Scrum Diffusion of Innovation

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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