Do Scrum Masters/Agile Coaches need a technical background? – Part 2

In the first part I gave a short answer to this question. I have also wrote here  and here  about the nature of the Scrum Master.

Now I’ll try to give the long answer:

A person asking this question lives in a certain context. In that context, certain events pop up, events that trigger this kind of question. Different answers might appear, answers that are based on premises. Sometimes, those premises are not made explicit, because not everything which is implicit can be made explicit.

For me, this question activated multiple dimensions in my mind: Scrum, Scrum Master, XP, XP Coach, technical background meaning, agile coach meaning, team maturity, processes/management, complexity, utopia/ideal. So:

– Scrum Master, as it is defined in the Scrum guide(1), doesn’t have any activities regarding technical stuff that need to be made. The SM has to take care of how Scrum is applied, and make sure it is made according to the Scrum guide, so no technical background is being mentioned;

– Scrum wants to be a more general purpose framework for developing (complex) products. For example, regarding software products, Scrum does not address anything regarding  technical aspects nor does it prohibit any such aspects – actually it borrowed a lot from XP;

– XP(Extreme Programming) came with the idea of a coach(2) first, even before the scrum master was defined(*). XP was designed especially for software development work. It contains specific technical activities connected in a special way. It’s not like one chooses a technical activity at the expense of another one;

– A coach in XP had to defend the process, but the process is quite different: the coach must help the team maintain the disciplines(pair programming, refactoring, metaphor, continuous integration…). This position would be a rotating one meaning that the coach needs to be someone who knows how to apply what he defends, not just by using words/encouragement/…;

– XP has the same non-technical “protocol” as Scrum;

– Maturity of the team: This is an important detail. Reality seems to give us lots of surprises, challenging ones. This means that an immature team can pose difficult challenges. If the team is mature enough then SM/Agile Coach is no longer needed or is only partially needed, so in the rest of the time, he/she can help other projects or do actual work in the same project;

– Agile Coach: This is, for me, a very abused title. I’m sure that there are damn good agile coaches out there, but most of the time, I only see fake/charlatans/unprepared/naive agile coaches. When I read Agile Coach, I thought of XP, because this role is explicitly mentioned there. Now I know that not everyone can be like the agile signatory guys, or like the grandfather of agile Jerry Weinberg, or like Allen Holub, or like Jim Coplien, … but they do raise the bar for a person calling himself/herself an agile coach. I cannot accept that an agile coach doesn’t know about the work of all the people who were there in Snowbird in 2001;

– Process, management: It seems that in management, after so many years of agile, there is a tendency to put process first and people second, when it should be the other way around( of course ontology matters, but what I see is that there is always a single and identical ontology approach). In Scrum, the role of a SM can be filled in by anyone, I say this having in mind that this role is not so restrictive/specific/targeted like for an XP Coach. I am so tired to see/hear this scenario: “As long as a person is able to speak about processes/platitudes/nonsense, but in a very well masked way, that person is good enough to be a SM. The discourse is not aligned with the aptitudes.” → unfortunately, because of this, SM became, at least in my circles, ridiculed.  I am very well aware that the problem is not Scrum but how it is applied. Maybe all this is deliberate, I mean why “sacrifice” a good developer, when some unskilled, but good with processes person can be put as SM/Agile Coach.

Moreover, SM are actually in management position, seen as PM – if this is ok or not is a different story, but it is happening;

– Complexity: XP and Scrum offer different conceptual boundaries. This means that also actions will differ.

– Technical: For me, initially, technical referred to the programming stuff beneath a software project. But, maybe, the “technical” word is actually about:

  • what SM/Agile Coach can do to help actively(within a specific task or story) the team in their work;
  • how to get the information directly via his/her skills;
  • special work without which things would not be ok, but which is very close and very important to programming, like testing(Rapid Software Testing).

This means “technical” might be translated as being aware of the technicalities of each discipline in delivering the needed work.

– Utopia/Ideal: There are too many discussions about the ideal situation, ignoring the crude reality/present. Maybe the focus/managing should be on the present, the situated present(3), and this might influence what a SM/Agile Coach should actually do, instead of doing just what is prescribed in some guides. If this means being proactive, go beyond what he/she knows, have initiative, try to understand the details of the work of his/her team, do some work on the project then why not…

Conclusion: What I have tried is to show the multiple dimensionality of this problem. It’s not easy: we have history, methodologies, management, processes, reality/multi-ontology, utopias, expectations.

We have to see beyond a certain guide, or  methodology, or situation. A SM/Agile Coach has a special role/meaning/importance in and for a team. The “Master” title means mastery, leading, experienced, great, cognoscente; a “coach” means teaching, training….We need to face the reality and see what works and what doesn’t and respond accordingly. How can a SM/Agile Coach respond to the multi-ontologies if he/she is not prepared? Yes, I am raising the bar because I saw too many clown SMs or Agile Coaches that follow a certain recipe and respond with platitudes and say “that’s it, my job is done”.

So, Does a Scrum Master/Agile Coache need a technical background?

I would say yes, among other things. Can I accept the fact that there can be exceptions ? Yes, but I hope that the SM/Agile Coach can really make up the lack of technical background with other skills.

(*)Update February 25, 2018: I made a mistake above in the sentence “XP(Extreme Programming) came with the idea of a coach(2) first, even before the scrum master was defined. ” . → Thank you Jim Coplien for your feedback:

Well, no. Scrum had the ScrumMaster role in 1994. Mary Rettig was the first ScrumMaster and it was at Easel Corporation.

XP didn’t even exist until quite a few *years* later.

(1) Scrum Guide,

(2) Robert C. Martin, “The Agile Team”,

(3) Dave Snowden, “Managing the situated present”,

A fallacy when estimating in Sprint Planning

Usually, in sprint planning comes a moment when developers and testers have to give an estimation. After the tasks seem to be clear, the testers and developers give their corresponding story points. What seems strange to me was the fact that these estimations are calculated and a single number is created.

For me, this approach seems like comparing apples with pears and then generating a number.

I imagine a lot of agilists will say that this is working. I would say: maybe. What gave them the impression it works? Well, I saw that human nature is capable to cope with formal non-sense, so that, then, informally, make it work, one way or another. Why? Well, because, sometimes, a lot of energy is lost in convincing some people of some strange truths. Truths that are not in trend but for the moment might seem easier to cope with. Why? Well, because of laziness, fear, workload, or just because it’s safer….

For me, developers and testers worlds are very different. Yes, these worlds can intersect somehow, but they are still very different like two oceans uniting/meeting each other.

For a developer, when he/she knows what to solve and how to solve it, the task is easy, and the code is written. That code should behave in a deterministic manner. The developer might write unit tests and/or integration tests – from a tester perspective these are automated checks not tests(1). And when I say developer I am thinking of an XP developer, of a developer who should aim at what Uncle Bob says(2).

For a tester things are different. Although things might appear to be clear for the same story, we might deal with non-determinism. When I say tester I am thinking of a tester who is part( consciously or unconsciously) of Context Driven Testing(3) school, for example a Rapid Software tester(4). Testing actually poses a need for a very different skillset because the problems the tester encounters have a different nature, compared to the ones a developer faces. So even if a developer has modified just one line of code, a tester can spend days and days if she/he decides to make a deeper testing, and not just a shallow one. Why? Because the code is, usually, surrounded by a larger code context that might affect the stability of the product. But if is just one line of code, why would it take a lot of time? A small cause can have big effects. For example, does the developer know with great precision all the details, internal technical details of the code? A simple data type problem can cause one of the strangest and ugliest effects and it all starts from just one line of code.

Therefore, I think we should be careful what we do, and we shouldn’t be reluctant to raising questions, even if we might be wrong. I consider this approach of combining numbers that mean different things, a fallacy. For me, this is an oracle(5) to spot the problem and, why not,  I have a name for it: Two oceans integration.

(1) James Bach, “Testing and Checking Refined“:

(2) Robert C. Martin, “The Programmer’s Oath”:

(3) Context Driven Testing:

(4) Michael Bolton, “What Is A Tester?”:

(5) Michael Bolton, “Oracles from the Inside Out, Part 1: Introduction”:

Agile Project Manager?

In 2001, in Snowbird, when Agile was defined  there were also representatives  from FDD(1), DSDM(2) you can see it in agile manifesto history (3).

Try to search for Project Manager in the FDD and DSDM references….

So, if I am following a good logical deduction actually “Agile Project Manager” should make sense. I think Agile Project Manager does not make sense because we are still not able to transcend certain things.

Now we’re still speaking in terms of Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches and …. unable to accept things which existed from the beginning and still exists, if I can say so.

I wonder how many of so called agile folks know/read/understood or even applied  FDD, Crystal, DSDM, XP….

Side note: When I speak or hear discussions about Scrum, especially when Scrum Master(s), Scrum Coaches, PO’s, management people are present, these 3 words pop into my head: “complex adaptive problems”(4). These three words combined in this way is a condensed information of an entire discipline. Are they aware of this? If yes, should this be seen in their actions?

(1) FDD:

(2) DSDM:

(3) Agile Manifesto, history:

(4)  Scrum Guide: