Volunteer Scrum Master Handbook

Scrum Masters Handbook

I have to disclose upfront that I am more of an Agile guy than a Scrum guy. Which is to say I feel more at home discussing Agile in general than Scrum in particular. (I’m not even sure how to capitalize it–SCRUM or scrum?)

Over the years I’ve made my peace with Scrum and as I dig into it’s theory and history I find I have few real arguments with the brainchild of Schwaber and Sutherland. My arguments are not with Scrum but with Professional Scrum Masters.

Over past 19 years that Agile/Scrum have reshaped the process of software development many of the traditional roles of software engineering have drastically changed or simply gone away. Technical Writers, Business Analysts, and non-coding Development Managers aren’t needed much by self-organizing teams that talk directly to Product Owners and write up their backlogs on sticky notes. But the one big role that Agile/Scrum has made obsolete is the hard nosed, battle tested, two fisted, lock jawed, steely eyed, organization shaking, cat herding Project Manager.

Back in the day it was the Project Manager who got things done. The good engineers were taught to be sheep and good senior managers were turned into putty by the power of the Project Manager. Microsoft’s variety of Project Manager, the TPM, is still a legend in the industry. It was Windows Vista epic failure and not Agile/Scrum that finally dethroned the TPM.

So when an organization finally buys in to Agile/Scrum where do the people who filled the roles of the waterfall process go? Product Managers became Product Owners. Development Managers who could code became team members or even team leads. Spec writers and Business Analysts moved on. Often Project Manager became Scrum Masters–If the non-coding Dev Managers didn’t beat them to it first.

It is where I got my first bad taste of Scrum: Project Managers turned Scrum Masters who were still doing Project Management. These pseudo-Scrum Masters were the ones with the Microsoft Project plans detailing every sprint from here to release. They demanded status explained in non-technical terms during the daily standup. They stuffed the sprint backlog too tightly (or sandbagged it) and argued with Product Owners over priority. What a mess! It was all Bagile and Fragile.

At least with the non-coding Dev Managers who become Scrum Masters the social graces were respected and they generally stayed out of the way (lest a technical question come their way).

To combat the pseudo-Scrum Master I like to use the role of the Volunteer Scrum Master (VSM). This is just one of the team members (either a coder or a tester) who plays the role of part time Scrum Master. It’s a volunteer and rotating position which can be filled by anybody but the Product Owner. Most of the time the VSM writes code or tests. When the need arises the VSM laces up his boots and does Scrum Master things: Calls for help to scare away any chickens, reminds everyone to follow the process, and let’s me or the full time Scrum Master know that those servers need to be updated by Ops. The VMS removes impediments to the success of the sprint by communication not coercion.

It’s not a glamourous job. There’s no extra pay. There is no authority. You don’t get to wear a uniform or the keys to the executive washroom.

While the job of a VSM is simple and straight forward it can be hard for a new recruit to know where the Scrum Master job starts and ends. So I ask each VSM to think of his part time job as a journalistic one. Observe what is going in the scrum. Take notes. Report findings to the full time Scrum Master or one of the Engineering Directors.

Note: Team members should be responsible for managing themselves. A Scrum Master is not Mom or Dad or a Police Officer. The best way to remove impediments is to communicate them to someone who can address them.

Let’s review how the VCM fits into the role of the Scrum Master…

Responsibility Pro Scrum Master Volunteer Scrum Master
The Scrum Master is not the leader of the team In Theory Yes
The Scrum Master teaches the process Yes Has to learn it first
The Scrum Master has no authority and may not make commitments That’s idea but… Definitely yes
The Scrum Master surrenders control to the Product Owner Hopefully 100% Yes
The Scrum Master is an enforcer of rules Sure Nope
The Scrum Master sets up the meetings If she has time Nah, set up your own meetings!
The Scrum Master maintains the backlog and updates the Scrum board Busy work All team members should pitch in
The Scrum Master explains to management what the team is doing Bad idea (It’s the Product Owner’s Job!) Wouldn’t bother
The Scrum Master acts as a buffer When there is no other option Dials 911

As you can see the Pro Scrum Master has to be careful. As the Scrum canon defines her job there is some inherent contradiction with the job of Product Owner and even some chicken-like (i.e., management) responsibilities. The VMS has no such ambiguities. He’s just passing through–his sense of self-worth isn’t caught up with the role.

Using VSM enables an organization to limit the number of Pro Scrum Masters, minimize political struggle, and help the team members learn the game of Scrum (the best way to learn is to volunteer).

Here are some sources that help define a Scrum Master’s Role:

Agile Fables


I love a good fable. The kind that Aesop used to write with animals acting out human morality tales. Of course, if you do the research, you quickly find out that Aesop didn’t write most (if any of the fables) we ascribe to him and like Shakespeare he probably never existed. I don’t let reality like that spoil my appreciation for Aesop’s work.

For Scrum Masters, Project Managers, and fans of Getting Things Done there is nothing like the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare. The slower, but diligent tortoise wins the race over the quicker, but arrogant hare. The only problem Agile process lovers have with this fable is that it’s not true! The tortoise (Waterfall) always loses to the Hare (Agile).

But we have a paradox: Most chickens (managers, stakeholders, investors) and even some pigs (engineers) agree with Aesop! The tortoise always beats the hare because the tortoise makes a plan and executes it well, even if he is a bit slow. (If the tortoise fails it’s because a chicken yells at her to hurry up and so she speeds up and screws up. Call it the “Fable of the Spineless Tortoise and Impatient Chicken.”)

To resolve this paradox I’d like to tell the “Fable of the Tortoise, Hare, and Monkey.”

A Hare one day ridiculed the Microsoft Project plans and change control documents of the Tortoise. The latter, laughing, said: “Though you be swift as Google Go, I will beat you in a race to deliver working software.” The Hare, deeming her assertion to be simply impossible, assented to the proposal; and they agreed that the Fox (VP of Product Management) should choose the requirements, and define the release. On the day appointed for the race they started together. The Tortoise never for a moment stopped, but went on with a slow but steady build cycle straight to the end of the course. The Hare, trusting to his native widgets, cared little about unit testing and user feedback, and lying down under his desk after long night of coding, fell fast asleep. At last waking up, and logging on as fast as he could, he saw the Tortoise had reached the goal, and was demoing to the Fox.

But the story doesn’t end yet…

By the time the Hare caught up with the Tortoise and the Fox he saw the Tortoise slam her laptop shut and slump away. The Hare asked for an explanation. “Why didn’t he Tortoise win?” The Fox explained that what the Tortoise delivered was very late to market and the requirements were were out of date. “But,” the Fox said, “Happily for all, the Monkey has delivered working working software that meets most of our customer’s high priority needs!”

“Monkey? Where the hell did the Monkey come from?” Exclaimed Hare.

“Ah yes,” sighed the Fox, “While you were crashed out under your desk, the Monkey came and delivered a working prototype. I told her that it wasn’t quite right so the Monkey went away and came back a little while later with a revised prototype. It took a few tries but eventually the Monkey got it right and won the race. In fact the Monkey’s working prototypes helped me understand what I was asking for. You see when I gave the requirements to you and the Tortoise, there were a few stories I missed and during the race a new competitor entered the market. Even if you hadn’t fallen asleep you would not have won as I had to keep moving the goal. Our customer, Mr. Zeno, is a hard man to please!

Just in case you’re not into reading between the lines here’s my analysis of this fable (since I wrote it my analysis should hopefully be accurate).

The Hare lost the race because he had to fight the Law of the Handicap of a Head Start. This principle states that pioneers and innovators lack a clear signal. They are out in front, they have no one to follow, and so their advantage becomes a handicap. Often the first movers are stuck building their software on immature technology that becomes obsolete before it is finished. The United States has this problem with its Internet and telecommunications infrastructure. We got there first but now we are lagging in connectivity. The Hare development process, starts out fast and light but never stops to get feedback–its one big long sprint. A lot of code is written. Little of it is ever used.

The Tortoise lost the race because we no longer live in the world of the 4th century BC. Slow and steady hasn’t been a winning strategy for a long time. The goal keeps moving. Actually the ancient Greek philosopher Zeno wrote his own fable where he counters Aesop. In Achilles and the Tortoise, the Hare-like Achilles can’t catch up to the Tortoise (who has been given a head start) because every time Achilles reaches the spot where the Tortoise was, the Tortoise has moved on. This is the problem of accomplishing an infinite number of tasks in a finite amount of time. Somehow we do it every day (but if you really think about it your brain hurts). The Tortoise development process, creates dichotomies every step of the way: Design, Development, Test, Release, Post Release, et etc. Dichotomies are full of infinite regressions and thus are never finished.

The Monkey won the race because he used an Agile development process. First the Monkey took a prioritized subset of from the list of infinite tasks (and every project has a never ending number of bugs and feature requests) and delivered them to the Fox (Product owner) as working software. It was was rough but the Fox had the results in plenty of time to give feedback and course corrections. Thus the Monkey was not subject to the Law of the Handicap of a Head Start. Second the Monkey kept repeating these short sprints of implementing the high priority tasks and getting feedback on a real working system so that as the goal moved she could quickly change course. The Monkey development process, done right, treats every sprint as a whole, where no dichotomies are created. The software is released to the user, it does what it does, feedback is gathered, and the process is repeated until a winner is declared.

Managing the De-Motivated


It still amazes me how a process created by engineers for engineers can make so many engineers so unhappy.

I’ve seen all kinds of responses to Agile from engineers. Some are immediately enthusiastic. Others are cautiously optimistic. Many are amused and cynical. And some are down right hostile. Over time the responses polarize and the body of engineers undergoing an Agile process split into two camps: Those for whom Agile is working and those for whom it isn’t.

I’d like to point out that I’m not talking about Fragile (Waterfall Agile) or Badgile (just a plain bad Agile implementation). Fragile and Badgile don’t work for anyone, not the Agile fanboys nor the management types that mistakenly create these processes. (If your boss says, “Agile yes, but we must have controls!” then you’re headed down the road to sadness.)

Unfortunately in my experience there are really good engineers out there for whom Agile in all its manifestations, from Scrum to XP, just doesn’t work. I’ve done a fair amount of work to figure out why and what to do about it. I’m going to use Scrum in my examples but this isn’t a problem of flavor. However you enact the principles the problems are the same for this segment of the engineering population. Also note this isn’t a generational thing. Agile-challenged engineers come in all shapes, sizes, sexes, IQs, and ages.

The top four reasons why Agile doesn’t work for some engineers:

  1. You have to like to talk to people. Engineering as a profession self-selects for people who find human-machine interactions more interesting then human-human or human-animal interactions. People who like to talk to people become salesmen or lawyers not programmers. But for some engineers human-human interaction is down right painful. If you are not into face-to-face communication Agile is not for you.
  2. You have to need and accept help. I love to remind people that intelligence is a side effect of evolution not its goal. (The gold of evolution, if there is one, to enable a species to adapt to a changing environment. Intelligence is just one experiment in adaptation and probably not the most successful one since it’s only worked for one species.) I’ve found that some really intelligent engineers are so smart that it’s difficult for them to accept help (like a prioritized backlog or a bug report) from people they view as obviously less intelligent. You can call this arrogance but then would Mozart have accepted help on his symphonies?
  3. You have to embrace change. Many people from all walks of life have difficulty handling change—rapid or slow. They just don’t like the idea that the world they have finally gotten used to and mastered no longer exists. Some of these change-adverse people happen to be engineers. You can spot them easily. They are programming in languages and paradigms that are no longer on the leading edge. I often have to say to them: Yes, you can still write desktop applications but nobody under 40 is going to care.
  4. You have to like focusing and working on a schedule. Whether your sprint in two weeks or two months isn’t important. What is important is that you stick to it—even it means, and it usually does, modifying your work to fit the time window. For the Agile-challenged engineer this is a blasphemy akin to chopping eight inches off the left side of the Mona Lisa. They see their software as a whole that isn’t finished until it is finished. Scrum’s timing boxing technique is admittedly arbitrary. The creative process cannot be bounded by deadlines without losing its integrity. At least that’s their argument. I see it differently, and can give lots of contrary arguments, but rational argument has little impact on personal preferences. These engineers find sprinting to be stressful where the Agile-friendly engineer finds sprinting to be liberating.

At the end of the day it’s a waste of time to force people to do something they simply don’t want to do. Unenthusiastic people need to find something they are truly enthusiastic about. There is nothing wrong with the Agile-challenged. They are master craftsmen, they are very smart, they are mavens, and they are artists. So what is an Agile organization to do with them?

The first thing to do is get them out of Agile. These engineers are wasted on Scrum and will simply quit and make a lot of other miserable on their way out. Smart unhappy people can make a lot of mischief!

The second thing to do is to create a lab, give them a mission, and turn them lose. It’s interesting to note that many of famous labs in the history of computation have been notoriously bad at implementing and productizing their creations. Xerox Parc invented most of what we use when we use personal computers yet it is in decline. It’s too bad that Xerox Parc didn’t merge with Apple or Microsoft, organizations that are good at creating markets and feeding them incremental improvements. Instead Apple and Microsoft developed R&D labs of their own so that they have a never-ending fountain of new ideas and home for their dreamers.

You can’t and shouldn’t manage the lab with Agile techniques and you must not staff it with Agile-friendly engineers. The engineers who thrive under Agile get lost in lab, their ideas can’t compete with the Leonardos and Michelangelos.

In the end the secret to managing the de-motivated is finding a place for them in the organization where they are motivated to be. Agile is great but it cannot be applied to all problems.