Successful ScrumMasters are coaches, communicators, problem-solvers, and servant leaders. But are they technical and do they need to be? There is no easy answer to this question and there are varying opinions regarding how important core technical skills (ex. software development) are to becoming a successful ScrumMaster. There should be clear agreement; however, that it is always beneficial for a ScrumMaster to be open to learning the level of technical skills that will help him/her be a true servant leader.
Let’s take a look at this topic a bit more as it relates to Scrum’s Three Pillars of Empirical Process Control–Transparency, Inspection, and Adaptation.
“To make decisions, people need visibility into the process and the current state of the product. To ensure everyone understands what they are seeing, participants in an empirical process must share one language.” 1
To have true visibility into the process, the ScrumMaster may need to understand some technical aspects of the product. The ScrumMaster’s ability to communicate and listen more effectively is enhanced with understanding product-specific terminology, developer tools, and system architecture. The team is more efficient when each member has, at minimum, a basic understanding of the technical specifications and can communicate with a shared language. Developers will be more comfortable and willing to come to the Scum Master to discuss impediments or questions if they feel like they will be understood. And, the ability to legitimately empathize with developers can also help to bridge any communication gaps with the product owner.
“To prevent deviation from the desired process or end product, people need to inspect what is being created, and how, at regular intervals. Inspection should occur at the point of work but should not get in the way of that work.”2
Scrum events like Sprint Reviews & Retrospectives become more meaningful if the discussions are centered on tangible ways to improve and not just going through the motions. If the ScrumMaster is the facilitator for these discussions, it’s beneficial to have a basic understanding of the technical aspects of the product. This understanding can help the ScrumMaster dig deeper and ask probing questions to urge a more detailed discussion or root cause analysis within the team.
“Adaptation means that when deviations occur, the process or product should be adjusted as soon as possible.”
ScrumMasters are arguably more adaptable and nimble problem-solvers if they have a basic knowledge of the technical components of the product. Since Agile is an iterative process, changes to requirements are welcomed, even in late stages. The ability of the team to adapt efficiently to changing requirements is no doubt enhanced if the ScrumMaster has some technical knowledge. And that knowledge may be no more than just a strong and clear understanding of the product.
To sum up, there is no mandate for a ScrumMaster to be technical in order to be successful; however, a level of technical expertise can certainly help with communication, adaptability and overall credibility with the team. The team will certainly appreciate when the ScrumMaster takes steps to listen and learn about the product and associated technical specifications. It’s also important to remember that each sprint and product is different so the level of technical knowledge needed may differ as well. The key is for the ScrumMaster and team as a whole to be open to continuous learning and willingness to communicate.