Just like technology itself, the roles within tech companies are always evolving. This is especially true for the Scrum Master, traditionally a leader among software development teams that use the Scrum framework.

But how does the Scrum Master role translate to today’s new products and company org charts? And how can someone in this leadership role function best, to serve both the people and the product they’re working with?

These questions and more (particularly about the dynamic with product managers!) are answered below.

What is a Scrum Master?

The Scrum Master (SM) leads a team using agile project management through the course of a project. Sometimes called a servant-leader, the SM makes sure everyone is following the processes the team agreed upon. They also function as a facilitator between management and the developers to make sure the outcome meets expectations.

It isn’t just the outcome that’s important. The SM also ensures that the process of getting to that outcome, the team’s working system and culture, is always evolving and improving, too.

Ultimately the definition of the SM role has changed over the years and is open to interpretation. You can consider the traditional definitions, similar to what I’ve just described, and you can also adapt it to fit within your own organization.

The goal remains the same: Scrum Masters should try to make their own job redundant. 

What does a Scrum Master do?

Scrum Masters devote themselves to the betterment of developers as well as the development process. The most effective ones will teach and coach their team, make the most of the resources and tools available, then get out of the way so people can run the Scrum process and do their jobs.

That’s always been the case. But today the mentoring aspect of the SM role is even more important, as teams are getting larger and more complex. Each team member needs to understand their place in the bigger picture and what to do with it.

Here’s a quick run-through of SM responsibilities, from abstract to practical:

  • Help the team self-manage
  • Help people ask the right questions of themselves
  • Run the retros (knowing how to conduct retrospectives and at what interval, etc.)
  • Ensuring insight from the retros is applied to future iterations of the process

The SM treats the development process just like a product. The team’s process is iterated upon, tested and learned from, repeat! So that each agile sprint gets better, just like the product gets better with each release.

Scrum Masters are not the ones getting their proverbial hands dirty in the product — doing the tech, design, or financial work — but they’re coordinating to make sure the work gets done.

Ultimately, when an SM is successful, the product development team is a well-oiled machine that doesn’t need a servant-leader at its helm. That’s why I mean by Scrum Masters making themselves redundant.

Note: Sometimes the person acting in this role doesn’t have the Scrum Master title (similar to how the “product owner” role is actually a responsibility that can fall with various positions in the product team). The title is falling out of vogue these days. Nevertheless, someone is usually performing this role, teaching people, and showing them how the Scrum process is working.

What is the typical background experience of a Scrum Master?

Conventionally SMs come from a technical background. It would be someone from the tech team who’s also good at leading people, so they graduate into a leadership role. 

But contrary to popular belief, SMs don’t have to have a tech background. Because the role is so people oriented — filled with teaching, coaching, and mentoring — an SM can come from pretty much anywhere.

It’s more about having the right aptitudes and adapting them. It takes a certain personality and skill set, and of course a capacity to learn about the agile development process. SMs have to be able to empathize with the people building tech and know how to ask the right questions. They have to understand when things get tough and be able to talk to the people dealing with those challenges. Then they should be able to suggest solutions that clear whatever obstacles are in the way.

In a certain light, SMs can be seen as a jack of all trades. They’re similar to product managers (PM) in that regard, who also come from a wide variety of backgrounds as long as they have certain product management skills. Certainly the abilities to empathize and communicate are at the top of the list!

How can product managers and Scrum Masters work together?

A good SM enables a PMs work to come to fruition, and helps the product management process move closer and closer to perfection.

The PM makes sure the company is spending time on discovery, developing the right product strategy, and building the right stuff. The SM is working downstream from that — making sure the building process is efficient, eliminating miscommunication and dropped balls, and delivering the best releases. Without a good Scrum Master or well-functioning Scrum process, a PM can’t really do their job. On the other hand, a good product manager will collaborate with the SM to ensure that after every sprint, the development team can reflect, learn, and iterate.

Today it’s common that companies don’t have an actual SM. Instead the product manager ends up the de facto Scrum Master, working with an agile team. Then they’re responsible for not just the product but the process as well, and so their role is both product and project manager.

All too often, the product manager becomes a catch-all, doing the jobs that no one else is able to do (or that they don’t want to do). With all of these responsibilities lumped together under different titles, it’s a tricky situation. Of course, the job itself becomes very stressful because of the sprawl. Add to that the team-wide lack of understanding of the scope this single person is responsible for, and it easily gets overwhelming.

If your team doesn’t have a designated “Scrum Master” role, take a moment to review where the SM responsibilities are falling and on whom. Who’s in charge of mentorship? Who’s keeping an eye on the development process to make sure it’s always iterating? Sketch out some clear goals and expectations for improving both the people and the product, and your SM (whichever title they have) will flourish!

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