An interview with WeAreBrain’s brilliant Scrum Masters
Taking the first steps of your career in the tech industry as a Scrum Master can be a daunting task, but we all started somewhere, right? We sat down with three of our awesome Brainiac Scrum Masters, Olga, Tetiana, and Tanya, to find out how they managed the transition from newbie to bonafide Scrummy in a short period. So if you’re a novice, we’ve got a few tips on how you can get your career off to a positive start by understanding the best practices for new Scrum Masters, from actual Scrum Masters.
Olga has been a Scrum Master for 2 years, Tetiana for 4 years, and Tanya for 7 years, so we thought each would provide unique insight into the field at each stage of career development. Here’s what they had to say.
Q: Hi! Can you please describe the basic role you play in product/project development?
Olga: I help and coach teams from the forming to performing stages of projects, including process management.
Tetiana: I have the overall responsibility for the successful initiation, planning, design, execution, monitoring, controlling, and closure of a project.
Tanya: I am a Scrum Master, Project Manager, and Technical Analyst.
Q: What skills do you see as crucial for somebody in your role?
Olga: I think it is important to be a balanced person without an ego, and somebody who truly wants to help their teams and business to achieve their best and deliver high value. I don’t think I am that person yet but I am striving to be – I’m still learning.
Tetiana: I think it is a combination of 55% soft skills and 45% hard skills. The 55% involves being a leader: finding the right way to communicate with each person whomever they are – your boss, clients, or team members. Remember we are all different and it is important to inspire people to follow their ambitions within their role. The remaining 45% involves having really good planning skills. Don’t mix planning and task tracking, as the first means the strategy, and the second is more about tactics. Nevertheless, tactics are very important.
Tanya: After 7 years in the field, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that having strong communication skills is crucial to being a successful Scrum Master. You are responsible for guiding your team to achieve its goals and you need to be able to communicate what is required from each individual at all times. A team is only as good as the sum of its parts and it is up to you to ensure everything is running smoothly.
Also, managing stress and building up a level of tolerance is a game-changer. Our work can be very demanding and stressful, and being able to not only manage it personally, but also for your team, will make all the difference when faced with tight deadlines and long working hours.
Q: Personally, what helped you become a better Scrum Master? Any courses or certifications?
Olga: My PSM 1 training was really inspiring and helped guide me in the right direction of where I wanted to go. Then, after working for some time and gaining more experience, you may start thinking about how you could do more to help teams. Coaching Agile Teams by Lyssa Adkins really helped me to see new perspectives and responsibilities for my role as a Scrum Master and a team lead.
The book gives a lot of advice on how to work with teams at different stages, such as junior and senior teams, teams just starting out together, and teams who have been working closely together for years, for example. You start as a teacher and then become an advisor to the people you work with. What is important to remember is that your team not only consists of developers but also product owners.
Tetiana: For me, it has been my Line Manager, Tanya Lyabik. She has helped guide my development and I am enjoying learning all I can from her. She recommended I enrol in a great program called School of Management Stratoplan which has further assisted me in my career development as a Scrum Master. I am currently in the process of finishing the program and I have learnt a lot from it. Also, working at WeAreBrain has helped me put all my accumulated theory into practice, and there is really no substitution for real-world experience.
Tanya: Before becoming a Scrum Master I spent a few years in Project Management which gave me really great foundational knowledge to build upon. For me, what is essential for all Scrum Masters is a deep and thorough understanding of the field, so I recommend following the Scrum guide closely and conducting lots of research to gain as much knowledge as possible. There are so many books and articles to read so there is always no shortage of information out there.
Also, I recommend getting a PSK certification (Professional Scrum with Kanban) to better understand Scrum and Kanban.
Q: What are the most common mistakes you would say beginner Scrum Masters make? Is it a behaviour or is it about a skill?
Olga: I think new Scrum Masters often fall into the common mistake of making decisions on behalf of their team. This results in almost certain failure because the team will never become self-organised and independent if they are conditioned to rely on someone to tell them what to do. This realisation is something that comes from time and experience. When first starting out, some newbie Scrum Masters do not have a clear definition and understanding of their role and responsibilities, which of course can lead to disasters.
Some new Scrum Masters believe, wrongly, that they should have hands-on control of their team in all aspects of the project. In reality, a Scrum Master’s role is to manage the process, help teams to grow, coach them in agile values and principles, teach them how to deal with impediments along the way, and help remove those impediments if the team cannot handle on their own.
Tetiana: The core mistake the majority of new Scrum Masters make is the act of changing team rules right after joining a new team. I love the phrase of a well known Russian manager, Max Kombat Batyrev, who wrote in his book 45 Manager’s Tattoos: “At the beginning, play their game and only then step-by-step change the rules”.
Tanya: In my experience, new Scrum Masters usually forget to work with the Product Owner and stakeholders, and rather focus their work with only their team. This is a skill that all Scrum Masters must, and eventually do, learn. It can be difficult to work with the business side of the organisation while managing a new team at first, so these skills may take time to develop but are crucial nonetheless.
Q: How would you recommend they fix this?
Olga: Ask your team the right questions. Guide them along their journey of development and confidence building. Help them to see their issues and allow them to make the right decisions by themselves. Also, don’t forget to constantly upskill and teach yourself new methods, approaches, and tools that will help you to see the bigger picture to help the success of your team.
Tetiana: For the first 2 to 3 weeks just listen and don’t change anything. But in the background start to prepare a change plan which you can share with your team by way of advice and guidance, rather than instruction – don’t be pushy, to begin with. Try to motivate the reasoning why you think such changes will improve their work life. As a suggestion, perhaps position on a trial basis and if it doesn’t work you can always try a new approach.
Tanya: I would recommend securing complete alignment and understanding with your Product Owners by having regular 1-on-1 discussions in order to clearly know how you can help them at each stage of the process. Creating solid relationships with your Product Owners will make all the difference in creating amazing products and keeping aligned with your team goals.
Q: What will be your advice for a junior/beginner Scrum Master who wants to grow into his/her role?
Olga: Start with the basics. Having a solid understanding of the Scrum Guide is not only crucial – it is mandatory in my opinion. From there, just regularly talk to your team members and try to understand their problems and help create solutions to guide them to make the right decisions. And remember, everything takes time and sometimes even small changes don’t happen overnight. Trust and believe in yourself from the start and soon you will be able to rely on your gut to make informed decisions.
Tetiana: I wish everyone could enjoy the benefit of having such a supportive and experienced line manager as I do. Unfortunately, it is a rare case. I would recommend all new Scrum Masters to never stop upskilling and learning new things – there are so many incredibly helpful online and offline courses to choose from, even YouTube is a great place to get information. In our profession, real-world experience holds tremendous weight and some lessons can only be learnt from exposure.
Only after we gain this experience do we start to understand the theory – much like in life. Nevertheless, a lot can be learnt through failure and self-education is a great way to be able to prepare yourself for this inevitability.
Tanya: I would suggest starting off with a small team and try to use different practices, methods and approaches to find your own way of working which you enjoy. Don’t feel the need to copy other Scrum Masters, rather try to find your own style that works for you.
Continuous self-improvement by way of educating yourself and putting yourself in situations where you can gain valuable experience will help you get to where you want to be far quicker. Read up on new methods and try different things until you are confident in your way of working and managing your team. If you do this throughout your professional life, not much can hold you back!
And there you have it, some really insightful information from our incredibly talented Scrum Masters to help all aspiring or new Scrum Masters out there. As you can see, it is crucial that you develop your communication skills, as-well-as your management methods and continual self-education if you want to make any positive impact in the tech industry.
As a leader, you are responsible for guiding your team to achieve its goals. And, as any leader will tell you, leading from example is the best way to galvanise support and trust from your team. We hope this interview helped you.