Should a Scrum Master Be “Technical”?

This is a pretty popular question in Scrum circles that recently came up on LinkedIn (again).

In order to answer this question, I believe we first need to define terms “Scrum Master” and “technical”.

Merriam-Webster provides this as a definition for the term technical, “having special and usually practical knowledge especially of a mechanical or scientific subject” while the Business Dictionary provides the following for its definition, “pertaining to computers or technology”.  For the purposes of this post and in the context of Scrum as a process framework for the development of software products, technical, will simply mean “understanding the technologies and being able to engage in the software development activities involved in the process of creating software products”. Technical, is not a synonym for “software developer” or “computer science major”.

For the definition of Scrum Master, we don’t have to look any further than the Scrum Guide which provides us with the following as it relates to the Development Team:

The Scrum Master serves the Development Team in several ways, including:

  • Coaching the Development Team in self-organization and cross-functionality;
  • Helping the Development Team to create high-value products;
  • Removing impediments to the Development Team’s progress;
  • Facilitating Scrum events as requested or needed; and,
  • Coaching the Development Team in organizational environments in which Scrum is not yet fully adopted and understood.

I highlighted “helping the Development Team to create high-value products” because it stands out separately from “coaching the team”, “removing impediments” and “facilitating events like retrospectives, refinement, and standups”. What does it mean for the Scrum Master to “help the development team create high-value products”? Pretty vague, isn’t it? It would seem to me that the interpretation is largely left to the Scrum Master (and the Development Team) on what help they can provide. In my opinion, helping includes the Scrum Master to directly engaged in the value creation process.  In other words, the Scrum Master can directly act on the software product as its being developed. (For what it’s worth previous versions of the Scrum Guide said something much stronger when it came to helping the development team: https://webgate.ltd.uk/scrum-guide-2013). In helping the team, the Scrum Master still needs to respect the empowerment given to the Development Team.

I don’t know how a Scrum Master can effectively engage in core software development activities without understanding what’s going on from a technical perspective. In the Scrum community, there is a ton of focus on coaching, facilitating and removing impediments. I have no intention to diminish the importance and necessity of these activities but these activities do not act directly on the product that is being created.

I don’t see a lot of conversation around how the Scrum Master can help with the core activities of software development if need be.  In fact, I read many posts that seemingly discourage Scrum Masters from becoming directly involved in value creation. It’s taboo to ask (for example) if a Scrum Master can test, write stories or even code if need be. I’ve interviewed many a Scrum Master who didn’t really care about how things really got done or worked because they believed that this needn’t be a concern of theirs or as they often put it, “I’m not technical and I was told during my training that I didn’t need to be”.

Maybe we’re compensating for bad practices we observed such as the making of the Lead Developer a part time Scrum Master. However, I don’t believe that we effectively address dysfunction by reinforcing other dysfunctional practices.

So, should a Scrum Master be technical? I believe the answer is yes but that is only if the Scrum Master wants to be able to help act directly on the software product being developed. Otherwise, the answer is obviously no. I encourage all the Scrum Master’s I work with to be as technical as they can comfortably be.  As a Scrum Master, the choice is ultimately yours.

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