How to Prepare for a Scrum Master Interview, Part 3 – All about You

Photo by Michael Li

Photo by Michael Li

In part 1, I wrote about how to explain the Scrum framework and demonstrate your knowledge. Part 2 covered highlighting your real-world Agile experience and how you’ve helped teams improve. This post is about sharing your you-ness.

Your resume probably shows your past jobs and when you first became a Scrum Master. However, it’s likely less clear about why you’re interested in being a Scrum Master and what makes you uniquely qualified for the role.

Your Agile Origin Story

Fans of comic books and superhero movies will recognize an origin story as the backstory that informs the identity and motivations of heroes and villains. It is the narrative of how they came to be the hero or villain that they are.

I met someone recently at a party who had been told by a friend to look into becoming a Scrum Master. As we talked, I learned that this person is currently in an accounting position and good at math. His friend thought he’d be a good Scrum Master because he could create accurate burndown charts and calculate the team’s velocity. And then I learned that he doesn’t like socializing much at work. As I described more about the Scrum Master as the team’s coach, he decided that it might not be such a good role for him after all.

Think back to how you first learned about agile and when you started trying Scrum. What stands out in those memories? As you continue remembering your agile journey, there is something about being a Scrum Master that you love—what is it? Each one of us has a different path when in becoming a Scrum Master—different backgrounds, education, roles, and experiences. Those differences shape who we are.

Noticing the patterns or themes in positive past experiences may highlight the aspects of agile that are most important to you. Whether I was a project manager or agile PM or Scrum Master, I loved going into messy or chaotic situations and finding better ways of delivering software to customers by working with both technical and business people. That was my one-liner in interviews. How I found better ways of delivering software by working with people evolved over time. What’s your one-liner of what you love to do?

Using Your Strengths

As a Scrum Master, you bring certain strengths and passions to the role that set you apart. To determine your strengths, you can take an assessment like StrengthsFinder or ask coworkers what they think your strengths are. You might think about the compliments you’ve received in the past or situations where you excelled. There are things others struggle with that you find easy to do.

When you’re doing work you care about and using your strengths, you work harder and better. When you look at your past, what impact did you have on the individuals you worked with? What awesomeness did you inspire? How are you connected to those people, and what are they doing now? Talking about the impact you’ve had on real people and relationships you’ve grown gives confidence in your abilities. And sharing how you helped others become better feels good.

Rock the Scrum Master Interview

This the last post in a 3-part series on how to prepare for a Scrum Master interview. These posts will help you be more confident and clear in explaining the Scrum framework, describing your agile experience, and showcasing your personal agile journey and strengths. Interviewers ask a variety of questions and look for different skills based on their organization’s needs. Preparation as a candidate will give you a better sense of what you are looking for in an opportunity. Good luck on your interviews, and remember they are a two-way process so you can (and should) ask questions too.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

How to Prepare for a Scrum Master Interview, Part 2 – Agile Experience

Photo by Ted Sali

Photo by Ted Sali

In part 1, I wrote about how to explain the Scrum framework and demonstrate your knowledge. As a friend of mine mentioned after reading part 1, “Describing improvements that happened on your ‘watch’ as a SM is very helpful in interviews. Just reiterating what the Scrum Guide says doesn't really help the interviewer understand how you can drive improvement.” My hope is that the preparation from part 1 will help you stand out as a candidate and—more importantly—allow you and the interviewer to spend more time delving into your experience.

This post is about highlighting your real-world Agile experience and how you’ve helped teams improve. Storytelling is a key skill here.

Managers are generally looking to hire Scrum Masters for one of two reasons: (1) they have a new team that they’d like to get started with Scrum or (2) they have an existing Scrum team that could use help improving their agility. They want to hear how your previous work experience may relate to their current needs. Have a few examples of how you’ve worked in these scenarios to help teams collaborate more, deliver better results, and build trust in their organizations and with customers. Scrum Masters are often described as servant leaders, and we give a lot of credit to our teams for their hard work in delivering products and embracing change. In an interview, you’ll want to be clear about your role in coaching a team to improve. Below are some thoughts on how to do that based on my early agile experiences.

You applied practices from Scrum or other agile frameworks

Many, many years ago I tried introducing Scrum in a digital agency environment. My approach had been to explain Scrum to the group and have a conversation about how it might work for us. Given the number of client projects we were juggling at any one time and changes that could pop up any moment, we ultimately agreed that it wasn’t a good fit for our needs. However, five people did adopt daily standups as a practice, and I applied lean thinking as I tried to limit the amount of work in progress across our developers, focused on work completion and reducing handoffs, and had conversations to identify root causes of issues and determine how to prevent similar issues in the future. I also helped make our release process visible to enable daily deployments to production—with only one QA tester and a lack of automated tests. Getting that process to be stable and run like clockwork was a testament to what transparency can accomplish. And I would wish that process on precisely no one—automate processes and tests more than we did!

With my experience from the above organization, I could speak to giving a group the opportunity to opt-in (or not) to adopting Scrum. An interviewer and I could talk about how Scrum might not always be the best fit and how to introduce agile/lean thinking and specific practices to improve delivery. The keys here are speaking to what I did (managing work for flow, facilitating conversations, introducing new practices for consideration) that led to better results (significantly increased deployment frequency while reducing defects, improved teamwork and their process ownership).

You worked with a new team that adopted Scrum

In another organization, a new team had been formed and gone through initial agile training just before I was brought in as Scrum Master. In the first sprint, the development team had little interaction with their Product Owner who was remote. But they were able to successfully deliver a working product and had a great sprint review with lively conversation amongst key stakeholders about deploying the product and changing business processes to support its immediate usage and resolve current issues. I’d also observed that the team members had some difficulties working together; I invited a colleague to facilitate a DISC workshop for the team to raise our awareness of our behavior styles so we could talk about how we would handle conflict as a team. Their working agreements were strengthened by that workshop. The team’s manager felt pressure to make sure the team delivered and didn’t know what to do to help, and we had one-on-one conversations about it. And when the team struggled to deliver in its second sprint, stakeholders panicked and wanted to know what happened—that sprint review was rougher than the first, as you can imagine. I facilitated a retrospective for the team to identify improvements within their control and requests for management to help them.

Based on this experience, I could speak to the daily observations and conversations I’d have as a Scrum Master to support a team in their early stages of using Scrum. An interviewer and I could talk about Tuckman’s model of group development and how the DISC workshop and creating working agreements made Storming easier later. We could delve into the value of sprint reviews or retrospectives and how I’ve facilitated them to encourage open communication and improvements. I could share what I’ve done to help managers and stakeholders understand their roles. This experience also gave me answers around what I would do differently, like be more explicit with managers and stakeholders about what to expect in terms of delivery from a team as they ramped up and ideally be included in the team’s training and project kickoff events. In this case, my role was primarily focused on the development team and secondarily on stakeholders; I would teach and mentor individuals in-the-moment and coach the team as a whole in our Scrum events and workshops. The result was clear visibility into the team’s work and ability to see progress from a business perspective. A newly hired group of people became a cohesive team that delivered, and management learned how to help them.

You coached an existing Scrum team to improve

Between the two experiences I described above, I had the opportunity to become Scrum Master for an existing Scrum team. The development team struggled in completing sprint work, and they felt like priorities changed all the time. Their product backlog contained about 300 items, including many old defects. The team’s Scrum events were routine and relatively short. After shadowing their previous Scrum Master and learning how they worked as a team, I facilitated different retrospective activities to spark new thinking. I added an additional information radiator next to their physical board that got them reflecting on how long it took stories to be completed during the sprint. A bout of production issues disrupted sprints for a period of time, and the team was able to adapt to surprises because they had learned to limit their work in progress. The retrospectives enabled them to improve quality to stabilize the product. To address priority challenges, I wrote out their backlog—all 300 items—onto index cards and posted them in a conference room we used for refinement sessions and sprint planning. Doing that enabled our Product Owner and stakeholders to see duplicates and obsolete requests in the backlog that could be removed; the development team saw defects that could easily be resolved. It became easier to have a single ordered list for the team to work from—it was magical. Team morale improved, and trust grew with the business as work was regularly being delivered each sprint.

Here my role was being a coach to the team on a day-to-day basis and acting as a bridge with our business. In an interview, I could talk about working with a Product Owner who had limited availability or how to handle interruptions during a sprint. We were inadvertently dabbling with Scrumban as a result of applying lean thinking to our Scrum practices. I learned from that team the importance of unit tests and the differences between refactoring and rewriting. My own personal development included teaching lunch and learns and deliberately practicing different facilitation techniques in retrospectives, as well as mentoring a new Scrum Master and eventually working with a second Scrum team. I could share how we used story points to check for agreement amongst team members and velocity for predicting when future backlog items would be completed and not setting “stretch goals” for the sprint—these were the beginnings of getting more predictability. Business stakeholders and team members alike became happier with our delivery and quality improvements.

Results and Your Legacy of People

Highlighting your experience in an interview means showcasing what you did, the results you incited, and who you positively impacted. Keep in mind that speaking to results means going deeper than “we followed Scrum.” Results are about the problems that were solved or outcomes created by applying Agile practices. As an interviewer, I also love hearing about the people you impacted. The team members, managers, and stakeholders that you coached to be more fulfilled in their jobs or to become more skilled or who gained enough confidence to step into new roles.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

How to Prepare for a Scrum Master Interview, Part 1 – Scrum Knowledge

Photo by Joe Penniston

Photo by Joe Penniston

It seems obvious that a Scrum Master should know Scrum. Yet a number of people struggle to explain the framework in an interview setting. Maybe someone else originally trained your teams, it's been a while since you've talked about Scrum end to end, or your company has its own (related) framework it uses. A clear, concise explanation of the framework demonstrates your knowledge, gives a glimpse into your ability to teach, and will help you shine in an interview.

There are 2 resources that I recommend reviewing for preparation. The first is the Scrum Guide. It contains the definition of Scrum. Scrum terminology has changed over the years, and the guide is updated periodically; understanding the changes and using the latest terminology can show a dedication to professional development.

People sometimes bring up that their companies don’t follow Scrum exactly and might use “iterations” instead of “sprints” or refer to “backlog grooming.” Using your company’s terminology on a day-to-day basis makes sense—adopting the language of the land can be a way of building trust. I adjust my language at organizations using their own frameworks and switch back to Scrum in other environments. In an interview setting, we’re talking about how we can potentially work in another company that’s on their agile journey. They might not use the same jargon as your previous organization. It’s prudent to use the language of the Scrum Guide as it’s recognized across the industry.

The second resource I recommend is this video from Lyssa Adkins. In face-to-face interviews, you may be asked or find it helpful to draw Scrum at a whiteboard. Doing so confidently and clearly can make you stand out.

Practice helps here: draw and explain Scrum to anyone who will give you 5 minutes. My walk-through changes slightly based on my audience--a new team member will want to know how they will be working within the team whereas a business stakeholder may want to understand how the product is delivered incrementally and iteratively. I may elaborate or emphasize certain parts of Scrum to better address those "what's in it for me" questions.

You may be thinking at this point that someone could read the Scrum Guide, practice explaining the framework, and have no experience working with agile teams—you’re right. A good interview should not look for only answers that could come from reading books (even if they’re really good ones). And there may be people who are amazing with agile teams who cannot describe Scrum flawlessly.

In interviews, we want to share our knowledge and our experience. Solid knowledge of Scrum seems essential for Scrum Masters. Interviewers also want to know how you’ve applied Scrum. Connect your real-world experience to your foundational understanding of Scrum by telling stories. Describe how you used retrospectives to help a team improve or what you did to support a new Product Owner in their role. Talk about that team member whose skills and confidence grew as a result of your coaching. Speak to how Scrum helped improve delivery and build trust across the organization.

How important is framework knowledge in your Scrum Master interviews?

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.