Scrum Master Interview: Demand Creates Supply and the Job Market for Agile Practitioners is No Exception
Scrum has proven time and again to be the most popular framework for software development. Given that software is eating the world, a seasoned Scrum Master is nowadays in high demand. And that demand causes the market-entry of new professionals from other project management branches, probably believing that reading one or two Scrum books will be sufficient. Which makes any Scrum Master interview a challenging task.
If you are looking to fill a position for a Scrum Master (or agile coach) in your organization, you may find the following 38+9 interview questions useful to identify the right candidate. They are derived from my thirteen years of practical experience with XP as well as Scrum, serving both as product owner and Scrum Master as well as interviewing dozens of Scrum Master candidates on behalf of my clients.
So far, this Scrum Master interview guide has been downloaded more than 16,000 times.
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Update 2020-06-19: The Scrum Master Interview Enhanced by Remote Agile Transitions Challenges
We are used to saying the Scrum is a perfect probe for organizations, as it will reliably discover all dysfunctionalities. Since the pandemic has forced many of us to work remotely, this unique capability has been kicked into overdrive regarding remote agile transitions.
Three months into working with distributed teams, at least for the majority of us who are not working for one of the remote work pioneers like Automatic, Gitlab, or Buffer, operational issues at a tactical level have been addressed. Zoom has fixed many of the problems reported, we learned how to organize engaging remote events, and more people start embracing techniques like Liberating Structures or Training from the Back of the Room to get all sorts of work done. With a good outcome, as it seems that remote work improves productivity, at least when team members are engaged with their work.
Hence I do believe that the Scrum Master candidate needs to have a good understanding of how remote work is accelerating agile transitions and what the primary areas are that are affected.
For an extended list of remote Scrum challenges see Remote Agile Transitions — The Top-Ten Challenges.
Download the 38+9 Scrum Master Interview Questions PDF
The free 38+9 Scrum Master Interview Questions to Avoid Agile Imposters PDF is not merely listing the questions, but also contains background information on:
- Why the questions are useful in the process.
- A range of appropriate answers.
Two to three questions from each category will provide more than enough ground for an engaging 60 minute-long conversation with candidates.
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Please click here
Update 2020-04-08: The Scrum Master Interview Enhanced by Remote Scrum with Distributed Teams
How can we learn during the Scrum Master interview whether a candidate has experience with facilitating remote agile events?
To figure out the candidate’s level of competence, I like to run a Liberating Structures-based exercise during the interview. I use TRIZ to task the Scrum Master candidate to come up with suggestions on how to sabotage a remote Scrum approach effectively. These are some of the remote agile anti-patterns, the candidate should be able to identify:
- Remote Agile is just standard work-life plus Zoom: Pretending that working remotely is the same as usual except for the video cameras. (This approach ignores all the challenges that distributed team face, for example, not investing enough in getting to know each other better to build trust. We are Social animals and need to meet In person sooner or later to build lasting trust among teammates, thus creating psychological safety. Moreover, there are difficulties in reading the virtual room in general, which means that taking decisions to the team or calling out introverts manifest themselves differently in a remote working setup. Trust is the beginning of all; without it, transparency, inspection, and adaptation would be able to work their magic, and we end up as distributed feature factories.)
- Neither fish nor meat: Hybrid events create two classes of teammates — remote and co-located — where the co-located folks are calling the shots. (Beware of the distance bias—when out of sight means out of mind—thus avoiding the creation of a privileged subclass of teammates: “Distance biases have become all too common in today’s globalized world. They emerge in meetings when folks in the room fail to gather input from their remote colleagues, who may be dialing in on a conference line.” (Source.) To avoid this scenario, make sure that once a single participant joins remotely, all other participants “dial in,” too, to level the playing field.
- Surveillance: Trust won’t be built by surveilling and micro-managing team members. Therefore, don’t go rogue; the prime directive rules more than ever in a remote agile setup. Trust in people and do not spy on them — no matter how tempting it might be. (Read more about the damaging effect of a downward spiraling trust dynamic from Esther Derby.) https://www.estherderby.com/the-future-may-be-remote-must-it-include-surveillance/
- Mindless rituals: Leadership belief and or facilitation practices turn once useful routines into mindless rituals. (For example, think of Groundhog Day-style retrospectives over and over again. Answering the same three questions every single time is the easiest path to kill any form of creativity and collaboration. While this is hard to avoid in face-to-face environments, it requires much more dedication and energy in a remote agile setting.)
- Death by PowerPoint: Meetings still revolve around an individual broadcasting a slide deck. (While you might get away with this approach for some time in face-2-face environments, it will not fly with distributed teams. Sessions need to inclusive, interactive, and engaging to entice collaboration, think Liberating Structures, and Training from the Back of the Room.)
- Unstructured communication: “Didn’t you get the memo?” (There is no clear practice on how to communicate which kind of information to whom. Are we talking about email, Slack, the team wiki, a comment in Github, or the biweekly remote brow bag session? This lack of structure and agreement leads to stress—how can I avoid missing important news now that there is no longer a watercooler; do I have to monitor all Slack channels in real-time—and probably a feeling of being excluded. Maybe, this effect is just a missing update to the working agreement or team charter. But what if it is done deliberately? (Honi soit qui mal y pense.) in a remote agile environment always requires to overcommunicate and be completely transparent.)
For a comprehensive list of anti-patterns, read Remote Agile (Part 4): Anti-Patterns — Pitfalls Successful Distributed Teams Avoid.
Update 2019-10-12: Have You Already Downloaded Your Copy of the Scrum Master Trends Report?
Have you already dwnloaded your copy of the Scrum Master Trends Report 2019 that we produced in collaboration with Scrum.org, the leading Scrum training and certification institution founded by Scrum co-founder Ken Schwaber?
The Scrum Master Trends Report 2019 is based on a survey of over 2100 participants—both from Scrum.org’s as well as Age-of-Product’s member and subscriber base. The report focuses on trends useful to both new and experienced Scrum Masters and reveals salary trends, agile adoption patterns, while also exploring gender equality within the Scrum Master role. The participants represent 87 different countries and come from all levels of experience. The highlights from the 2019 report include:
- 81% are using Scrum with other agile practices, ie. Kanban, DevOps, XP.
- Scrum Masters with formal Scrum training and agile certifications have higher salaries than those without.
- Adoption trends show that 7% are continuing to use Waterfall while 11% are mature in their agile adoption; the remaining participants are early or growing their adoption.
- Female salaries are trending higher those of their male counterparts.
Learn more: The Scrum Master Trends Report 2019.
The Scrum Master According to the Scrum Guide
While the Scrum Guide is sometimes detailing issues to a lesser degree, the Scrum Master role does receive appropriate attention:
The Scrum Master 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 is a servant-leader for the Scrum Team. 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.
Source: Scrum Guide 2017.
The Scrum Guide continues defining a Scrum Master’s services to the Product Owner, the Development Team, and the organization, which guided the creation of the following set the Scrum Master interview questions.
38+9 Scrum Master Interview Questions
Scrum is not a methodology, but a framework. There are no rules that apply to every scenario, just best practices that have worked in other organizations before. Hence, you have to figure out on your own what is working for your organization–which is a process, not a destination.
The role of the Scrum Master or agile coach in my understanding is hence primarily about leadership and coaching, but not about management. And most definitely, the Scrum Master role is not about process enforcement. Which is also the reason, that the repository contains mostly questions that address a candidate’s soft skills. ‘Agile needs to be pulled; it cannot be pushed. (Unless your organization is planning to waste significant investments on some version of cargo cult agile, see also ‘Cargo Cult Agile: The ‘State of Agile’ Checklist for Your Organization.’)
The Scrum Master interview questions in this PDF are modeled after a holistic model of agile product development for software products:
In this model, product discovery is moved as far as possible to the left to keep costs of validating hypotheses — derived from a vision and strategy — low and increase the speed of experimentation. In this approach it is crucial that the Scrum Master coaches the scrum team to adopt such a holistic model, some call it dual-track agile, as well.
Therefore, the PDF contains additional background and contextual information, how the following set of questions can be interpreted as well as guidance on desired or acceptable ranges of answers for each question — based on such a holistic model. The questions themselves are grouped into seven categories.
Scrum Master Interview Questions: How We Organized Questions and Answers
The ebook provides both questions as well as guidance on the range of suitable answers. These should allow an interviewer to deep dive into a candidate’s understanding of Scrum and her agile mindset. However, please note that:
- The answers reflect the personal experience of the authors and may not be valid for every organization: what works for organization A, may be failing in organization B
- There are not suitable multiple choice questions to identify a candidate’s agile mindset given the complexity of applying “agile” to any organization
- The authors share a holistic view of agile methodologies: agile equals product discovery (what to build) plus product delivery (how to build it).
Please find following 38+9 Scrum Master interview questions to avoid recruiting an imposter for the role of Scrum Master or agile coach:
I. The Role Of The Scrum Master
- The Agile Manifesto says “People over processes.” Isn’t the Scrum Master – a role to enforce “the process” – therefore a contradiction?
- What are good indicators that “Agile” is working in your organization, that your work is successful?
- Are there typical metrics that you would track? And if so, which metrics would you track and for what purpose?
- Your team’s performance is constantly not meeting commitments, and its velocity is very volatile. What are the possible reasons for that? And how would you address those issues?
- Shall the Scrum team become involved in the product discovery process as well, and if so, how?
- The Product owner role is a bottleneck by design. How can you support the Product owner so that she can be the value maximizer?
- How do you ensure that the Scrum team has access to the stakeholders?
- How do you spread an agile mindset in the company across different departments and what is your strategy to coach these non-IT stakeholders?
- How do you introduce Scrum to senior executives?
- You already performed Scrum training to stakeholders. After an initial phase of trying to apply the concepts, when first obstacles/hurdles are encountered, you see that these colleagues build serious resistance in continuing with Scrum adoption. What are your strategy/experience to handle such situations?
II. Product Backlog Refinement And Estimation
- The Product owner of your team normally turns stakeholder requirement documents into tickets and asks to estimate them. Are you fine with that procedure?
- What kind of information would you require from the Product Owner to provide the team with an update on the product and market situation?
- Who shall be writing user stories?
- How shall a good user story look? What is its structure?
- What should a “Definition of Ready” comprise of?
- Why aren’t user stories usually simply estimated in man-hours?
- The Product owner of your Scrum team tends to add ideas of all kind to the backlog to continue working on them at a later stage. Over time, this has lead to over 200 tickets in various stages. What is your take on that: Can the Scrum teamwork on 200 tickets?
III. Sprint Planning
- How can you as a Scrum Master contribute to the sprint planning in a way that the team is working on the most valuable user stories?
- On what metrics would you base the assessment of the value of a user story and what metrics would be not acceptable?
- How do you facilitate the user story picking progress in a way that the most valuable stories are chosen without overruling the team’s prerogative to define the team’s commitment?
- How much capacity would consider being adequate for refactoring, fixing important bugs, exploring new technologies or ideas?
- How do you deal with a Product owner that assigns user stories or tasks to individual team members?
- How do you deal with cherry-picking tasks by team members?
- A user story is lacking the final designs, but the design department promises to deliver on day #2 of the upcoming sprint. The product owner of your Scrum team is fine with that and pushed to have the user story in the sprint backlog. What is your take?
- A member of the Scrum team does not want to participate in the sprint planning meetings but considers them a waste of time. How do you deal with that attitude?
IV. Daily Scrum
- Would you recommend standups for all teams no matter their size or experience level?
- Do you expect experienced team members to wait until the next standup to ask for help with an impediment?
- How do you handle team members that “lead” standups, turning them into a reporting session for them?
- How do you handle team members that consider standups to be a waste of time and therefore are either late, uncooperative or do not attend at all?
- The standups of your Scrum team are not attended by any stakeholder. How do you change that?
- How do you approach standups with distributed teams?
- Can you draw a draft of an offline Kanban board for a Scrum team right now?
V. Sprint Retrospectives
- Who shall participate in the retrospective?
- Do you check the team health in a retrospective or isn’t that necessary? If so, how would you do it?
- What retrospective formats have you been using in the past?
- How can you prevent boredom at retrospectives?
- A team is always picking reasonable action items, but is later not delivering on them. How do you handle this habit?
- How do you recommend to follow up on actions items?
VI. Agile Metrics
- Are there any standard metrics that you would track? If so, which metrics would you track and for what purpose?
- Your Scrum team is consistently failing to meet commitments, and its velocity is volatile. What might the possible reasons be? How would you address this issue with the team?
- What qualitative agile metrics would you consider tracking?
VII. How to Kick-Off A Transition to Scrum
- How would you prepare to kick-off transitioning to Scrum?
- How would you create the first Scrum team?
- What do you recommend a newly formed Scrum team works on first?
VIII. Scrum Anti-Patterns
- What anti-patterns might a Scrum Master fall into during a sprint?
- What anti-patterns do you know of that can happen during a retrospective?
- How can you (as a Scrum Master) identify where you need to improve?
How To Use The Scrum Master Interview Questions
Scrum has always been a hands-on business, and to be successful in this, a candidate needs to have a passion for getting her hands dirty. While the basic rules are trivial, getting a group of individuals with different backgrounds, levels of engagement and personal agendas to form and perform as a team, is a complex task. (As always you might say when humans and communication are involved.) And the larger the organization is, the more management level there are, the more likely failure is lurking around the corner.
The questions are not necessarily suited to turn an inexperienced interviewer into an agile expert. But in the hands of a seasoned practitioner, they support figuring out, what candidate has been working the agile trenches in the past and who’s more likely to be an imposter.
So, go for a pragmatic veteran who has experienced failure in other projects before and the scars to prove it. Last, but not least: Being a “Certified Scrum Master” – or having any other certification of a similar nature – does not guarantee success.
Regarding the general preparation for the Scrum Master job interview, I recommend the following literature on Scrum, Scrum Master, and team building:
- The Scrum Guide.
- The Nexus Guide.
- The Manifesto for Agile Software Development.
- Gunther Verheyen: Scrum — A Pocket Guide (Amazon advertisement.)
- Geoff Watts: Scrum Mastery (Amazon advertisement.)
- Stanley McChrystal: Team of Teams (Amazon advertisement.)
- Patrick Lencioni: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Amazon advertisement.)
Update 2019-03-27: Watch the Webinar on the Scrum Master Trends Report 2019
Recently, I joined a webinar with Dave West—the CEO and Product Owner of Scrum.org—on the Scrum Master Trends Report 2019. We explored the results including salary trends and agile adoption patterns, addressed gender equality within the Scrum Master role, and answered questions from the audience. The video of the webinar is available now:
Note: If the browser will not start the video automatically, click here to watch the replay of the webinar on the Scrum Master Trends Report 2019 directly on Youtube.
Update 2018-11-25: The Webinar Replay ‘Scrum Master Anti-Patterns’ Is now Available
The video of the webinar is available now—you may want to check it prior to your interviews:
Note: If the browser will not start the video automatically, click here to watch the replay of the webinar Scrum Master anti-patterns directly on Youtube.