The Secret to Finding a Job as a New Scrum Master

It appears to me there are more jobs available for Scrum Masters than ever before!  Why is it so hard for some people to find employment with Agile teams?

The problem is entirely predictable.  And for those eager to work in Scrum teams, the answer is also predictable.  I’ll explain.

Having taught Scrum to more than 2000 people, I have ongoing dialogue with many former students who are struggling to find opportunities to serve Agile teams and gain experience as a Scrum Master.  I have struggled to understand this dilemma because my experience was very different – I learned of Scrum in 2007 and simply asked my workmates:

“Would you like to try Scrum…I could be our Scrum Master?”

Unanimous reply: “Yes!”

That is not the common experience.  Many organizations are willing to send their staff to Scrum training for the sake of ‘Professional Development’ but only some of those organizations intend to develop Agile teams.  That pattern has created the current condition in which many recently-trained Scrum Masters are eager to apply their new knowledge but do not have organizational support to do so.

I opened my inbox today to a question from a former student of my Scrum class.  Let’s call her Jane:

“Hi David, I wanted to get your advice on a dilemma I have. I’m back on the job market and several companies are looking for Scrum Masters which is great to see.  I was in your CSM course last year and would love to work with a Scrum team…but I didn’t have the opportunity with my former employer.  How can I gain experience if all the available jobs require 2+ years experience?  What advice do you have for me?”

Jane is not alone.  The job market (today at LinkedIn) offers 591 positions in Canada for keyword ‘Scrum Master’ – and all that I’ve scanned require 1 or more years’ experience in the role.

In contrast to the dilemma described above, I have a totally different problem: I am contacted a few times per month by recruiters and hiring managers who ask me if I’m looking for a new contract.

Where’s the welcome mat for newcomers?  Do jobs exist for enthusiasts with no prior experience?

I believe so.

The dynamics we’re observing in the job market for Scrum Masters are well described by Everett Rogers in his paper called “Diffusion of Innovations” (1995).  You may recognize his theory by the following bell curve:

Scrum Innovation has Achieved Early Majority Adoption

I assert that Scrum has achieved “Early Majority” market penetration. And you might be asking what evidence I have to support that claim – of course, other than the fact that opportunity knocks frequently at my door but never at Jane’s.  I’ll describe the patterns I’ve observed in the market.

The authors of Scrum (Ken & Jeff, and others) were the Innovators.  When I first took on the role of Scrum Master (2007), knowledge of Scrum was limited to a few enthusiasts and early adopters.  Worldwide, a few thousand had learned of Scrum; in Canada, perhaps a hundred or so.  None of my friends or workmates had prior knowledge of Scrum; there were no job advertisements for Scrum Masters; there were no public training classes; many of the well-known books on the subject had not yet been written; and there was exactly one Certified Scrum Trainer in Canada: my colleague, Mishkin Berteig.

By 2012, awareness of Scrum was spreading.  It was a buzzword among start-ups and software development firms and a few brave souls were socializing the practice in large enterprises.  Despite the increasing awareness, the number of people who had served as Scrum Master in a proper Scrum team was, I’d estimate, less than 100 in Canada.  Yet, anyone with “Scrum” on their resume was considered rare and hiring managers among the early minority adopters were eager to snap them up.  A swell of “Agile Coach” contractors was starting to emerge and anyone willing to hang that shingle was considered an expert.  I’d argue their enthusiasm often out-weighed expertise but it was a new frontier after all and sheer enthusiasm counted for a lot.

By 2014, I noticed 2 patterns emerge.  First, young tech companies in Canada (the ‘early early adopters’) were no longer hiring Scrum Masters.  They considered Scrum expertise (or willingness) an obvious requirement of all new hires – like table-stakes.  Second, large enterprises were starting to post job advertisements for Scrum Masters.  These two patterns infer that the ‘late early adopters’ were onboard.

By 2016, evidence of ‘early majority’ adoption was mounting.  I received frequent requests to speak at hospitals, marketing agencies, industry events, ‘Leadership’ seminars.  Our federal Government departments started recruiting, not only Scrum Masters, but Product Owners too.  Small armies of young MBA grads were being sent by their big consulting firms to my Scrum classes to “get certified”.

So, in 2018… Jane is certainly asking “what does it mean for me?”  Well, it means there’s more opportunity than ever before.  That is certainly true and awareness and demand for Scrum continues to grow.  It also means I see a vast landscape of opportunities, but Jane sees closed doors – unfortunately for her.

There’s good news in this story for Jane… I promise!

Let’s think about the mindset common among the ‘early majority’ adopters. They are risk-averse, but not so much that they ignore market opportunities.  They live by a simple rule: “the 2nd mouse gets the cheese.”  They watch the early adopters carefully hoping to spot advantageous patterns.  (Scrum is one of those.)  And when they see a trend, they don’t pounce on it immediately – remember, they’re pragmatic.  They will want to hire Scrum Masters, but they’ll be careful about it: perhaps they’ll hire contractors rather than commit to full-time/permanent roles; perhaps they’ll require 5+ years’ experience hoping to acquire one of the early adopters who helped prove the efficacy of the new method; perhaps they’ll train internally hoping to gradually adjust and minimize disruption.  They’ll be reluctant to “take a chance” on a new hire without proven experience.

Those pragmatic habits of the early majority adopters make it difficult for them to hire Jane.

5 to 10 years from now, Jane’s job search may get a lot easier. Why?  Let’s think about the mindset common among the ‘late majority’ adopters.  They are risk-averse – to the point they ignore new trends and look instead for so-called “best practices”.  These organizations are doubling-down on Waterfall right now and sending their staff to PMP exam-prep courses.  They still think Scrum is a buzzword.  But they’ve taken note when Brian Porter, the CEO of Scotiabank said publicly, “we’re in the technology business. Our product happens to be banking.”  They’ve felt some shock when Alex Benay, CIO of Government of Canada talks about agile procurement and relentless incrementalism.  They will start hiring Scrum Masters when they’re shown evidence that Scrum is teachable, repeatable, reliable, and so-called “normal”.  They will believe (and trust deeply) that the community has developed well-established and standard methods which can be taught and learned systematically.  They’ll find the senior practitioners too expensive; and they’ll look to less experienced practitioners, like Jane, as a bargain.  They’ll be less concerned about in-the-trenches experience and more interested in industry norms.

Those risk-averse habits of ‘late majority’ adopters will make it easy for Jane to find employment – unfortunately though, the salary range is likely to be average at best.

(Let’s not discuss the Laggards today – they’re just funny.  They’re the reason your office still has a fax machine and your car still has a cigarette lighter.)

Jane!  I promised good news. Here it is…

Even at this stage of ‘early majority’ adoption, you’ll find some people who are on the edge of innovation.  Look for those enthusiasts and visionaries!  You’ll not find them easily in the big employers (banks, telecoms, etc.)  You’ll find such people in start-ups, small tech firms, product companies.  Those organizations are not looking for the stodgy corporate mindset – they’re eager to find other enthusiasts and they’re willing to take a chance.  They’re more interested to forge new paths than to follow others – so they’re excited by Jane’s willingness to forge her own new path and they’ll want to help her!

So, what if Jane herself is not ready for that level of risk?  Well, on one hand I feel every Scrum Master must develop high risk-tolerance.  But I understand not everyone starts there. Jane might seek the sense of job security and stability common in large enterprises.  In that condition, my advice to Jane would be: consider taking a job as not a Scrum Master but as a team member.  If you’re a Project Manager or Developer, or Business Analyst in the past, hunt for those opportunities then look for ways to transition into a new role.  That is, after all, the type of pragmatism the enterprises (early majority) appreciate.

Happy job hunting!

***
Thanks to Massimo for the conversation we had on the train yesterday.

Thanks to Brian.

Thanks for Valerie who reviewed and helped improve the article.


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Towards a Culture of Leadership: 10 Things Real Leaders Do (and So Can You)

This article is adapted from a session proposal to Toronto Agile Conference 2018.

Leadership occurs as conscious choice carried out as actions.

Everyone has the ability to carry out acts leadership. Therefore, everyone is a potential leader.

For leadership to be appropriate and effective, acts of leadership need to be tuned to the receptivity of those whose behaviour the aspiring leader seeks to influence. Tuning leadership requires the ability to perceive and discern meaningful signals from people and, more importantly, the system and environment in which they work.

As leaders, the choices we make and the actions we carry out are organic with our environment. That is, leaders are influenced by their environments (often in ways that are not easily perceived), and on the other hand influence their environments in ways that can have a powerful impact on business performance, organizational structures and the well-being of people. Leaders who are conscious of this bidirectional dynamic can greatly improve their ability to sense and respond to the needs of their customers, their organizations and the people with whom they interact in their work. The following list is one way of describing the set of capabilities that such leaders can develop over time.

  1. Create Identity: Real leaders understand that identity rules. They work with the reality that “Who?” comes first (“Who are we?”), then “Why?” (“Why do we do what we do?”).
  2. Focus on Customers: Real leaders help everyone in their organization focus on understanding and fulfilling the needs of customers. This is, ultimately, how “Why?” is answered.
  3. Cultivate a Service Orientation: Real leaders design and evolve transparent systems for serving the needs of customers. A leader’s effectiveness in this dimension can be gauged both by the degree of customer satisfaction with deliverables and to the extent which those working in the system are able to self-organize around the work.
  4. Limit Work-In-Progress: Real leaders know the limits of the capacity of systems and never allow them to become overburdened. They understand that overburdened systems also mean overburdened people and dissatisfied customers.
  5. Manage Flow: Real leaders leverage transparency and sustainability to manage the flow of customer-recognizable value through the stages of knowledge discovery of their services. The services facilitated by such leaders is populated with work items whose value is easily recognizable by its customers and the delivery capability of the service is timely and predictable (trustworthy).
  6. Let People Self-Organize: As per #3 above, when people doing the work of providing value to customers can be observed as self-organizing, this is a strong indication that there is a real leader doing actions 1-5 (above).
  7. Measure the Fitness of Services (Never People): Real leaders never measure the performance of people, whether individuals, teams or any other organization structure. Rather, real leaders, practicing actions 1-6 (above) understand that the only true metrics are those that provide signals about customers’ purposes and the fitness of services for such purposes. Performance evaluation of people is a management disease that real leaders avoid like the plague.
  8. Foster a Culture of Learning: Once a real leader has established all of the above, people involved in the work no longer need be concerned with “safe boundaries”. They understand the nature of the enterprise and the risks it takes in order to pursue certain rewards. With this understanding and the transparency and clear limits of the system in which they work, they are able to take initiative, run experiments and carry out their own acts of leadership for the benefit of customers, the organization and the people working in it. Fear of failure finds no place in environments cultivated by real leaders. Rather, systematic cycles of learning take shape in which all can participate and contribute. Feedback loop cadences enable organic organizational structures to evolve naturally towards continuous improvement of fitness for purpose.
  9. Encourage Others to Act as Leaders: Perhaps the highest degree of leadership is when other people working with the “real leader” begin to emerge as real leaders themselves. At this level, it can be said that the culture of learning has naturally evolved into a culture of leadership.
  10. Stay Humble: Real leaders never think that they have it all figured out or that they have reached some higher state of consciousness that somehow makes them superior to others in any way. They are open and receptive to the contributions of others and always seek ways to improve themselves. Such humility also protects them from the inevitable manipulations of charlatans who will, form time to time, present them with mechanical formulas, magic potions, palm readings and crystal ball predictions. Real leaders keep both feet on the ground and are not susceptible to the stroking of their egos.

If you live in Toronto, and you would like to join a group of people who are thinking together about these ideas, please feel welcome to join the KanbanTO Meetup.

Register here for a LeanKanban University accredited leadership class with Travis.


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