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Scrum Masters in Black

I’ve been asked a lot about how to recruit good Scrum Masters. There is a shortage of experienced  Scrum Masters in South Africa and as a result many companies are looking to hire people without experience but who are a good fit for the role. The tricky part is identifying what those people look like. Then I rewatched Men in Black… This is going to sound weird, but in the first part of the movie, Tommy Lee Jones is recruiting his replacement. He needs someone who will be good at the job, but the very nature of his job (policing aliens) means that no one has any experience.

They put a group of candidates through 2 tests.

In the first test, all the candidates sit in really uncomfortable chairs, with no writing surface. They give them a form to fill in and a very breakable pencil. Will Smith eventually gets fed up of this, sees the table in the middle of the room, and proceeds to drag it to his chair so he can write without breaking his pencil. He removed an impediment.

In the second test, all the candidates enter a shooting range with a number of aliens doing various things, and a little girl carrying Quantum Physics books. All the other candidates shoot all the aliens. Will Smith pauses, looks around and then shoots the little girl between the eyes. When asked to explain he finds non-obvious reasons why the aliens are not a threat, but that fact that a small girl is carrying books clearly too advanced for her age is suspicious. He is observant, and is prepared to accept that things are not how they seem on the surface.

It struck me that both of these characteristics are what I look for in Scrum Masters. It made me think that regular interviews are not going to help find a good Scrum Master. Instead of getting them to talk about what they might do, you need to get them to do it. Role playing is a great technique to use in an interview. Sam told me about a Scrum Master interview she attended where they gave here a difficult scenario to facilitate to get consensus within 20 minutes.

The key to hiring a good Scrum Master is seeing them in action. Let them attend a team standup and tell you what they observe. Ask them to facilitate a meeting, or deal with a conflict between two people. Let their actions speak for them.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Karen,
    I really (sadly) enjoyed this post (feeling vindicated a bit). I am trying to become a coach and have 20 years experience in IT, but none in Agile. I have been really struggling with the fact that people don’t want to hire me as a coach because I don’t have experience on a Scrum team. They don’t see me in action – it never gets that far. I will become a coach, and I will stick with my own consultancy rather than be someone’s employee – unless I can find that magical mythical organization that has a view as holistic as yours. After all, I can point anyone to all my activities, my reading and volunteer work that I have invested myself in while on sabbatical. I am totally immersed right now in agile learning, organizational change, self-improvement (being coached myself), volunteering in the agile community, communicating with thought leaders, blogging and other ‘proof’ that my heart and soul is in this. I’ve even had the requisite Scrum and Kanban training. I may end up not even doing coaching consulting for IT orgs and agile projects, though that makes most sense – just because of the types of narrow views the most hirers have. If they cannot see me more in depth and what I am capable of, then how do they handle development of people on their teams.. it doesn’t quite add up! Thanks for your post!

    April 9, 2012
    • Glad you enjoyed the post. If people don’t ask to see you in action, offer it to them. Deal with their concerns head on (openness) when you send out your resume with a paragraph explaining you don’t have experience on a Scrum team, but give them reasons they should give you a chance. Offer to facilitate a team retrospective as your interview. Be different. Be outrageous. Someone will notice. There is a good chance they will be the people you want to work with. Good luck!

      April 10, 2012
  2. Ray Robertson PM #

    Hi Karen

    I’m trying to become proficient in Scrum. I have read several articles by various people, reamed through a few books and trawled over countless posts. I have come to the conclusion there is very little to it, in fact, the whole purpose is, there is very little to it. Every author, analyst and Dr of Information Technology would like to add a little snippet, a little piece of themselves, but that’s not what Scrum is about. The methodology of Scrum is brilliant, the idea being scrape off the stagnant layer of BS on the top and get to that glorious red wine underneath. It takes a leap of faith by employers, but those (employers take note) that have are smiling now..
    The responsibility of knowing your the best is not yourself, but the hirer. Sure you can help the suits along, throw in a couple of big words, maybe even bring them an apple, but in the end if they did not do their homework then why would you want to work there ?
    I love the “Scrum Masters in Black” it’s definatley the best post I’ve seen in a while.

    Is “The Devil’s Advocate” a little closer to Scrum management ? I particularly like the quote “ when you give a little squeeze some people stand to attention and others crumble and fall” (this quote has been modified to protect the innocent) maybe that’s a little archaic and extreme, but you get the general idea.

    To sum up. My interpretation is Scrum is an excellent management system that allows you to gather up all of the Scrum tools, then dispense with the tools that are not needed allowing you to concentrate on the requirements of the particular project at hand. More or less is more or less the same except less is quicker.

    Ray Robertson

    May 28, 2012
  3. Interestingly enough, I have had a different experience. On returning from the UK after 12 years, with 6 years scrum experience, I was unable to secure an interview. The reason been that I didn’t have a scrum master certificate.

    November 22, 2012
    • Yes sad but true. Recruiters (and employers) have equated Scrum Master role with CSM. My personal goal is to educate the market a bit more so we can start seeing effective Scrum Masters rewarded and sought after rather than people who have attended a two day course.

      November 22, 2012

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