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Interviewing Scrum Master: Ines Stuppacher

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april 08, 2016

The digital revolution is inseparable from the use of agile solutions. A framework within this agile world is Scrum, with the Scrum Master playing a vital role. Ines Stuppacher, Scrum Master at Valtech Germany, gives insight into a position not many women occupy. Why is that?

We're in the middle of the digital revolution and the catch phrase agile methods keeps coming up. Can you briefly explain what is behind all this?

Agile is an umbrella term. Agile comes from Latin and means swift or mobile. With regard to software development, the word stands for a flexible and iterative approach. Agile methods and practices help carry out projects with imprecise requirements. This approach works really well, not only in software development but in product development, too. If I utilize agile methods, I can react quickly to the changing circumstances in the market – which is essential for a company’s survival in today's digital world. In direct opposition, we have the so-called waterfall model, where a comprehensive catalogue of requirements, determined beforehand, is processed gradually. As bugs or aberrations are usually only identified after this lengthy process, it is difficult to incorporate changes retroactively.

What's the demarcation of Scrum?

Scrum is the framework for an approach in agile software development. At the same time it is a tool to change organizations from within. Its most important aspects are work in self-organized interdisciplinary teams, continuous process improvement and close cooperation with the client and their frequent feedback.

So what is a Scrum Master?

The Scrum Master holds a leading role in Scrum. He assists his team during a sprint – which is a pre-determined period of time during which a Scrum team develops the solution to a certain task. As "Servant Leaders", Scrum Masters remove internal and external obstacles for their teams. They make sure the team has enough space to work productively, they cultivate customer relationships and they support their team during their reflection on work methods. However, they do not assign tasks to individual team members. Actually, the name Scrum “Master” is a little mis-leading as there are no hierarchies as such within an agile working team. After all, good Scrum Masters work on making themselves redundant. They make sure individual team members don't carry the entire workload or become subordinates. They open doors for their team's work and are more like coaches, really.

How did you become Scrum Master?

Initially, I studied Media Engineering where I only encountered classic “waterfall” project management. Afterwards I joined RTT AG (now 3DExcite) where we actually did agile work already, although we didn’t call it that. Eventually, we wanted to try out Scrum and someone on the team was bound to be Scrum Master. Since I am a good organizer and had already been keeping track of the entire project, I was chosen. And so, I became Scrum Master for a seven-member team. Today, I work for the full-service digital agency Valtech. At the moment, I supervise two teams and, additionally, I work as agile coach and in the agency's innovation lab.

What training to you need to become a Scrum Master?

There are two-day-courses at several institutions after which you can call yourself Certified Scrum Master. Yet, of course, that’s not enough to actually do well in this job. You should get plenty of hands-on work experience, read a lot and keep completing training courses. At Valtech, we introduced a frequent “Agile Practice Meetup” in addition to the trainings, during which we can exchange experiences regarding our projects and the different methods. Unfortunately, agile methods are still not integrated and practiced at universities today – given the reality of the digital revolution, I find this quite tragic. However, in my opinion, no recent university graduate should work as Scrum Master right away; it is important to gain experience working in an agile team beforehand.

Do Scrum Masters need to know how to code?

No, although it does help if the Scrum Master has a general understanding of the technical requirements of the team. Yet, programming skills are not really necessary. Therefore, theoretically, people with all sorts of training can become Scrum Masters. A lot can be picked up in everyday project work. In reality, though, Scrum Masters are often developers on the team. Of course this constellation isn't ideal, as it diminishes the necessary distance to the project.

What fascinates you most about your job?

A Scrum Master focuses on their team, and every team is different. We have to make sure our colleagues can work well and thus need to gather all the necessary information for them as well as collecting regular feedback from the client. Scrum Masters have to deal with people, they are moderators and should make sure their team members have enough space for development – they might even have to draw more reserved team members out of their shells once in a while. You have to be able to motivate others, since with Scrum, teams have to work on their own responsibility, and that isn’t everybody’s thing.

What I find fascinating, apart from working with people, is the bigger context of Scrum, the transformation towards an agile corporate culture and the changes of organizations, especially with regard to digitalization. This requires a mindset change in all employees, which is a long process. I find it very appealing to participate in the creation of the digital revolution as Scrum Master.

You once tweeted: “and why do scrum masters not get any training in psychology or sociology or educational science? #scrum is supposed to be about people“ – as a result you didn't only receive friendly comments. What do you think about that?

I still think it would be really important to emphasize social skills in the Scrum training. This is a leadership task and clearly a digital leadership topic, although a Scrum Master has completely different functions than a project manager.

Where is the difference between the Scrum Master and the classic project manager?

Generally, a project manager assigns tasks to the members of his team and has to take responsibility for the adherence of the stipulated targets. However, Scrum Masters help their teams to work on their own responsibility and then take a back seat. In agile teams or organizations, there are only flat organizational structures. Therefore, challenges arise if classically trained project managers suddenly need to work agile: they have to learn to trust their team and to give individual members more leeway. The concept is not easy to grasp and even harder to implement – reverting to old habits is a real concern there.

Could you describe a typical workday?

Every day is different. Yet, there are many routines in the Scrum cycle. Every morning, there is a so-called “Daily” with every team to discuss the day's tasks. Afterwards, I often meet clients or talk to the team to clarify any unclear matters or prepare tasks for the upcoming sprints. Every two weeks, there is the so-called review with the clients. The review takes place after a sprint and provides the client with an insight into the results; the client can then regulate and intervene via their feedback. On this basis, the team then plans another sprint with the client, which I moderate. After the sprint comes the retrospective, where I support the team as they critically reflect of their own process and agree on measures for their improvement. This is a very important ritual in Scrum, giving the team the opportunity to continually improve together.

Why are there only few women who occupy this position?

Surely it’s connected to the fact that there are fewer women in IT and software development as it is. The function of Scrum Master is probably even less well known in other industries, so today, Scrum Masters are mostly developers. From an outside perspective, they are not perceived as the most communicative bunch. Yet the job is very attractive for female talents, since it requires many qualities, which are traditionally female.

Which qualities make a good Scrum Master?

Qualities such as communication skills, conflict management and organizational skills are very useful, and you have to be able to deal with feedback and criticism. As Scrum Master, you often need a certain rigor and staying power so issues don't peter out and you keep track of several projects at a time. In short, Scrum Masters should be able to organize themselves and others while maintaining transparency, openness and respect in the team.

You also work as agile coach. What are your tasks?

As agile coach, I don't work on concrete projects, rather I help with the introduction of agile methods – both, for customers or within Valtech. For this purpose, I organize workshops, hold training sessions and I help uncover problems in processes or organizations and subsequently find solutions.

In your free time, you are actively socially involved. Amongst other things, you are a mentor at the university in Landshut and you travel to Cambodia on a regular basis to support a relief project there. What drives you?

I like to spend time with other people and change things for the better while advancing myself and supporting the potential of others. For me, these things fit together really well.

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