scrum dictates, sprints are more than just everyone doing their tasks over 10 work days. Sprint ends with a sprint demo, where teams showcase the progress they have made. A sprint retrospective then follows, aiming to improve the process and the output for the next sprints.

Standups help keep everyone focused and aligned. They take roughly 15 minutes at the start of the day, so each member usually answers three questions:

  1. What did you do yesterday?
  2. What will you be doing today?
  3. Is there something blocking you from current tasks?

The nature of standups goes a long way toward meeting all sprint goals. In the best-case scenario, you find out about a blocker or see if someone is struggling with their load in under 24 hours. The continuous nature helps discover trends, e.g. certain team members not doing a great job of unblocking others or people underperforming due to excessive workload or burnout. 

Scrum team composition reflects the core values of the approach. You have the Product Owner transmitting the vision of the product, developers following up as they do the legwork, and the Scrum master. Note the lack of a Project Manager: Scrum brings empowerment and self-responsibility. The closest this approach gets to any overhead is Scrum master. 

SCRUM Master’s Job

Most importantly, Scrum master makes sure that everyone else on the team sticks to the approach. On the conceptual level, scrum masters hold training sessions and workshops to improve the understanding of scrum by the rest of the team. They are even more important when Junior developers are introduced to the team or the company has just switched from a different software development approach.

On the operational level, scrum master helps remove obstacles that may block the team’s progress toward the scope of a sprint, a goal, and the entire software development project. The obstacles are often split into impediments and blockers. While blockers usually affect the progress or prevent completion of one task, impediments get in the way of a Sprint Goal if not more.

Some obstacle examples:

  • Illness of a team member
  • Insufficient tooling relative to an ambitious goal
  • Lack of certain skills on the team
  • Motivational issues
  • Overhead getting in the way of “actual” work

The good thing here is that most issues can be solved by communicating with the Product Owner. If one minor thing cannot be finished in time due to a burned-out developer taking a short break, a reasonable Product Owner would most likely be fine for that. Both the employee’s and the project’s health will be better off if that time format switch is added in the next iteration instead.

Naturally, negotiating with other stakeholders when your team needs that is not the entirety of the job. You’ll spend plenty of time talking with your teammates. Checking up on your teammates, making sure everyone communicates with their colleagues properly and efficiently, preventing potential conflicts are all part of the job. Generally speaking, SCRUM masters should be able to get assertive when external communication gets rough but (almost) never do that when interacting with the team. This is the key difference between a Scrum Master and a Project Manager.

Last but not least, SCRUM Masters are a replacement for Project Managers, which means they take up some of their duties. The key one is working on the backlog of features, refinements, and fixes. Scrum masters help:

  • Pick tool for tracking backlog items
  • Validates the level of detail an item should have before it moves from Product Backlog to Sprint Backlog
  • Helps Product Owner find the common ground on prioritization alongside the developers

If you take a look at our Project Management blog, you’ll see that there is a strong overlap in hard skills between Project Manager and SCRUM Master. The difference often comes down to the area of responsibility and the way you apply the soft skills. This is how our Project Management course, while targeting PM jobs to an extent, will still give you everything one needs for a Scrum Master position. The soft skills module will make you a great candidate for both jobs.