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What is a Scrum master: A beginner’s guide to Scrum

By Jonathan Dale
July 12, 2021 • 11 minute read

At a glance

  • The role of a Scrum master is like that of a project manager, but with a few distinct differences. Learn more about these roles in the article.
  • Scrum is an Agile methodology that is used to solve business problems in a fast-paced environment.
  • Information technology, pharmaceuticals and financial services are key industries that utilize Scrum managers.
  • University of Phoenix offers a standalone, for-credit professional development course as well as a Scrum fundamentals course.

Understanding Scrum

If you’ve ever tried to lead a group project, you’re probably familiar with just how challenging it can be to pull off. For as long as there have been project management problems, there have been attempts at solutions. Scrum is a solutions method growing in popularity due to its adaptability.

Scrum methodology, or Scrum processes, can help reduce stress, crises and chances a collaborative project might fail t. Scrum management, however, is a specialized process that necessitates training, potentially from an accredited university (either with traditional, in-person classes or straightforward online workshops, certificate programs, and classes.)

Scrum management can come in handy, for example, when an issue you didn’t foresee stalls progress or the work being produced doesn’t meet the expected outcome; problems can arise when the team and stakeholders are not on the same page.

As companies seek to respond to a changing world with new technologies and new demands, problem-solving methodologies like Scrum will continue to hold promise.

What does a Scrum master do?

The role of a scrum master

Scrum is an Agile methodology that’s an effective competitor to classic project management. As a process, Scrum uses close collaboration and adaptive development to solve problems, develop products and create value in a highly agile manner. Created by software developers, the Scrum methodology is highly applicable to software development. Many industries where Scrum is popular prioritize building out and growing software or proprietary technology in fast-paced markets. For example, as companies seek to build apps or websites so their customer base can connect online, Scrum can help developers solve the complex challenge of bringing a robust webpage to life.

Companies are increasingly turning to Scrum because it can address complex issues. That’s why the role of Scrum Master is a fast-growing and highly valued job within many companies.

The Scrum Master is at the heart of the Scrum process and team. He or she plays a pivotal role in solving problems so that developers can work on the product. Put simply, the Scrum Master is the facilitator of the Scrum team and is responsible for guiding the rest of the team through the Scrum framework, creating interteam dialogue, coaching, solving problems, and teaching best practices and theories for high-performance output.

The Scrum Master is the leader of a Scrum team and is responsible for championing a project, providing guidance to the team and product owner, and ensuring all agile practices are followed by team members,” says CIO. “The Scrum master not only addresses all facets of the agile development process but also serves the business, product owner, team and individuals and facilitates communication and collaboration between all these elements.”

What are sprints?

If you’ve seen the term “Scrum sprint” or “sprints,” it refers to sprint planning, a key component of Scrum and other Agile methodologies.

Basically, a sprint means a shorter timeline for executing a specific task or set of tasks within a project, which may have a longer-term goal or more distant deadline. Says Atlassian: “Sprints are at the very heart of scrum and agile methodologies and getting sprints right will help your agile team ship better software with fewer headaches.”

What is sprint planning?

In a sprint planning session (to plan an upcoming Scrum or Agile sprint), a team will get together to determine what needs to be accomplished in the sprint, plot out all the steps of the sprint, and figure out how long the sprint should last. Once that’s out of the way, they can leap right into the sprint itself (perhaps immediately following the meeting, perhaps after approval by higher-ups).

What are sprint reviews?

While “sprint reviews” may sound like  a process of going over the sprint afterward and determining what went right or wrong, that’s not the case, as Atlassian points out.

“A sprint review is about demonstrating the hard work of the entire team: designers, developers, and the product owner,” they note. At some companies, “team members gather around a desk for informal demos and describe the work they’ve done for that iteration. It’s a time to ask questions, try new features, and give feedback.”

What are sprint goals?

Sprint goals help get a Scrum team on track to achieve product goals, which are usually longer term or overarching. For instance, a sprint goal to create the digital presence for a new business could be broken down like so:

  • Sprint Goal #1 Create a website for this business.
  • Sprint Goal #2 Establish social media pages.
  • Sprint Goal #3 Get higher-ups to sign off on brand copy/language on the above.
  • Sprint Goal #4 Create and issue a press release announcing the brand and its website and social media pages, monitor social media reactions, website UX, traffic, etc.

What Is a Product Backlog?

“A product backlog is a prioritized list of work for the development team that is derived from the roadmap and its requirements,” writes Dan Radigan, an Agile coach. “The most important items are shown at the top of the product backlog so the team knows what to deliver first.”

A product backlog is, when referred to during Agile or Scrum, the series of tasks or “sprint goals” the sprint crew must complete, according to the overall Scrum team. Sometimes the backlog is to complete tasks the team has struggled to finish or it could be new issues that have cropped up. In some cases, the backlog may be tasks that were not a priority initially but, because circumstances have changed, suddenly become top priority.

What are daily standups or daily scrums?

A “daily standup” is corporate shorthand for a quick, regular or daily meeting that involves a few key people standing and conversing quickly, instead of sitting around a conference table and settling in for a long discussion. The “daily Scrum” is basically the same thing, although it may take place among members of the Scrum or sprint.

Agile Scrum roles explained

The two main Agile Scrum roles are:

The Product Ownerin charge of the product backlog, prioritizing its tasks, and canceling or altering the sprint, serving as project manager

The Scrum Master – facilitates discussions, oversees collaborative efforts, runs interference with those outside the Scrum.

The rest of the Scrum will likely be called:

Development Team Memberscreate or build the product or sprint goals that the Scrum is tasked with, tests products or other outcomes, and delivers final product as part of cross-functional teams

The 5 core Scrum values

According to the Kissflow blog, the top 5 traits of successful Scrum masters or individuals in Scrum roles are:

  1. Focus — the ability to concentrate on the task at hand, the people conducting the task and the project overall and to not let outside elements or surprise problems sidetrack Scrum teammates
  2. Bravery — while few Scrum projects are life-or-death situations, Scrum can certainly be applied to government, public service or outright rescue operations. In whatever field or role they serve, the Scrum master will need to brave storms both external and internal (on the Scrum team and within the company, potentially), and have an iron will for tough situations and to make important recommendations.
  3. Commitment — while you may not see a particular project as crucial for your own life and career, think about it this way: Are you devoted to your job? Are you hoping to move up in the world? Periodically remind yourself that the course of your professional life depends on the outcome of your current project. Commit to ensuring its ultimate success.
  4. Mutual respect Scrum Team members respect each other as “capable, independent people,” according to the Scrum values outlined on Kissflow. While discussing or communicating by text, email or phone, it’s important to maintain professional decorum, and the Scrum master might set the tone — or ruin it with the wrong, disrespectful tone or pronouncement. Instead, every time you address someone or talk about the group, think about whether you would call what you’re about to say “respectful” if it were directed at you.
  5. Professional openness — directness, openness, honesty, thoroughness, accountability — all these things are important in a successful Agile project and in working as a Scrum Master or project manager in general. Work to better yourself by improving and firming up your own integrity and truthfulness without crossing the line into unprofessional, personal oversharing. If you can eliminate selfishness, people will note your value as a team member and be more willing to share their professional struggles too.

What is the difference between Scrum master and project manager?

While Scrum master and project manager might seem like similar positions, they are not the same and should not be treated as such. A typical Scrum team has no project manager. Instead, the Scrum master and a product owner share those responsibilities.

A Scrum master is responsible for facilitating the Scrum process and ensuring that every team member is aware of the process. A Scrum Master, sometimes referred to as a “servant-leader,” keeps everyone on the same page so team members can do what they do best instead of worrying about the Scrum method. The Scrum Master is a team leader whose primary focus is on the people and interactions needed to help the team achieve their commitment to delivering value.

A project manager is more concerned with tracking progress by using product road maps to strategize and establish product objectives.

While these two roles are different and should not be conflated, a good Scrum master and a good project manager will often share characteristics, such as leadership, organizational skills and an ability to connect with the team in meaningful ways to create value and achieve high performance.

Responsibility Project Manager Scrum Master
General project role Oversees all or almost all aspects of a project Serves as a kind of coach, facilitating a quest for quality, on-time deliverables, etc.
Specific directives on most projects Strategizes for the entire project, including outlining each step, keeping a budget, running interference or updating higher-ups, funders, etc., and tracking progress and results Handles meetings, one-on-one or group coaching, and determines whether the project is on target (deadlines being met, products being produced are adequate, etc.), and helps teams adjust to meet goals
Documentation “The Project Manager creates, manages and updates all forms of documentation (Project Brief, PID, Budget, Risk log, Project Plan, Gantt chart, etc.),” say The Volume Maximizers. The Scrum Master creates, manages and updates no documentation at all,” The Volume Maximizers add.
Requirements Divvies up work at the beginning and delegates responsibility when new needs arise and tracks whether requirements are met Not a manager, does not have specific directives beyond their general job description on each individual project
Motivating staff As a manager, their job is to make sure people are motivated, effective, and working at a pace that gets the project completed on time. More focused on boosting “the organizations’ agility… helping people to understand and enact to the Scrum Framework,” say The Volume Maximizers.

 

As Steven Yee, a manager of data engineering, noted in a LinkedIn post: “The fundamental difference between a project manager and a Scrum master is that the project manager’s focus is on the project, whereas the Scrum master’s focus is on the Scrum team and its team members. The project manager’s job is to ensure that the project is successful, while the Scrum master’s job is to ensure that the team is successful.” (Emphasis added.)

Wondering if Scrum or project management is for you? Compare notes with our blog on project management.

Agile vs. Scrum: A false dichotomy

Scrum was born out of the “Manifesto for Agile Software Development.” This is a 2001 document written by a group of software developers who wanted to improve upon what they saw as outdated development practices and methodologies. According to industry lore, the creators of the concept decided that the best visual representation for the practice of Scrum sprints and Scrum processes was to compare them to a rugby “scrum,” in which players work together to move the ball up field and keep it away from their opponents.

“Agile” is the umbrella term for development methodologies. It favors a responsive and collaborative process. Scrum is one of the main examples of an Agile methodology.

According to Apiumhub, Agile project management and Agile methodology is designed to assist teams in an ever-evolving business world, where outside demands on our attention, productivity, and well-being can hinder or outright sabotage projects. Its manifesto “is based on continuous improvement, flexibility, input of the team, and the delivery of results with high quality.”

The Agile suite of methodologies differs from the more traditional model of project management known as “waterfall.” With a waterfall method, tasks are divided into a series of phases that progress linearly. With Agile methodologies, tasks are distributed throughout the team to be completed in parallel. Developing in parallel allows the team to deliver value to customers faster.

Several industries have implemented Agile methodologies. The major ones are:

  • Information technology
  • Financial services
  • Construction management
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Marketing and advertising
  • Real estate
  • Construction

What is the Scrum process?

The fundamentals of a scrum master

Scrum uses “sprints” (think rugby again), one-to-four-week blocks of time in which project goals are accomplished. At the end of each sprint, the Scrum master, team members and other project stakeholders gather to discuss how the sprint went and what to focus on for the next sprint. In this way the Scrum process is iterative and adaptive, as the development team can reflect on the work accomplished so far and create new goals based on results from previous sprints.

The Scrum framework is rooted in empiricism, meaning that evidence is gathered through verifiable observation. Empiricism is rooted in maintaining interteam transparency, adapting goals to new challenges and evidence, and regularly inspecting ongoing work.

Sprint collaboration relies on a once-per-day, 15-minute time-boxed meeting known as the daily Scrum. Its purpose is to envision the next 24 hours of the sprint. In a daily Scrum meeting, team members can plan collaboration, resolve issues and inspect work. This is all to further home in on the goals of the sprint, tackling challenges in smaller and more accomplishable tasks.

How to become a Scrum master

Luckily, becoming a Scrum master has never been easier. There are online professional development courses that can help you learn Scrum fundamentals so you can put yourself on a path toward a fulfilling and valued career.

You can expect to learn how to identify common Agile and Scrum terminologies, how to explain the elements of the Agile framework, how to discuss the sprint process and how Scrum contributes to a project’s success.

Professional development courses like Scrum Fundamentals offer in-demand skills for a changing marketplace. The many benefits of professional development courses may include hands-on, skills-focused training that can be done on your own schedule. These have the potential to put you well on your way to pursuing certification.

An online course is a great step toward achieving a Scrum master certification. Additionally, there are other skills that a successful Scrum master usually has. These are often soft skills and aren’t as easily teachable. They include:

  • Strong communication skills
  • Leadership skills, especially for keeping a team focused
  • Organizational skills
  • The ability to see long-term goals and plan short-term actions to achieve them

Scrum and other Agile methodologies are an exciting and expanding sector of the job market. A certified Scrum master is an esteemed role in many companies looking to add value to their product development process.

University of Phoenix Scrum master course offerings

If you’re interested in becoming a Scrum master, University of Phoenix offers a stand-alone credit as well as a professional development course to help you get started. Read on to learn more about both offerings and determine which is the best for you.

Scrum Fundamentals

Scrum Fundamentals is a self-led professional development course offered by University of Phoenix that helps students learn how to build successful Agile teams using the Scrum framework. In this course, students learn common Agile and Scrum terminology, understand the sprint cadence and understand how the framework contributes to a project. The course is designed for professionals looking to better deliver complex solutions to their organizations as well as new learners hoping to help their organizations adopt Scrum and Agile frameworks.

Skilled learned in the course include:

  • Sprint planning
  • Goal development
  • Sprint management
  • Daily Scrum facilitation

As you work your way through this Scrum Fundamentals course, you’ll discover how concepts, principles and Scrum practices deliver value to organizations. Explore how three roles of an Agile team, five ceremonies and three artifacts at the heart of Scrum, come together to solve real-world problems.

The course requires an estimated 30 learning hours for completion and can be accessed anywhere and at any time for one year. To learn more, visit our Scrum Fundamentals page.

Agile project management with Scrum methodology

This upper-division, 5-week course provides students with an understanding of how an Agile project manager can utilize the Scrum methodology. Students will learn how to apply the Scrum framework to improve organizational outcomes. Practices discussed in the course include:

  • Self-organizing teams
  • Scrum roles
  • Sprint planning
  • Tracking
  • Measuring processes and tools

After completing the course, students will earn three credits and have learned key course objectives to help them in their project manager or Scrum roles. These objectives include:

  • Introduction to Agile principles
  • Agile process components and artifacts
  • Agile roles and responsibilities
  • Agile planning and estimating
  • Sprint execution, review and retrospective

Interested in learning more about Scrum? University of Phoenix offers an Agile Project Management with Scrum Methodology course!