Scrum Roll, Please

On the role of scrum masters in mobile app development.

To varying degrees, every app I’ve worked on professionally in six years of iOS development has implemented a form of agile software development. Hell, the first ones even named themselves after it and managed to win an Apple Design Award. The majority of my employers have opted to use scrum (or some quasi-holy bastardisation of it) as their agile practice, and as such I’ve been starring in bi-weekly episodes of Scrumdog Millionaire for several years now.

With the exception of my rather lovely current employer, those teams have hit the ground scrumming (FYI: probably going to be a few more of those, and FYI: not sorry) and operated without a scrum master. They / we managed this with varying degrees of success, with results ranging from the nerdy teenagers who shampooed the carpets and upgraded the family PC while their parents were at work to some marauding toddlers who daubed the walls with red crayon and peed all over the carpet when their poor mother looked away for two minutes.

I was recently given the opportunity for the first time to contribute to the interview process for a scrum master in recruitment. The team on my current project had been flying by the seat of our collective pants and the need for someone to take the administrative load away from our product owner was growing.

(A brief aside on scrumban that I don’t quite understand: isn’t it just as hard to go the wrong way on a conveyor belt as it is to climb back up a waterfall? What problem is it solving?)

The preliminary stages of this chap’s interview had already been completed by tech leads and product managers, but a few of the rest of the team were enlisted to comment on whether he seemed like he could be a fit culturally. The hour or so we spent in conversation left me wondering what exactly a plain ol’ mid-level team player developing a mobile app wants (and needs) from a scrum master. Or, at least, what this one wants!

I don’t completely know what a scrum master should be doing, and that’s kind of intentional. I’m sure a lot of what I’m suggesting below may well overlap with the product owner role, but in a happy scenario, I’d think of the role thusly:

A good scrum master hides away all the shit you don’t care about, waits until the right time to tell you about the shit you do care about, and finds ways to help you do what you do better.

I don’t need another boss or leader, God knows we all have enough of those. I don’t need another product liaison, keeping the business echelons connected to us through someone that knows better than to show them anything in a monospaced font lest their heads explode in abject terror at seeing the nuts and bolts that keep the customers clicking Complete Order.

I need someone who, when I’m backed into a corner by an API team refusing to use modern standards, or a copywriter making consistent grammatical errors in user-facing copy, or a marketing team who insist on using push notifications for purposes which aren’t permitted by Apple, will take the fight to them.

Someone who will take what we’re doing and the way we’re choosing to do it as their banner, and will plant it outside whichever keep or castle we’re trading with (or even invading).

Someone who will give us healthy outlets for the inevitable frustrations we all suffer professionally, and allow us to propose our own solutions to those problems. Post-It’s are great. Typing them all up into Notes and leaving them there is where the process falls apart. The catharsis of a good moan might’ve worked, but we’ll be moaning about the same things in another fortnight if those actions aren’t moved forward.

Someone who will help keep us afloat in an ocean of external factors, but will shield us from the irrelevant and inconsequential. Who’ll let us know that the third version of an API is coming in September, and we’ll need to be there, or that the new TV ad campaign goes live in twelve weeks and we’d better be in a stable state by then.

Someone that will help us decide how to prioritise and give us warning about what’s currently out of sight, but will never impose prioritisation upon us.

Someone that will remind us why we’re working when the odds aren’t in our favour, and will help us turn that tide. Who’ll isolate our grievances and not promise solutions, but encourage us not to give up.

Someone that will take the woods, and help us see the trees. That will encourage us to plan ahead, set out our route through the forest, and ensure we get out at the other side in good time and with smiles on our faces, lessons learned.

In short: a scrum master seems to me in many ways like a parent. Patient and understanding, offering a guiding hand where needed, but trusting his or her charges to walk on their own, be it through life, or through agile software development.

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