Steven Laidlaw

Traits of a Scrum Master

July 02, 2019

“So who wants to be the scrum master?”

Eyes shift nervously around the room, hoping that someone else will put their hand up for the role. Eventually someone else speaks up.

“I… guess… I could?”

You breathe a sigh of relief. Problem successfully avoided.

Sound familiar? Being a Scrum master is an interesting thing. For most developers it will be their first taste of management, and if you’re more a “show me the code” type of engineer you’ll likely do anything you can to avoid it. I know I certainly did for the first month of my first Scrum project. That was until our manager implemented a “rolling Scrum master” role, that changes every sprint in order to give everyone the experience.

While I wouldn’t recommend this in practice (as you don’t get a chance to dig deep into what being a good Scrum master can be), I must say that without this push I’m not sure I would have ever given it a chance. That would have been a mistake. Becoming more comfortable in a leading role is one of the main steps necessary to becoming a senior engineer. It teaches you not only how to manage people, but also how to take a step back from the code and be across the work that an entire team is doing. It widens your focus a lot and helps you gain more perspective over the project you’re working in.

If you ever get the chance you should definitely take it. Not just for a single sprint, either, but a longer period of a few, or even the length of the whole project if possible.

In the years since my manager implemented that policy I’ve spent a lot of time both as a member of a scrum team and the person leading one, and in the latter capacity I’ve learned a few things along the way that might help someone who is just starting out in the role:

1. Organisation

When I first started in the role to say I was disorganised would be an understatement. I would regularly find myself forgetting to book meetings, not knowing what my team was working on, and not really understanding the overall project well enough to suit being a Scrum master. Trust me, when you forget to book a meeting room and find yourselves having to conduct a sprint planning meeting in the lunch room, you’ll quickly develop better habits. Fortunately, you can learn from my mistakes.

The best way to get on top of all the things you’re going to be doing as a Scrum Master is to be organised. You have several responsibilities in the role and unless you keep track of them things are going to get lost. I personally keep a list of things I need to be aware of and run through each of them as the first thing I do for the day. My list is as follows:

  1. Do I need to book a meeting?
  2. Do I need to catch up with anyone on my team?
  3. Are there areas of the project I’m not up to speed on?
  4. What can I do to help my team best?

I also make sure to write down notes on each and every meeting I have with my team members. It doesn’t have to be a lot, just enough so that you can see how they’re progressing over the days/weeks/months so you can have a better feel for the velocity of your team, and where the individual members really shine. This leads directly into the next point which is:

2. Be Proactive

This is an extension of organisation. When you’re organised you’ll find opportunities for being proactive will come up naturally, and questions two and three on my daily list are great for this.

For question two, catching up with your team on an individual basis regularly not only helps you learn where they are at in their work but it also helps you learn more about them as a worker and a person. This will let you be able to gauge where to put the in future, both as where they’d be best suited and where their interests lie.

For the third question, if you know jobs are coming up in the project and can get your head around what needs to be done early you can then make sure that the right team member is getting the job that they’re going to be most efficient at. You don’t need to know the nitty-gritty details of every API endpoint, but being across the general specification each section of the project will enable you to make decisions and direct the flow of conversation much more efficiently. It will also prevent meetings getting bogged down with team members having to rehash the spec to you.

3. Communicate

This leads directly back into the first two points. Communication is key throughout this whole process and without it the whole thing breaks down. You need to develop your communication skills in order to succeed in the role, and having the one-on-one meetings with your team members as detailed earlier can help a lot in that. If you’ve not had experience with this in the past then it might be a little awkward at first, but it’s a great opportunity to develop these skills which will reward your career well.

This bring us to the fourth daily question: you need to do what you can to help your team. This involves things such as liaising with your line manager to ensure you’re across any issues that could affect your team, and keeping them up to date on how progress on the project is going. Basically anything that you can do to ensure things keep running smoothly for your team with as little interruptions as possible.

Conclusion

I’m not an expert by any means, but I genuinely believe that if you’re organised, proactive, and you communicate well you will have no trouble at all with the role. As long as you look at this as an opportunity and not a burden then you’re bound to not only learn a lot, but also have a great time doing it. Good luck!


Steven Laidlaw
I'm a full-stack engineer at SEQTA Software. In my spare time I built an app for authors and world-builders called Perixi. Sometimes I write novels, too.