by Sarah K. White

What is an agile coach? A valuable role for organizational change

Aug 08, 2018
CareersProject Management ToolsSoftware Development

An agile coach helps organizations implement the agile methodology by developing agile teams and facilitating the organizational culture change necessary for sustained agile success.

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Credit: Thinkstock

What is an agile coach?

Agile coaches help train corporate teams on the agile methodology and oversee the development of agile teams to ensure effective outcomes for the organization. They are responsible for guiding teams through the implementation process and are tasked with encouraging workers and leadership to embrace the agile method. The agile coach’s ultimate goal is to arm agile teams with the right knowledge, tools and training so that they’ll be able to use agile to its full potential.

“Our work as coaches is to understand where the teams are in their journey and to offer the right approach to support their growth. Our agenda is improvement. We do that by bringing the right questions, providing good mental models, challenging people in their thinking and guide them towards building great products for our customers,” says Fabiano Morais, a delivery coach — an alternative title for agile coach — at Envato.

Organizational benefits of an agile coach

Implementing agile can help streamline processes, but it isn’t easy to make significant changes in an organization. Encouraging everyone to get on board with a new methodology requires significant effort on the part of management.

“Having a coach in place to give guidance can help a team navigate through the rough patches in the early period when the team or management questions the value of agile,” says Minh Le, managing director of TINYpulse, where they hired an agile trainer to work with individual teams.

An agile coach will keep businesses on task while they embark on building internal agile development teams — which can help save time, money and resources. The coach serves as an objective party to help navigate common roadblocks and pain points in the adoption process. Before they leave, the goal is to have a fully functioning agile team that is energized and ready to embrace the methodology.

The agile coach role

The role of agile coach can be temporary or permanent, depending on the organization’s needs. Larger businesses, with multiple agile teams might want to keep an agile coach on staff to help oversee the methodology long term, but the position is typically temporary or contracted. For most businesses, especially midsize and small organizations, it’s more useful to hire an agile coach on a contract basis to help get an agile team up and running, later parting ways once everyone has adjusted.

Agile coaches aren’t just responsible for organizing an agile team; they also help the company embrace agile as a culture shift. To properly implement the methodology, an agile coach needs to encourage buy-in from employees and key stakeholders.

“Agile is primarily a cultural change. It is a tectonic shift from command-and-control management practices to collaborative, team centric environments. Nurturing an organization through this shift requires someone with a depth of agile experience and great influencing skills,” says Alan Zucker, founding principal of Project Management Essentials. Zucker worked closely with agile coaches to help develop agile teams at a Fortune 100 company.

Agile coach specialties

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy for agile adaptation, so each company will have unique needs in the process. To help fill these diverse needs, there are three types of agile coaches, according to Payscale:

  • Technical coaches: Technical coaches work closely with developers and typically have experience with coding and integration, since they’re necessary skills when working with the dev team.
  • Process/management coaches: Process or management coaches focus more on establishing leadership for agile teams and overseeing successful adoption of the agile method.
  • Non-directive coaches: Non-directive coaches offer individualized support for people or organizations looking to solve specific agile-related problems.

Some businesses might want an agile coach with a strong technical background, while others might want someone who can get leadership to embrace the change. As businesses continue in their agile strategies, some will want to consult an agile coach for one-off issues or questions that arise.

Agile coach responsibilities

Agile coaches pull from their own background in project management, IT and other related fields to understand what will work for the business. Since some employees might be unfamiliar with agile, it’s important to focus on the fundamentals and to make the agile framework accessible to everyone.

“Part of [the job] is leveraging our experience and teaching the basics to bring people up to speed with an agile way of working,” says Fabiano Morais, a delivery coach at Envato.

As an agile coach, you’ll need to have strong communication and interpersonal skills, since you’ll be working closely with employees across the entire company, including leadership. Chances are, you’ll find it difficult to convert some workers to the agile methodology. In these instances, you’ll need to know how to navigate the corporate culture to help the organization realize its goals.

“A good coach knows how to work with the team and the leadership to change the environment. Managers and management is often quietly resistant to agile because it fundamentally challenges their power and control. The coach works with the leadership to see the future and be patient along the journey. The coach also works with the team to help them transform to being self-managing and accountable. These are big changes,” says Zuker.

According to PayScale, the most common responsibilities for an agile coach include:

  • Coach agile teams in the methodology
  • Integrate related methodologies within the company
  • Develop standards and requirements for the agile process
  • Provide training to employees on the agile process
  • Help teams navigate agile tools and software
  • Encourage employee and stakeholder buy-in

The most important skills for an agile coach include:

  • Strong understanding of Scrum and Kanban
  • Experience as a Scrum master or with the agile methodology
  • Knowledge of agile software development
  • Strong communication and problem-solving skills
  • Interpersonal skills and patience

Agile coach salary

According to PayScale, the average salary for an agile coach is $122,426 per year, with a reported salary range of $84,360 to $158,463 per year.

Similar job titles include:

  • Enterprise agile coach: $121,992 per year
  • Lean coach: $99,584 per year
  • Senior agile coach: $131,547 per year

The cities with the highest paid agile coaches, according to reported salary data, are:

  • San Francisco, CA: $141,043 per year
  • Boston, MA: $143,379 per year
  • New York, NY: $136,526 per year
  • Washington, DC: $137,588 per year
  • Atlanta, GA: $124,153 per year

Becoming an agile coach

To become an agile coach, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field — the degree program you choose will depend on your career goals. IT, development, project management or a similar discipline can give you a good start. Once you’ve earned your degree, you’ll need to gain experience working as a Scrum master or project manager.

The role of Scrum master might seem similar to that of an agile coach, but it’s more of an entry-level role. Working as a Scrum master will help you learn the ins and outs of the agile methodology and the intricacies of agile teams. It gives you a chance to encounter real-world issues, understand the organizational structure and work with agile tools and software. Once you’ve gained enough experience, you can move on to apply for agile coaching roles that will allow you to make use of your skills and background.

As an agile coach, you can work with a company that offers agile training services. Alternatively, you might decide to work as a consultant, offering your skills and expertise to different clients. Companies also hire for the role directly — you’ll find job openings for agile coach, lean coach, agile product owner, enterprise agile coach and other similar titles.

Agile coach education and training

There are different paths to earning the right education and training to become an agile coach. If you’re looking into degree programs, you’ll want to stick to something in IT or a related field. A background in project management and business will also be useful.

Beyond traditional degree programs, there are plenty of online and in-person courses that will help you build the skills to become an agile coach. Here are some programs available to help you get up to speed on agile coach skills:

Agile coach certifications

An agile coach certification will help validate your skills in the field, further legitimizing your abilities. Here are three certifications specifically designed for agile coaches:

There are also a number of relevant agile certifications that aren’t specifically tailored for the role of agile coach, but are helpful for building out your agile skillset on your resume.

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