What is a Scrum master? A key role for project success

With agile fast becoming standard practice at most companies, scrum masters are in great demand. Here is a look at the Scrum Master role, relevant certifications, expected salaries and career opportunities.

What is a Scrum master? A key role for project success
Thinkstock

Scrum is a powerful framework for implementing agile processes in software development and other projects. This highly adopted framework utilizes short iterations of work, called sprints, and daily meetings, called scrums, to tackle discrete portions of a project in succession until the project is complete. There are three key roles within Scrum: Scrum master, product owner and Scrum team members.

Scrum master definition

The Scrum master is the leader of a Scrum team and is responsible for championing a project, providing guidance to the team and product owner, and ensuring all agile practices are followed by team members. The Scrum master not only addresses all facets of the agile development process but also serves the business, product owner, team and individuals and facilitates communication and collaboration between all these elements.

Scrum master role

Because the role is at the nexus between the business, product owner, agile team and individuals, the Scrum master’s responsibilities will vary depending on the unique needs of each business and team. Some Scrum masters also serve as a team’s project manager. Some also fill the role of an organizational agile coach. Others do not.

Scrum master responsibilities

Generally, Scrum masters fulfill the following responsibilities, as laid out by The Scrum Guide by Ken Schwaber:

  • Leading and coaching the organization in its Scrum adoption
  • Planning Scrum implementations within the organization
  • Helping employees and stakeholders understand and enact Scrum and empirical product development
  • Causing change that increases the productivity of the Scrum Team
  • Working with other Scrum Masters to increase the effectiveness of Scrum in the organization

Scrum master vs. project manager

There may be some confusion about the role and responsibilities of a Scrum master vs. a project manager. While, as mentioned, a Scrum master may also fulfill the role of a project manager, here are key differences in the roles and responsibilities of each.

Advertisement

  Scrum master Project manager
General role
  • For projects using agile methodologies, a Scrum master is a key role. He/she plays the role of a facilitator and coach for agile development teams in ensuring products are delivered on time with the quality specified.
  • For most types of projects, a project manager takes the lead role in all project phases and activities, including planning, leading, managing, monitoring, and closing of projects.
Responsibilities
  • Support product owners throughout product development.
  • Lead Scrum meetings and provide team support during sprint planning and execution.
  • Provide coaching to agile teams.
  • Ensure agile principles are followed.
  • Assist teams with prioritizing and managing of sprint backlog to ensure timely and accurate product delivery.
  • Help teams deal with any barriers to successful delivery.
  • Identify and document business and project requirements, plans, and progress.
  • Determine, document, and manage the scope of a project, tasks, milestones, timelines, the budget, and resources.
  • Lead and mentor project teams.
  • Determine and assign tasks and priorities.
  • Allocate, monitor, and manage project resources.
  • Set, monitor, and manage project timelines.
  • Manage project quality parameters.
  • Develop strategies for managing risks, as well as risk tracking.
  • Manage all stakeholders and their expectations.
  • Communicate task, milestone, and project progress and changes to relevant stakeholders.
  • Ensure project goals are met.
  • Close out projects and activities.
  • Identify lessons learned.

Scrum master job description

At a more granular level, a Scrum master’s responsibilities and tasks differ depending on which team members they’re working with:

  • At the business level, the Scrum master creates a development environment that is creative, safe, productive and supportive and enables multi-directional collaboration.
  • At the product owner level, the Scrum master facilitates planning and helps product owners understand and adhere to Scrum techniques and practices.
  • At the team level, the Scrum master provides guidance, coaching, support and facilitation, and helps remove any obstacles that teams may encounter along the way.
  • At the individual level, the Scrum master supports individual efforts, addresses any issues that arise, and removes obstacles to help individuals be focused and productive.

Scrum master certifications

Two well-recognized organizations, Scrum Alliance and Scrum.org, offer Scrum training and certifications.

Scrum Alliance, established in 2001, is one of the more influential organizations in the agile community. It is a nonprofit association with more than 500,000 certified practitioners worldwide. The Scrum Alliance offers the following Scrum certifications:

  • Certified ScrumMaster (CSM): CSMs “act as ‘servant leaders,’ helping the rest of the Scrum team work together and learn the Scrum framework.”
  • Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO): CSPOs are “individuals who are closest to the ‘business side’ of the project. They are charged by the organization to ‘get the product out’ and are expected to do the best possible job of satisfying all the stakeholders.”
  • Certified Scrum Developer (CSD): The CSD certification “exposes students to the most important tools and techniques that need to be applied in order to build good software in the iterative and incremental fashion that Scrum requires.”
  • Certified Scrum Professional (CSP): A CSP “challenges Scrum teams to improve the way Scrum and other Agile methods are implemented for every project.”

Scrum.org was founded in 2009 by Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland, the originators of Scrum, as a “global organization, dedicated to improving the profession of software delivery by reducing the gaps, so the work and work products are dependable.”

Scrum.org offers Professional Scrum Master (PSM) certifications at three levels:

  • PSM I: PSM I certificate holders “prove they understand Scrum as described in the Scrum Guide and the concepts of applying Scrum.”
  • PSM II: PSMII certificate holders “prove that they have an understanding of the underlying principles of Scrum and can effectively apply Scrum in complex, real-world situations.”
  • PSM III: PSMIII certificate holders “have a deep understanding of the application and practices of Scrum and the Scrum Values in a variety of complex team and organizational situations.”

For more information, see "Scrum master certification: Top 9 certs for agile pros."

Scrum master salaries

Based on findings by the Project Management Institute’s “Earning Power: Project Management Salary Survey, Tenth Edition,” project managers working in agile/interactive/incremental project management/Scrum earn:

Years Experience Percent Respondents 25th Percentile Median 75th Percentile Mean
None 31% $85,000 $106,000 $130,000 $110,319
1 to 5 49% $91,000 $132,063 $114,522 $142,816
6 or more 20% $104,000 $125,000 $149,000 $128,128

Scrum master jobs

Since Scrum can be applied to virtually any organization, Scrum masters are in high demand as companies continue to look for ways to get their projects completed and their products to market faster. In fact, according to LinkedIn’s “Most promising jobs of 2017,” job openings for Scrum masters grew 104 percent year-over-year from 2016, and the career advancement score is 8 out of 10. These findings are based on the potential for career advancement, job growth, and salary. Research from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that, in 2018, demand for certified Scrum masters grew 24 percent.  

Project management offices (PMOs) or product development departments within many business sectors hire Scrum masters to streamline their software development processes. This can include software, healthcare, aviation, technology, engineering, construction, real estate, publishing, financial, marketing, manufacturing, education, insurance, government, and others.

The following four job boards provide a good starting point for those seeking a new job as a Scrum master:

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

Survey says! Share your insights in our 19th annual State of the CIO study