4 Roles Aspiring Scrum Masters Need to Understand

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Do you want to become a scrum master? Before you start stockpiling books on agile and set out to obtain a certification, it is worth taking the time to truly understand what a scrum master does -- and what they do not do.

Scrum is the best known and most widely used agile software development framework. The scrum master helps the team stay on task and aligned with workflows. Their role is to coach and motivate, not enforce.

Like any effective leader, a good scrum master sets an example for the team. And yet, they are not leaders in the traditional managerial sense. They cannot fire or hire team members.

The scrum methodology can be adapted for many different types of organizations, from software companies to marketing teams to sports organizations. As a result, the role of the scrum master is often confused with other organizational roles that may predate or overlap with the new agile workflow.

For aspiring scrum masters, it is worth understanding how these roles can be confused -- and what the core differences are.

The scrum master is not a project manager


The scrum master is quite different from a project manager in several important ways. The scrum master is an agile role, while the project manager is traditionally a waterfall role -- two very different development environments.

While both have the responsibility to keep their teams on track, the project manager is the decision maker and owner of the development project. It is common for organizations migrating from waterfall to agile methodologies to assume that a project manager team member will be a natural fit for the new scrum master role.

However, a waterfall project manager may find it difficult to adapt because of the different ways the two types of teams function. Coming from a world of rigid structure where they are in control, only to be thrown into a world where changes can happen daily (and are welcomed), may make for a tough transition.

The scrum master is not a program manager


The scrum master and program manager have similar goals. However, they are typically working at different visibility levels within the organization and have different leverage when it comes to resolving issues.

Escalation is one way to consider the relationship. A scrum master's job is to coach and ensure processes are followed, make sure the team's commitments can be completed, and to identify risks to that work. In agile setting the scrum master owns the identification and initial awareness of any issues that pop up.

On the other hand, a program manager in an engineering organization typically coordinates with teams to understand external forces that could put their work in jeopardy. With this positioning, the program manager is often the escalation point for individual scrum masters -- and becomes the one who actively mitigates risk identified by individual scrum masters. Program managers typically have the relationships (and organizational leverage) to address problems.

The scrum master is not a product manager


The scrum master works closely with the product manager. The scrum master makes sure the team thoroughly understands the scrum concepts and helps them to define the endpoint of a sprint. Their attention focuses on "how" the work gets done.

The product manager plays a more dynamic role. They must define the "why," "when," and "what" of the product that the team will build. The product manager maintains a high-level perspective over the overall business strategy and objectives, and aims to ensure the team is building what matters.

The scrum master is not a development manager


The scrum master has limited authority over the engineers who are building the product -- especially when compared to the authority of a development manager. The development or engineering manager is responsible for building the development team and ensuring that high-quality work is produced.

Whether they are practicing agile or not, an outstanding development manager ensures that the team stays aligned with the organizational goals and functions as a mentor to junior members of the development team. Developers typically report to the development manager who has the authority to hire and fire, while the scrum master does not.

Still want to be a scrum master?


Now that you understand the differences between the scrum master role and their colleagues, you are ready to explore 
 and career development paths.

Knowing what the scrum master does not do will better position you as the coach responsible for facilitating and guiding the team, obtaining resources when required, and removing impediments that keep the team from doing their work.

Now go get busy.