What's a Scrum Master? Here's a basic explainer from our engineering team

Bryan Young

Originally posted on the Insider Inc. Engineering blog.

Hi. I’m Bryan. I’m a Scrum Master at Insider Inc.

“What do you do?” is a question I often get asked while holding a chilled alcoholic beverage. For a carpenter, a painter, a barista, or any other commonly understood profession, there would be an easy answer. For the Scrum Master, the answer often creates more questions than it answers. Here, I will attempt to explain my role in a way that might help a drunk layperson understand.

What does a Scrum Master do?

In the 2018 revision of The Scrum GuideKen Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland define a Scrum Master as someone who is:

“…responsible for promoting and supporting Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide. Scrum Masters do this by helping everyone understand Scrum theory, practices, rules, and values…The Scrum Master helps those outside the Scrum Team understand which of their interactions with the Scrum Team are helpful and which aren’t. The Scrum Master helps everyone change these interactions to maximize the value created by the Scrum Team.”

While I like this explanation for a variety of reasons (one of which is that it’s written by the authors of Scrum itself, so I kinda have to), it makes no sense at all to someone not familiar with the word “Scrum.”

So let’s try again.

What does a Scrum Master do?

A Scrum Master reduces suffering in product development.

Uh … what? How?

Bear with me.

A Scrum Master helps build and nurture a safe, supportive working environment where a team of creative professionals can explore, play, and solve complex problems.

Scrum Masters do this in a variety of ways.

A Scrum Master is an amplifier.

Sometimes it’s hard for people to articulate what they need to do their jobs well. Sometimes they don’t even know what they need to do their jobs well. By listening closely — and sometimes reading between lines — the Scrum Master finds out what those things are and amplifies them.

This doesn’t mean literally making them louder. Sometimes it means speaking up on behalf of the person or team, but more often than not, it means helping the person or team speak up themselves. By coaching the team to understand what they need and articulating it, the Scrum Master helps them be better advocates for themselves.

A Scrum Master is a mirror.

The closer one is to a thing, the more challenging it is to remain objective about that thing. (Some go so far as to argue that true objectivity is impossible). The Scrum Master retains critical distance from the team’s work and reflects the team back onto itself. Whether in a one-on-one or team setting, the Scrum Master holds the mirror up to the team so they can see themselves more clearly. This helps them look back and understand how to improve the way they work (“inspect and adapt.”)

My wife calls this the “therapy” part of the Scrum Master role.

A Scrum Master is a servant leader.

In The Servant as Leader, Robert K. Greenleaf defines a servant leader as one who “shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.” Whether it’s vigilantly protecting the team’s time and focus, helping the team diagnose and triage process issues, or delivering a big ol’ pile of cupcakes for the team on a tough day, the Scrum Master embodies this mindset in everything they do.

(Some have found that this mindset aligns with a set of moral or spiritual values, e.g. the Bodhisattva Vow, Matthew 20:16, etc., though it certainly doesn’t have to.)

A Scrum Master is a connector.

The Scrum Master helps the team connect to ideas. They do this with concrete examples, not abstractions. They are responsible for advocating for Scrum values and leading by example. Does the team need to be more courageous to meet their goals? The Scrum Master embodies courage. Does the team need to place more trust in one another? The Scrum Master embodies vulnerability. (Incidentally, one of the “secrets” to highly successful groups from Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code is vulnerability! What a lovely coincidence!)

The Scrum Master also seeks to connect the team with the team. A new, dysfunctional, or otherwise adrift team may be disconnected from one another, mentally or physically. Using experience and intuition, the Scrum Master seeks to bring the team together and build community.

(For those looking for ideas on how to bring a team together and help them find purpose and meaning in their work, I recommend the “How to Energize People” chapter of Jurgen Appelo’s Management 3.0).

And, above all, a Scrum Master reduces suffering.

The Scrum Master is not interested in creating process for the sake of process. The Scrum Master is interested in helping human beings self-actualize and build great products together.

During a 3-day training I attended in 2017, Craig Larman said that his raison d’etre was “to reduce suffering in product development.” I think about this phrase often; it’s become my personal north star in every decision I make at work.

Here’s proof: slide 16 of our “Process Welcome Wagon” deck, presented to every new hire in their first week at Insider.

Future-Bryan is pictured, stage left, wearing rubbery flip-flops.

Future-Bryan is pictured, stage left, wearing rubbery flip-flops.

Would all of this make sense to a distracted drunk person playing NBA Jam? Maybe not.

I do, however, feel that we owe it to ourselves to have a vocabulary with which to explain our goals and intentions without using the word “Scrum.” I hope this is a step in the right direction.

Thanks for reading.

Many of the ideas in this post were adopted, adapted, or borrowed from those that came before me. Some were mentioned above, but one person not mentioned is the brilliant Lyssa Adkins, whose book Coaching Agile Teams remains a source of wisdom and inspiration to me to this day.