5 Questions to Ask a Scrum Master Before Joining a Startup

The Scrum Master role was ranked tenth in LinkedIn’s 2019 list of the most promising jobs, which is unsurprising given the ever-increasing popularity of the Agile methodology and the Scrum framework. This recognition highlights the value of Scrum Master professionals in today’s workplace, as well as the need for organisations to adopt Agile and Scrum as part of their business strategy.

The 2019 Scrum Master Trends report reveals that the use of Scrum is gaining traction in small-to-medium-sized businesses, with 34% of scrum masters currently employed in organisations with less than 1,000 employees. This figure indicates the widespread adoption of Scrum among businesses of varying sizes, highlighting the potential benefits that Scrum can bring to any organisation.

As startups gain traction and move beyond the seed stage, the need for a professional Scrum Master often arises due to the lack of effective communication and collaboration between software developers and business stakeholders. A Scrum Master can help to bridge the gap between these two groups and ensure that the project is completed efficiently and effectively.

As a scrum master, it is essential to be able to differentiate between startups that will offer a beneficial and rewarding experience, and those that may be more challenging. To ensure that prospective employees are presented with an accurate representation of their work environment, five key questions should be asked during the interview process. Doing so will create a realistic understanding of expectations and provide a better understanding of the startup culture.

Why not hire a Scrum Master rather than a Project Manager?

By posing this inquiry, the potential scrum master can gain a more comprehensive comprehension of the role’s obligations. For instance, a recently formed company may require direction on how to put Scrum into practice so as to deliver their minimum viable product (MVP). It is of paramount importance for the scrum master to be aware of the scope of the work and the startup’s level of Agile maturity as soon as practicable—ideally, even during the interviewing process.

In order to ensure the success of a startup team, hiring an experienced scrum master is often beneficial. This individual can provide insight into how the team can reach a higher level of performance, and help to identify areas that need improvement. Additionally, it is important to explore the team’s level of cohesion. Are they working together effectively and organising themselves appropriately? If not, it is important to identify the underlying causes of the issue and devise solutions to address them.

The interviewer is seeking to understand the expectations for the Scrum Master role. A Scrum Master should not be a manager who tells the team what to do, rather they should act as a servant leader; creating an atmosphere of collaboration where the team can work autonomously. It is the role of the Scrum Master to recognise and leverage the strengths of each team member, so as to help the team reach their goals in the most effective way possible.

People unfamiliar with Scrum may confuse the two roles. If the founders observe that the development process is inefficient, disordered, or difficult to understand, it could be an indication that the startup requires an Agile Project Manager to arrange the work and collaborate with other teams, or a Product Owner to prioritise the development tasks.

As a Scrum Master, it is essential to determine whether a project or product role must be filled for the development team to operate effectively and for the Agile transformation to be successful. Taking this step will ensure that the team is able to work cohesively and complete the project in a timely manner, thereby ensuring a successful transition to the Agile methodology.

Prior to signing any contractual agreement, it is important for those aspiring to become a Scrum Master to identify potential risk factors that may lead to the setting of unrealistic expectations. By doing so, they will be able to take proactive measures to ensure the successful completion of the project. One such measure is the hiring of a Project Manager or a Product Owner to help manage the project and ensure that expectations are met.

How Do Startup Founders Lead?

It is essential for the candidate to understand the leadership style of the startup’s core group. The scrum master should coordinate with the startup’s management on a weekly basis in order to gain a deeper understanding of how the founders operationalize their vision. Such insight will better equip the applicant to effectively manage stakeholders.

It is important to initiate the conversation by inquiring about how the firm was established and what some of the initial challenges were. Most entrepreneurs are eager to share their experiences, however, they may only focus on the resolutions and results. It is beneficial to encourage interviewees to elaborate on the obstacles they faced and how they resolved them by asking follow-up questions. For example, what other alternatives were taken into consideration? Who proposed the ultimate solution and who made the final verdict? These questions will help to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the situation.

Look for the following qualities in a potential startup founder:

Some company founders may have a strong technical background and focus primarily on the architecture and design of the product, but lack the organisational abilities necessary for the successful management of a business. If the business is still in its early stages, it is possible that some of the founders are performing development work themselves. In other cases, they may be resistant to change and express frustration toward the Scrum Master, who is urging modifications to their existing approach.

Scrum Masters may come across non-technical founders who are more focused on “achieving results.” Although they may have a clear idea of the product’s goal, they might end up assuming the roles of a Product Owner without being familiar with the principles of Agile. This can then lead to mistakes such as introducing new elements into a sprint or not investing sufficient time into verifying product assumptions. It is therefore essential for Scrum Masters to ensure that non-technical founders are adequately educated in the fundamentals of Agile.

The Scrum Master should be cognizant of the potential traits that may arise in order to gain insight on how to effectively modify their strategies in the future. Being aware of these potential characteristics as soon as possible is essential in order to successfully cater to the needs of the team.

The Value of Founder Sign-On

The Agile methodology values teamwork, constant learning, empowerment, and customer interaction. It does not follow a traditional hierarchical management structure and instead gives employees the autonomy to make decisions without relying on their supervisors. Therefore, it is important for Scrum Masters to emphasise that the adoption of Agile requires a shift in organisational culture. It is also essential to analyse the attitude of the company founders to the idea of relinquishing some control in exchange for increased team empowerment.

How does your software development process look right now?

The purpose of this query is to assess the startup’s level of technological adaptability. If the interviewers refer to any Scrum rituals, it is prudent to ask further questions to gain a more thorough understanding of these ceremonies.

Despite the fact that Scrum promotes multi-disciplinary teams, in practice this is not always the case. A scrum master at a larger company may be responsible for overseeing multiple teams of highly experienced personnel. However, at smaller organisations and startups, the scrum master is often required to perform a variety of roles. In certain situations, the scrum master is expected to take part in such activities as requirements analysis, functional testing, and other software development tasks.

It is imperative to gain an understanding of the current composition of the development team. It is especially important to identify whether there is a senior developer on the team, as their expertise is key to the creation of a dependable software product. Additionally, it is essential to inquire about the team’s quality assurance procedures, code reviews, and testing practices. This information will assist a Scrum Master in evaluating how much time they should allocate to the technical aspects of their role, taking into consideration their own professional experience.

Do employees receive feedback on a regular basis?

As a Scrum Master, it is important to foster an environment where team members can thrive as agile professionals. Unfortunately, start-ups often lack the necessary structures and systems in place to ensure that team members are receiving feedback on their professional and soft skills. It is therefore important to discuss this during the interview process, to gain an understanding of the expectations from the business founders in terms of how much engagement and involvement they or their colleagues may need to put into place these feedback channels. By doing this, it will result in more meaningful team growth.

In contrast, the applicant may discover during the interview process that certain official and informal feedback mechanisms are already in place. For example, the team might meet for cocktails every few weeks to discuss how they are performing as a group, or the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) might conduct annual or quarterly evaluations with developers to help them advance professionally. By discovering and understanding these efforts, the candidate will be better equipped to develop their own feedback systems. Rather than having to create a framework from scratch, it is far simpler to suggest enhancements to an existing one.

What is the mentality of your organisation?

This question is of great importance during any job interview, but it is particularly relevant for a potential Scrum Master. Agile is not merely a project management methodology, but a way of approaching tasks that involves focusing on the overall project rather than individual components.

Adopting an Agile mindset requires a shift in attitude, with the emphasis being placed on collaboration between the customer and the team, as well as being prepared to adjust to any unexpected changes. The Agile Manifesto is a great starting point when transitioning to this methodology, as it outlines the core principles and values of Agile.

The Scrum Master plays a vital role in leading the transformation of the corporate culture, and the interview process provides an ideal platform for initiating this process. Rather than simply understanding the current corporate culture, this question enables the interviewee to start actively changing the culture.

A successful transition to an Agile methodology does not necessarily have to involve a drastic transformation of a startup’s culture. However, it is important to recognise that certain adjustments or improvements may be necessary in order to accommodate the new values associated with Agile. By discussing these changes as part of the interview stage, the role of the scrum master can be more effectively established. Often, companies are looking for scrum masters to help them become more agile, so it is likely that they will be open to a certain degree of cultural change. If any issues arise during the process of implementing these modifications, the scrum master can refer back to the conversation held during the interview.

Find the Perfect Position for Your Strengths

Prior to joining an organisation, a competent Scrum Master must take the time to ask pertinent questions and thoroughly assess the current state of the company before making any decisions. Doing so will ensure that the Scrum Master is fully aware of the current situation and can make an informed decision.

As a Scrum Master, it is essential to ensure that the founders of the startup have a clear understanding of agility and the areas in which their involvement is most necessary. This will enable the candidate to identify if their skill set is suitable for the tasks at hand. To facilitate this process, here are the top five questions to ask:

  1. Why do you employ a scrum master rather than a project manager?
  2. How would you describe the founders’ leadership style?
  3. How is your software development process currently configured?
  4. How often does staff receive feedback?
  5. What kind of culture does your company have?

A successful scrum master should have the capability to evaluate a startup’s requirements and comprehend when a project manager is more suitable than a scrum master. It is important to be aware of the scope of responsibility and not to assume additional obligations that are not within the purview of the role. Answering these questions should give an overview of what to expect when working with a startup.

The applicant will be able to assess any technical gaps that the scrum master may have and whether they have the necessary skills to address them after thoroughly reviewing the development methodology. Further, an in-depth investigation into the team’s current employee feedback processes will reveal any easy opportunities for professional development. Ultimately, conversations about the founding leader’s leadership style and the business culture can help to align expectations and prepare the start-up for the mentality shift needed during the agile transformation.

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