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.

Zombies of Scrum

Photo by Dave Mathis

Photo by Dave Mathis

You’ve probably seen it: a team that has a standup meeting each day to provide status updates. A team that demos their work to stakeholders but rarely receives real feedback or changes. A team that works in “sprints” but may or may not have potentially releasable product at the end of the timebox. And the team is ok with this state of being.

I feel like these are the zombie teams of Scrum. Teams who have Scrum events but are not getting the value of them. They have lost sight of the pillars of empirical process control—transparency, inspection, and adaptation—and fallen into a mode of rinse and repeat instead.

These teams need a refresher on Scrum. Feedback. A purpose.  I coach teams out of their zombie state so they are more engaged and productive.

Let’s keep zombies where they belong—dancing in classic music videos:

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 Importance of Facilitation Skills in Scrum

Photo by Eva

Photo by Eva

A great facilitator can make Scrum events meaningful and productive, not just for the current product or work but also for the overall health and development of the team.  The facilitator controls the process and does not provide content, so the team and other attendees are responsible for generating the output—his role is strictly one of helping the group manage the information they already possess, or can access, to achieve a necessary result in a timely and collaborative manner.  He makes it easier for the group to work together.  What might that look like?

A great facilitator can: 

  • Keep a group focused during Sprint Planning to understand the Sprint Goal and the work of the Sprint.  Each team member is engaged and participating in the conversations, disagreements about the goal or work are constructive, and the Development Team can clearly explain to the Product Owner and Scrum Master how it intends to accomplish the Sprint Goal and create the anticipated Increment.
  • Enable the Development Team to keep the Daily Scrum to 15 minutes that improves communications, eliminates other meetings, identifies impediments to development for removal, highlights and promotes quick decision-making, and improves the Development Team’s level of knowledge.  The team feels energized for the day afterwards.
  • Foster collaboration during Sprint Review between the Scrum Team and stakeholders about what was done in the Sprint and the next things that could be done to optimize value.
  • Lead an empowering Sprint Retrospective where the Scrum Team improves its development process and practices to make it more effective and enjoyable for the next Sprint.  The team becomes stronger through open and honest discussion as it Inspects how the last Sprint went with regards to people, relationships, process, and tools.

If you want to develop your facilitation skills, the Agile Coaching Institute is offering its Agile Facilitator class in Dallas on November 12-13.  It’s a wonderful course that provides techniques and practice–I attended it last year and came away with some new ideas on how to facilitate meetings that has been really beneficial!  For more information about the course, please visit the Agile Coaching Institute website.

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.

What is the Future of Agile Coaching?

Photo by Vox Efx

Photo by Vox Efx

When I was growing up, I never imagined that I would become an agile coach.  I had no idea what that meant--it didn't exist.  I wanted to be an artist, a music teacher, a programmer, an interior decorator... I wanted to be a lot of different things over the years.  And now that I am an agile coach, I sometimes wonder what I'll be doing years from now.  Where is our industry headed?  Will agile coaching still exist?

If you look at the Agile Manifesto, it seems like agile will likely still be around in 10+ years.  I don't know if agile will be a "thing" or just the way that software is developed, without need for the label.  If that's the case, then agile coaching may move into regular consulting, mentoring, or coaching.  The coaching industry is also evolving as a profession:

What do you think we'll be doing 10 years from now?

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.

Where to Look During the Daily Scrum

Photo by Adrian Scottow

Photo by Adrian Scottow

I was talking to a developer friend of mine recently, and I realized something about the Daily Scrum: agile coaches and team members look at different things during the event. 

My friend mentioned that he makes eye contact with team members, particularly new ones, as they give their updates to boost their confidence and encourage them.  Of course team members look at one another during the Daily Scrum!  The Development Team is sharing information and planning its work for the day, and making eye contact with your peers shows that you’re engaged and interested in them.  It seemed so obvious as he said it.

As an agile coach, I observe the Daily Scrum and note how information is being shared within the team; I pay attention to the body language of the team members and the level of information being provided. Is there something not being said?  Are team members engaged? Does the team understand how they will complete the sprint goal?

Since I am not on the Development Team, I generally do not speak during the Daily Scrum. If a team member looks at me while giving his update, I look at the ground. By looking at the ground, I gently encourage that team member to look somewhere else–hopefully at his fellow team members.  This works well in stopping team members from looking at me during the Daily Scrum, but it does not teach them where they should look or how to behave during the event!

According to the Scrum Guide, “the Daily Scrum is a 15-minute time-boxed event for the Development Team to synchronize activities and create a plan for the next 24 hours” and “the Scrum Master ensures that the Development Team has the meeting, but the Development Team is responsible for conducting the Daily Scrum.”  Agile coaches might teach the Development Team how to conduct the Daily Scrum, and the teaching generally happens outside of the event itself.  Development Team members teach one another how to behave in the Daily Scrum during the event

So Development Team members, please look at your teammates during the Daily Scrum.  It is your opportunity to teach one another how to use the Daily Scrum well.

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 Gathering New Orleans Highlights

Photo by Scrum Alliance

Photo by Scrum Alliance

Last week I attended the Scrum Gathering in New Orleans, and I wanted to share some of unexpected yet wonderful experiences from the conference:

1. Cherie and I presented Beyond Removing Impediments: Scrum Master as Team Coach!  We were originally selected as alternates, and a peer told me to always says yes to being an alternate because there’s a high chance someone will cancel.  He was right.  We found out the Friday before the conference, and I was out of town for another meeting, so the morning of our presentation, I was at Kinko’s printing handouts.  Cherie and I changed how we did the presentation, and the overall energy flow felt much better.  Every time we talk about this topic, I discover new points to share.

Blue Tape to the Rescue!

Blue Tape to the Rescue!

2. I am a bit of a foodie, so I was quite happy to explore New Orleans cuisine.  Ty and I had beignets at Café du Monde followed by a late dinner at Luke [one of John Besh’s restaurants].  Luke was incredible, and we could see into the kitchen from our table—the chef was right behind my seat on the other side of some glass.  So cool.  Best of all, a number of us from the Dallas area had dinner together at Peche; the food was delicious, and the company was delightful.  It was really nice to hang out with folks in a different environment.

3. On the last day, I finally got to see how an Open Space is opened.  I had read about it before, and it was cool to see it in practice.  My flight home was in the early afternoon, so I didn’t have much chance to participate in the open space sessions that day.  But I did get to participate in one: we sat on the floor in the hallway because the other rooms were full, and we talked about professional coaching, certifications, and touched on hiring coaches.  Jake Calabrese and Stephen Starkey led the group, and I elaborated some of the points about CTI and the Co-Active model since I am currently taking that training.  I met Jake and Stephen at last year’s Scrum Gathering, and it was great to see them again; it is exciting to talk to other coaches about coaching and inspires new ideas.

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.

Learn by Teaching

Photo by Krissy Venosdale

Photo by Krissy Venosdale

Take what you've learned and teach it to someone else--when you do this, your depth of knowledge increases.  It reveals your understanding of not only the what, but also the how and why.  

I recently attended the Coaching Agile Teams class taught by Lyssa Adkins and Michael Spayd, and one of the activities was to explain an agile framework [e.g. scrum] to two classmates.  Lyssa gave a demonstration that was much like her overview of scrum video, and our goals were to really try and to push ourselves to find our weak areas in our understanding of the agile framework--I knew that I went outside my comfort zone in my explanation of scrum for a business audience when I realized that I forgot to explain the role of the Scrum Master.  It's an obvious oversight, but in the moment of teaching, it slipped my mind.  

Scrum is fairly simple, but it can be difficult to teach.  People often want to describe it as a methodology or a process, but it is neither.  Scrum is a framework that describes roles and rules; it is based upon values and facilitates people in a low-prescriptive way. The Scrum Guide holds the definitive description, and it takes a deep understanding to explain it to someone else effectively in under 10 minutes.

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.

The Trouble with Tools

Photo by Anthony Beal

Photo by Anthony Beal

Inspired by Ty's "My Fear of Robots, er... Tools" posts (parts 1, 2, and 3):

The Agile Manifesto tells us that we value individuals and interactions over process and tools, but it is quite common for organizations to adopt an agile tool that all of their teams must use.  These tools are intended to enable managers to see at a glance what work is in progress and what work is coming.  To show how productive teams are and where they are blocked.  To roll up reports across multiple teams to show project/program progress.  But I've observed that the realities of using a tool are quite different.

1. Teams don't understand how to use the tool effectively.  Regardless of the tool, odds are it is more complicated than using index cards on a wall.  Teams that do not understand scrum thoroughly and have not used index cards in the past struggle the most--which features in the tool need to be used?  Which can be ignored?  What should team members be looking at and when?  Teams are less likely to be looking at a task board during their daily scrum, so the feeling of committing in front of your peers is lessened.  It is harder to see the big picture view of the sprint, so the team might not recognize when it needs to swarm. 

2. Managers don't understand how to use the tool effectively.  They look at reports from their offices and don't discuss them with teams.  Teams and projects are not setup properly for roll-up reporting to be useful.  Reports are looked at more often than backlogs, so the focus is on where the team is and where it has been rather than where it is headed.  They aren't having meaningful conversations or making decisions based on the information available.

3. It's an information refridgerator rather than information radiator.  Burndown charts are not reviewed as a team, and conversations about whether or not the sprint will be completed successfully are not occurring as often.  The data in the tool might not be updated as often as it should--backlogs are stale and tasks are outdated.  There's no way of knowing who is looking at the tool, when they're looking at it, and what they're thinking based on it.  Tools also allow users to add more information to backlog items, so historical notes and attachments are added that also get outdated.

I wish more teams and organizations knew their processes before moving to tools.  Focus on behaviors that are effective and translate them to a tool instead of picking a tool that seems like the right thing to use because it's popular.  Stay low-fidelity for as long as possible and consider alternative ways of sharing information before moving to a tool; if working within a distributed team, it's acceptable--perhaps even preferable--for each location to have physical scrum boards setup.

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.

Touchy Subjects in Retrospectives

Photo by roboM8

Photo by roboM8

I observed a retrospective meeting this week that got me thinking about the role of team members in this important meeting.  The facilitator should be guiding the team through the retrospective process, but sometimes the facilitation leaves something to be desired.  As an observer, I was paying a lot of attention to the dynamics and energy level in the room, particularly since I know this team has been storming recently.  Unfortunately, in the end I felt like the retrospective was ineffective, and I wonder what the team members in the room could've done to make it better.

Team members should be focused on the content of the retrospective, and emotions can make it hard to do so.  While we can hope to check our outside emotions at the office door, it can be difficult to do so, and those emotions can distract us during meetings.  Here are 5 ways to manage your emotions at work from The Glass Hammer:

  1. Know what you're feeling.
  2. Understand that the expression of emotion affects everyone.
  3. Find ways to be creative and active outside the office.
  4. Use the company's resources to decompress.
  5. Go deeper.

Sometimes emotions can get the best of us due to something that is said during the retrospective, particularly if it feels like we are being criticized personally.  Gretchen Rubin has 6 tips for handling criticism:

  1. Listen to what a critic is saying.
  2. Don't be defensive.
  3. Don’t expose myself to criticism from people I don’t respect. 
  4. Delay my reaction.
  5. Admit my mistakes.
  6. Enjoy the fun of failure.

While handling emotions and accepting criticism are important for a team member during retrospectives, I wish I had more insight on what a team member should do when subjects are being avoided or glossed over and the facilitator is not encouraging the team to dig deeper.  The dynamics of this team make me think of Lyssa Adkins's high performance tree, and I'm hoping that the metaphor can help the team to recognize that there is room for improvement.

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.