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.

Learning from the Agile Community

Photo by awee_19

Photo by awee_19

My first agile meetup was in April 2009. I was going alone and didn’t know what to expect. My experience with agile was limited, and I was shy. Awkward small talk while waiting in line for pizza. Uncertainty about where to sit. Gratitude when the session started because I could relax and listen.

Thankfully my shyness wore off, my agile experience increased, and I’ve since welcomed a number of folks to the Dallas-Fort Worth agile community. Local meetups and events are great opportunities to learn and connect with others. Many people—myself included—are relieved to discover that they are not alone in the challenges they face in agile adoptions.

I wrote about my community experience as part of Tips from the Trenches, a compilation of wisdom organized by Yves Hanoulle for Scrum Masters and currently available on LeanPub.

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.

Facilitating Great Sprint Retrospectives

Photo by AlienGraffiti

Photo by AlienGraffiti

Last month's DFW Scrum user group meeting was on Overcoming the fear of Sprint Retrospective.  I love retrospectives, so I was excited that the group was going to talk about them for an entire night.  Here's why the topic was suggested:

Sprint Retrospective is by far the most underutilized and under appreciated meeting. Team members dread to go these meetings. Every Scrum Master has his own technique on how he overcame this and still there is always room to grow. Can we request a retro meeting please? Where we can share some thoughts on how different Scrum Masters of our group handle it & has seen success? :)  Thanks

I agree that retrospectives are probably the most powerful and most underutilized ceremonies in scrum.  And I think it's because most people don't know how to facilitate them well.  Excellent retrospective facilitators know how to instill trust for openness and sharing, inspire creativity and brainstorming to generate new ideas, read the room to pick up on what’s not being said, handle conflict in a positive manner, maintain the timebox, and guide group decision-making.  How do you learn to do all of that?  Below is a lunch and learn presentation that outlines the format of retrospectives with some tips and tricks:

Great retrospectives don't just happen--they are the result of good planning and facilitation.  Thankfully following scrum means a facilitator gets an opportunity to practice his skills each sprint!

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.

Making the Transition from Project Manager to Scrum Master

Photo by m kasahara

Photo by m kasahara

Many of the Scrum Masters I work with come from a project management background, and making the transition to being a servant leader does not come easily.  I’ve noticed that especially in times of stress, a new Scrum Master might revert back to acting like a Project Manager.  Or other folks in the organization continue to ask the same questions even though the person’s role has changed from Project Manager to Scrum Master, and it is confusing to the person in transition—who does the organization want you to be??

The trick is to create what you need to learn your new role.  Stepping back from the project details can provide space to practice being a neutral facilitator.  Remind people that your new role is different—you can be a messenger for the team but do not make decisions or commitments on behalf of the team.  Admit when you overstep into project management.  Recognize what is triggering you to move into command and control behaviors and (if appropriate) discuss it with your team—what are you seeing or hearing that causes concern?  Perhaps your intuition is picking up on something the team needs to discuss and take action on.  Let go of having the answers and controlling the outcomes.

When you’re more settled into the Scrum Master mindset, you might realize that it’s not so much what you say as the way that you say it that conveys a command and control mindset versus a servant leader mindset.  Practice standing in a place of empathy and team building.  Radiate information to stakeholders and provide insulation to the team so they can focus on work.  Be curious.  Introspect.

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.

The Questions We Ask

Photo by LEOL30

Photo by LEOL30

Back when I was a project manager, I asked the question, “Are you done yet?” on a frequent basis.  A person being done with his work meant the next action could happen—either the next person could do her work, or I could do my part and communicate something to a client.  Managing a project meant seeing the entire Rube Goldberg process of getting work done: knowing what was in progress, what would happen next, and making sure the steps happened like they should.

Recently a developer told me that in his experience with Scrum, he has been asked this same question by Scrum Masters.  I’m sure those Scrum Masters had good intentions, and I wish they’d asked a different question

Becoming a Scrum Master is not easy.  It means becoming a different kind of leader.  And as difficult as it is to make the transition to being a Scrum Master, it is also difficult for others to see us in that new role.  That is why the questions we ask matter so much.  If we use the same language as we did before Scrum, the transition will be harder.  I wonder what the Scrum Masters wanted to know when they asked, “Are you done yet?”  I hope it was, “How can I help you?”

What other questions might a Scrum Master ask?

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.

Presentation on Wed, Mar 5: Scrum Master as Team Coach

Photo by mwms1916

Photo by mwms1916

Becoming a Scrum Master is often a significant transition from other roles you've played, and even after attending certification classes, you may be struggling to make the transition.  What are the soft skills you need to be a great Scrum Master?  

Cherie Silas and I will be sharing our insights at the DFW Agile Community of Practice on Wednesday, March 5.  Inspired by our own journeys in making the transition from project manager to Scrum Master and our current work coaching Scrum Masters in their new roles, we created Beyond Removing Impediments: Scrum Master as Team Coach--

The role of the Scrum Master is about more than removing impediments and facilitating meetings. Scrum Masters act as mirrors for their teams and mentor team members great Scrum Masters coach their teams to high performance every day. We will share a metaphor for teams to use on their journey to high performance and teach Scrum Masters how to be coaches for their teams. Come learn how to give meaningful feedback and ask powerful questions to grow a team.

Join us on Wednesday to learn how you can become a coach for your team (and why I picked a photo of a tree for this post).  

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.

Scrum teams need Scrum Masters close by

Photo by Soren Cosmus

Photo by Soren Cosmus

It might sound odd that the Scrum Master needs to be close to the team since seems like an obvious requirement (where else would he be, right?), but that isn't always the case when dealing with distributed team members.  According to the Scrum Guide, the Scrum Master's service to the Development Team includes:

  • Coaching the Development Team in self-organization and cross-functionality;
  • Teaching and leading the Development Team to create high-value products;
  • Removing impediments to the Development Team’s progress;
  • Facilitating Scrum events as requested or needed; and,
  • Coaching the Development Team in organizational environments in which Scrum is not yet fully adopted and understood.

The Scrum Master's job is more than setting up and facilitating the scrum events, and it's unfortunate when the value of the role seems to be diminished to those few meetings. The Scrum Master does not disappear during a sprint until impediments are raised, and his job is more challenging when some team members are geographically dispersed:

  • A Scrum Master spends time getting to know his team members individually and coaches each of them; this comes more naturally when a team is co-located, but the Scrum Master needs to find a way to do this regardless through phone calls, IMs, video conferences, and if possible, the occasional face-to-face meeting. 
  • A Scrum Master is encouraging the sense of team and self-organization; again, this is easier when the team is co-located, but activities that are inclusive and add play can contribute greatly to this.  I've heard of a team that would include a distant team member in office birthday celebrations via webcam just so he would feel like a part of the team. 
  • A Scrum Master is observing and listening to the team as it works so he can reflect back to the team areas where improvement may be needed so they can see them more clearly and address them. Probably the most challenging, the Scrum Master needs to have a trusting relationship with team members so they can have "how was your day?" conversations without fear of micromanagement. 
  • A Scrum Master is ensuring that information radiators are created and reflect the team's reality.  I love posters and scrum boards on walls, and these same radiators need to be made visible to those outside the office, whether it be through an electronic tool, video, or photos.

A Scrum Master doesn't just attend a daily scrum and remind the team to update its task estimates each day until the end of the sprint.  He has a serious job to do, and his team needs him to be close by--no matter how far apart they might be geographically.

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.