The rocky job market of the last couple years has left many people looking for a new place of employment, either by choice or as part of staff reductions. For job seekers in the software industry, this can be an opportunity to consider joining an organization that specializes in Agile software development using one of the popular Agile frameworks such as Scrum. Agile organizations, with their commitment to Scrum values of trust and transparency, understandably have more appeal than the traditional command-and-control, hierarchical company structure.
But while help wanted ads asking for “experience with agile software development” or “Certified ScrumMaster” are growing more common, not all companies seeking Agile team members are alike. Some have misguided ideas about what it means to be Agile. Others are doing their own particular “variation” of Agile that feels decidedly non-Agile to experienced practitioners. Knowing your own desires, being honest about your experience, and looking for warning signs can help you choose an Agile team member position that will be a good match for your expectations and skill set.
Before you begin your search for an Agile organization, there are a number of considerations to keep in mind:
Get the training
If you are looking for a Scrum leadership or coaching position, you’d better be a Certified Scrum Master (CSM) with significant experience. Even for other positions within an Agile organization, such as team member, it can be the CSM certification that gets you through the first culling of applicants. ScrumMaster certification is overseen by the Scrum Alliance, a non-profit, guiding organization that manages Scrum education and outreach. CSM courses are taught by Certified Scrum Trainers, whose courses are strictly monitored for content and quality. Many Agile employers consider the CSM certification to be a minimum standard. Experience is important, but keep in mind that your resume has to make it past Human Resources to even be viewed by a hiring manager. A resume lacking the CSM credential may be eliminated from further consideration before it even gets in front of the right people.
Decide how much of a project you are willing to take on
It is a fact that some people enjoy “fixing disasters” and some do not. Many companies do not turn to Scrum until they are overwhelmed with problems. Do you want to take on a company that is in distress, knowing that it may be too far gone to fix? Are you willing to go into an organization as the single person on staff who knows anything about Scrum and build a knowledge base from the ground up? Or would you be more comfortable in an organization that has established Scrum teams? Being realistic about your own desires and abilities here is key. Do not bite off more than you can chew. Turn-around stories are possible, but they are not for beginners unless you have the help and support of an experienced Agile coach.
Be open-minded about who is “Agile”
There is a belief that certain industries and types of companies are automatically Agile while others are not and never will be. However, agility is not a characteristic of industry but rather of individual organizations and the teams within them. Scrum has enjoyed widespread success in business, in no small part because it can bring value to businesses of all kinds. Companies in such diverse areas as financial services, oil and gas exploration, and government service (yes – government!) have enjoyed success with Scrum. Going to work for a small start-up in no way guarantees that you will be working in an Agile environment.
Remember, the interview is a two-way street. The hiring team is trying to decide if you are a good fit for the available position and for their culture, and you likewise are trying to judge if the opportunity is the right move for your career. Because of this, don’t be afraid to ask questions that will help you judge if this Agile opportunity is right for you.
Judge Their Commitment Level
“How long have you been doing Scrum?” “How many people have been to training?” “How many teams do you have?”
The answers to these questions will help you judge the organization’s adoption level, so you can match it up against your own expectations. In particular, it would be good to know how many people in the organization have been to training. While it is possible to learn the basics of Scrum from reading about it, novices who do not go to training often end up doing “ScrumBut”, meaning a weakened, less effective version of Scrum.
If the company has provided training for at least some staff, are they actually using it? Many companies like the “idea” of doing Scrum but when it comes time to put the training into practice, they seem always to be “thinking about it” and never actually doing it. Ask how many active Scrum teams they have at the moment. A company that claims to be “doing Scrum” should have one or more teams engaged in building products using the Scrum framework.
Identify Their Organizational Impediments
Ask everyone you can this question point blank: ‘What do you see as your biggest challenges to doing Scrum well?” Ideally, ask the question individually to each person you interview with. You are looking for specific information here. First, if you are being considered for a ScrumMaster position, you are going to be first in line helping to resolve those impediments, so they should be problems which you are comfortable taking on. Second, you are looking for patterns. Does everyone more or less agree on the main problems? Or does it sound more like a blame game where each person is convinced it is someone else’s fault that Scrum is not working? Paying attention to the answers from this question will give you a sense of the organization’s true impediments, even if no one explicitly mentions them.
Evaluate the Scrum roles
Try to get a sense of how well the Scrum roles are being filled by those currently in active projects. The self-managed team is the cornerstone of Scrum and all Agile software development. Try to determine if their teams know how to self-manage yet. If possible, ask to sit in on a Daily Scrum. Look for teams taking ownership, making and meeting commitments. Likewise, ask about the Product Owner(s). The Product Owner is the individual on a Scrum project who works with stakeholders to determine the priorities for the product. Product Owners are critical to the success of Scrum. Find out if the Product Owners have been to training, if they take the job seriously, and if they are working in tandem with teams and ScrumMasters to create the best products possible.
Finally, who currently fulfills the ScrumMaster role(s)? Does the organization under-stand the difference between the ScrumMaster and project manager roles? Some companies slide PMs into the ScrumMaster role without ever changing the organization’s expectations for them. PMs drive people and process, and usually have ultimate authority over the success of the project. ScrumMasters drive organizational change and own the Scrum process - they have authority over no one. An Agile organization should understand this.
Check for Leadership Support
This is another question you can ask flat out of each person you speak with during your interview. A great way to get a sense of their commitment to Agile is to identify the highest ranking person you interview with and ask that individual to explain, in their own words, why they want to do Scrum and why it is important to the company’s future. An executive who truly understands Scrum and has the patience to spread it throughout the organization will have a thoughtful and personal answer for this question. Managers who are chasing the “flavor of the month” management buzzword may answer that “it is the hot thing to do now” or “everyone’s doing it”. If the exec you question answers “Because we need to get releases out faster”, probe a bit more. Creating software faster is a side-effect of Scrum, not its sole goal. Far more important are raising software quality, improving predictability, and adding features based on business value. If a company has weak software development practices and puts out releases riddled with bugs, working faster will only get more bugs released into production code sooner.
Don’t Be Afraid to Say “No”
Not every job is a good match for every person. Be willing to walk away from an Agile position that is a poor fit. It can save you the trouble and consequences of having to say “I changed my mind” later, and walk away after only a few weeks on the job. It is often said that Scrum is “simple, but not easy”. Organizations differ widely in their commitment to learning Scrum principles and putting them into practice. The key to finding the best next step in your Agile journey is to find a good match between your expectations and those of your employer.