What is a Scrum Master?
What is a Scrum Master? What's the difference between Scrum Master vs a Project Manager? Get a crash course in this role and how it plays into cloud transformation.
Aug 23, 2023 • 12 Minute Read
- Software Development
A Scrum Master is a leader responsible for establishing and promoting the Scrum Framework to support a Scrum Team — a group made up of the Scrum Master, the Product Owner, and the team of Developers
The Scrum Master champions Scum values while understanding the importance of adapting to change as championed by Agile principles. The Scrum Master supports their Scrum Team by removing impediments to team progress. Essentially, a Scrum Master’s job is to make other people’s jobs easier by constantly seeking ways for the team to work better and improve workflows.
In this post, we’ll cover what Scrum is, the differences between Scrum and Agile, what a Scrum Master does, and how this servant leader can be a truly influential force in digital transformation and cloud transformation. Let’s dig in!
- What is Scrum?
- Scrum Master definition
- Scrum vs Agile
- What is the difference between a Scrum Master vs Project Manager?
- Scrum roles and responsibilities
- What are a Scrum Master’s day-to-day responsibilities?
- 5 values of the Scrum Framework
- The history of Scrum
- How to become a Scrum Master (CSM vs PSM and other certs)
- What is a Scrum Master's role in a cloud transformation?
- What can a Scrum Master do to help move a team to cloud?
- Scrum Master FAQs
What is Scrum?
“Scrum” is a term used for a type of agile methodology.
Scrum originated as a framework for helping organizations deliver complex software projects, but it has since been adopted by non-software development teams.
The essence of Scrum is a self-organizing team delivering customer value in a time-boxed period, called a sprint.
Sprints are considered the heart of Scrum and allow for continuous adjustment until a team delivers a great project.
These fixed-length sprints are one month or less. During sprints, the entire Scrum Team collaborates to determine objectives and backlog action items.
Scrum Master definition
Scrum.org defines the Scrum Master as “accountable for the Scrum Team’s effectiveness. They do this by enabling the Scrum Team to improve its practices, within the Scrum framework.”
Because the Scrum Master is responsible for protecting the Scrum Team from outside and inside obstacles, they are often empathetic servant leaders who enjoy helping others.
Scrum vs Agile
To understand Scrum, we have to understand the basics of Agile. The terms Agile and Scrum are often used interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing.
Where Agile is a philosophy, Scrum is the framework to put philosophy into practice.
- Agile gives a broad philosophy on how to better deliver software . . . but with no recommendations on how to actually do that.
- Scrum is a specific framework for managing software projects that embodies many of the beliefs of the Agile mindset. Scrum is one of many frameworks considered part of the overall Agile philosophy. Other popular frameworks include Kanban and XP, or Extreme Programming.
The Agile Manifesto was written in 2001, but some teams had been practicing and writing about Scrum for years before then in the ’90s.
The Agile manifesto was written at a time after several Agile methodologies had taken shape and gained traction, and the manifesto was intended to unite these philosophies. This is why the manifesto is largely process-agnostic.
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What is the difference between Scrum Master vs Project Manager?
The differences between a Scrum Master and Project Manager can seem subtle, but this is an area of debate (at least in circles that debate things like “Is a Scrum Master a project manager?”)
A Scrum Master and Project Manager could be thought of as in the same job family.
- A Scrum Master is more appropriate when there are many unknowns in delivering a project.
- A Project Manager is useful for fixed dates and repeatable projects.
At a superficial level, you could say that the Scrum Master is to Agile delivery as a Project Manager is to Waterfall delivery. ("Waterfall delivery" being the linear, sequential, “one phase depends on the next” way of completing projects that is sort of the opposite of all things Agile.)
When you get down to it, the differences between a Scrum Master and a project manager are in the nuances of how work is planned and executed on.
A Scrum Master is less of a manager and more of an advisor and blocker remover. While you might think those are tasks a project manager could take on, the difference is in the team dynamics. In managing projects, a project manager’s relationship with team members can feel like that of a classic, top-down manager. Think: “Do this by this date.”
But a Scrum Master is a collaborator and a member of the team on the same level. As the Scrum framework puts great value on self-management, there’s less need for someone above calling out orders and more need for someone by the side of your team doing everything they can to clear obstacles.
Scrum roles and responsibilities
There are three main Scrum roles:
- The Product Owner
- The Scrum Master
- The Developers
Per the Scrum Guide, note that these are roles and not job titles. Your “development team” might not actually have developers on it at all. This is just your team of doers or workers. This team is regularly somewhere between 3 and 9 people.
When teams get too large, it is suggested that they be broken up into smaller, cohesive Scrum Teams that share the same goal and Product Owner.
What are a Scrum Master’s day-to-day responsibilities?
The Scrum Master is responsible for the Scrum Team being effective. To do this, the Scrum Master has several responsibilities to the Scrum Team, the Product Owner, and the larger organizations.
These responsibilities include:
- Leading the larger organization’s Scrum adoption efforts
- Advising the Scrum Team on self-management and cross-functional working
- Removing impediments to the Scrum Team’s progress
- Ensuring all Scrum-related events take place in a timely, productive, and positive fashion
- Facilitating collaboration with stakeholders and Product Owner when needed
- Organizing necessary meetings, such as daily team standups or the “Daily Scrum” (sometimes time-boxed to 15 minutes), sprint planning meetings, sprint review meetings, and sprint retrospectives.
Note: That while many companies have adopted the language of Agile and Scrum and started calling any concise, daily meeting a “standup,” these are often a misuse of the word — one usually driven by a desire to make meetings (or the organization) sound hip and cool. (Meetings are neither of those — and those organizations likely aren’t either.)
Five values of the Scrum Framework
- Focus — Multitasking is ineffective. Scrum encourages focus to produce higher-quality work. Scrum enables this by limiting the amount of work taken on and breaking work down into smaller projects.
- Courage — Because teams should be working closely together and supporting each other, they should be able to take on great challenges.
- Openness — Transparency is at the root of Scrum. Through regular reviews of work, planning and updates, and discussions of how the team can improve. Sharing plans and metrics with the broader organization is often done to drive this further.
- Commitment — A team commits to doing the highest quality work possible (beneficial for them and stakeholder) and commits to being open and honest about the true progress and status of projects. Some teams expand commitment to what they commit to take on work at the beginning of a sprint.
- Respect — Scrum teams are encouraged to respect each in daily work. With transparency, comes a need for respect. This respect allows the team to be honest, share impediments, and ask for help when needed. LIkewise, stakeholders must also respect the development team around their feedback about the difficulty and investment required to get projects done.
The history of Scrum
Scrum’s roots are from a management theory called Empirical Process Control, or empiricism. That’s less ominous than it may sounds. (Think: “empirical evidence,” not “Galactic Empire.”)
Empiricism is the idea that knowledge comes only from or primarily from experience. Empiricism encourages making decisions based off of known occurrences rather than beliefs or speculation or expectation about the future. Scrum is driven by empiricism.
Empiricism is prevalent in the manufacturing industry. It’s the basis of the Toyota Production System (or TPS — no relation to TPS reports), considered one of the most successful manufacturing processes in use. (Side note: like most things in the world, there’s a fascinating This American Life podcast that touches on the Toyota Production System.)
Perhaps not surprisingly then, the first papers on Scrum reference the Toyota system.
While you can plan for the future in Scurm, all plans should be based on what has already happened. This is why Scrum values empirically driven decisions — or making decisions based on what has actually happened in the past.
As such, the metrics used in Scrum are called “lagging indicators.” These historical metrics can only be used after an event has occurred. Examples of lagging indicators include history of stock market indexes or weather patterns.
The opposite of these are “leading indicators.” Leading indicators allow us to make predictions, but these can be unreliable and are not used in Scrum.
How to become a Scrum Master
There are many courses out there to help aspiring Scrum Masters pick up the basics of Scrum. For example, Pluralsight offers a selection of Scrum Master courses, and many of the Scrum Master certifications out there come paired with courses to bring you up to speed.
When it comes to certiciations, there are several organizations offering Scrum Master certifications. Two of the most popular are Scrum.org and Scrum Alliance.org.
Scrum Master certifications: CSM vs PSM?
Scrum Alliance offers the introductory Certified ScrumMaster (CSM), the first in its series of Scrum-related certs. This certification is one possible first step for aspiring Scrum Masters that continues through to the Advanced Certified ScrumMaster (ACSM) and Certified Scrum Professional-ScrumMaster (CSP-SM). The CSP-SM requires the A-CSM certification and at least two years of recent experience specific to the Scrum Master role.
To earn your CSM, it’s mandatory that you attend a CSM course (in addition to passing a multiple-choice certification exam). A CSM certification must be renewed every two years. Courses vary in cost and content depending on the instructor, but many consider the intro CSM cert to be easier to achieve than the intro PSM I cert.
The PSM can be earned via self study, meaning you can jump straight to the test right now if you’re ready for it. A PSM course exists, but it’s optional. This can make the PSM a cheaper option if you already know the basics. But as a bonus, taking a PSM training course allows you to take the test once for free. The PSM cert is a lifetime certification with no renewals required
Other Scrum certifications
Other popular Scrum Master–related certifications include the PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP) — which doesn’t exclusively cover Scrum but demonstrates experience with agile and is commonly sought after by employers seeking to hire Scrum Masters — and the SAFe Scrum Master — which leans more toward working in enterprise organizations that use Scaled Agile.
There are pros and cons to each certification, so do some homework, chat with people in your network, and check out job postings in your area (or at the companies you want to work) to get a sense for what will best align with your potential career path.
(Sidenote: If you’re new to the world of certifications and wondering “Do they all have silly names?” The answer is 100% — yes. Don’t be deterred by the arduous acronyms though! Most certification paths, including Scrum Master certifications, offer introductory courses and certifications to help bring you up to speed before you dive into the deep end of tech jargon.)
What is a Scrum Master's role in a cloud transformation?
Similar to educating their team on agile principles and holding them to high-performing team standards, a Scrum Master can help lead the change management required in a cloud transformation. When engineers are asked to start working in the cloud, there’s a very real change curve they must go through. The change curve is inevitable, the question is how long it takes the team to evolve.
Being asked to work in a completely new model is daunting, but this is nothing new for Scrum Masters. Scrum Masters hold teams accountable to Agile standards as part of their job. The soft skills required to lead change management are perfect to help engineers learn to work in their new cloud environment.
What can a Scrum Master do to help move a team to cloud?
Incorporating training in each sprint makes something as big and intimidating as “learn to cloud’ into a SMART goal.
At truly transformed organizations, each sprint Scrum Masters are assigning a training curriculum to their engineers. At the end of the sprint, the Agile teams come together to discuss what they learned through the training and how their company’s specific approach to that lesson.
For example, in one sprint the team learns about cloud storage options. At the end of the sprint, the team comes together to talk about which storage options would work best for their application and why. This continuous, iterative approach to learning is the foundation of a culture of innovation.
If you're a Scrum Master interested in learning more about cloud computing, I recommend studying for the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner and/or Azure Microsoft Fundamentals certifications. There's no computer science background required to pass these exams, and they'll give you the confidence required to learn the language of your scrum team.
Scrum Master FAQs
"Scrum" is a term used for a type of agile methodology. Scrum originated as a framework for helping organizations deliver complex software projects, but it has since been adopted by non-software development teams.
Scrum Master is responsible for protecting the Scrum Team from outside and inside obstacles, they are often empathetic servant leaders who enjoy helping others.
Scrum Master and Project Manager could be thought of as in the same job family. A Scrum Master is more appropriate when there are many unknowns in delivering a project. A Project Manager is useful for fixed dates and repeatable projects.
Scrum Master can help lead the change management required in a cloud transformation. When engineers are asked to start working in the cloud, there's a very real change curve they must go through. The change curve is inevitable, the question is how long it takes the team to evolve.
Incorporating training in each sprint makes something as big and intimidating as “learn to cloud’ into a SMART goalAt truly transformed organizations, each sprint Scrum Masters are assigning a training curriculum to their engineers. At the end of the sprint, the Agile teams come together to discuss what they learned through the training and how their company’s specific approach to that lesson.