The product management guide

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What is a scrum master?

A scrum master is a member of a software development team that is practicing scrum which is the best known and most widely used Agile software development framework. The scrum master's key role is to help keep the team accountable to their commitments to the business and also remove any roadblocks that might impede the team's productivity.

While the scrum master helps the team stay on task and aligned with proper scrum workflows, their role is to coach and motivate, not enforce. They met with the team on a regular basis to review work and deliverables, most often in a weekly cadence.

An effective scrum master sets the example to the team, similar to any effective leader. At the same time, the scrum master does not have authority to fire or remove team members, and so is not the leader in the traditional managerial sense.

Ultimately, the scrum methodology is adapted for different types of organizations. Therefore, the role of the scrum master is often confused with other preexisting organizational roles such as the Project Manager, Program Manager, Product Manager, and Development Manager.

Scrum Master vs. Project Manager

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

Additionally, while both leaders have the responsibility to keep their teams on track, the project manager is the decision maker and owner of the development project. The project manager is accountable to the business for the project meeting deadlines and its overall success.

Although the roles of scrum master and project manager are quite different, it is common for teams attempting to migrate from waterfall to Agile to assume that a project manager will be a natural fit for the scrum master role. However, a waterfall project manager may find it difficult to switch to Agile processes because of the different ways the two types of teams function.

It can be a jarring experience for a project manager to come from a world of rigid structure where they are in control and then be thrown into a world where changes can come daily and are welcomed.

Scrum Master vs. Program Manager

The scrum master and program manager have similar goals on their charter - to eliminate roadblocks for Engineers, and to enable successful execution of work. However, they are typically working at different visibility levels, and with different leverage to resolve issues.

One way to consider the relationship between a scrum master and a program manager is with escalation. A scrum master is there to coach and ensure processes are followed, make sure commitments for the team can be completed, and to identify any risks that are hindering work completion. If processes are not being followed or work commitments are at risk, the scrum master owns the identification and initial awareness of the issue in an Agile setting.

On the other hand, when a program manager is established in an Engineering organization, they typically coordinate with teams to understand external forces that could put the release of reliable product 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. They will typically have the relationships (and leverage) to address external forces causing problems for individual teams.

In addition to being an escalation point for the scrum master on work completion, the program manager in Engineering is often a process expert, and can collaborate with individual scrum masters when they identify systemic process issues. Though it has a different end goal (coach and improve), the program manager is again an escalation point for a scrum master to resolve process risk, and can often be introduced into the team on an as-needed basis for process expertise and guidance.

The scrum master and program manager play different (but collaborative) roles in mitigating risk and removing roadblocks - the scrum master has the depth to identify roadblocks quickly in the agile environment, and the program manager has the breadth of relationships to help escalate and resolve the roadblocks.

Scrum Master vs. Product Manager

The scrum master works closely with the product manager, but there are some important differences. The scrum master makes sure the team thoroughly understands the scrum concepts, helps them to define the endpoint of a sprint, and seeks to removes any impediment to their progress. Their attention focuses on “how.”

The product manager, on the other hand, plays a more dynamic role. They must define the “why,” “when” and “what” of the product that the development team will build. They also organize cross-team deliverables, which requires working outside the Agile scrum team. Like the scrum master, the product manager works closely with the team but also looks out to the overall business strategy and objectives to ensure the team is building what matters.

There can be areas of overlap between the two roles, however. In particular, the responsibility of a scrum master is often to remove roadblocks the team faces. These roadblocks can be the result of cross-functional requests, an area that most product managers also own.

When this is the case, the scrum master and product manager can look to the overall strategy to set priorities and make sure they are still on track toward the goals of the organization. While both roles are distinct, they are both vital to the success of the product and the team.

Scrum Master vs. Development Manager

The scrum master has limited authority over the engineers who are building the product when compared to 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. However, there is some overlap, as both roles lead by example and serve to motivate the team.

Certifications

For professionals interested pursuing professional development in scrum practices, there are two primary sources of scrum master certifications available:

  • Scrum.org: Offers a Professional Scrum Master™ level 1 and level 2 certification. Both certifications are handled through passing an online assessment with a score of 85% or higher.
  • Scrum Alliance: Offers the Certified ScrumMaster® certification through an in-person two-day course run by a Certified Scrum Trainer as well as completion of an online exam.
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