Johnny Two Hats

Life as a part-time Scrum Master

I split my time at work between two roles. I’m a Scrum Master for an agile feature team, and I’m also a developer within that same team.

I came to my current company as a simple software developer. But when the Scrum Master role in my team became vacant I stepped forward to take on the role - as a temporary measure. That was around 2 years ago…

And why would I do such a thing? Well, I was fairly new to agile when I arrived at the new job, and what better way to bring myself up to speed? I saw it as a great opportunity to accelerate my learning, get to know some of the people outside my team (and my current specialism), and present myself with a fresh challenge.

So, what’s the good news?

Working these two roles within the same team gives me an excellent perspective. I’m responsible for championing and developing the agile process within the team. And I get to experience the results of the improvements first hand.

The role also allows me to enjoy a wide variety of tasks day-to-day. This means I have to be versatile and flexible, and develop a cross-functional skillset. You may have heard about the T-shaped person. As a part-time developer, part-time Scrum Master, I’ve found it a natural fit to be a sometime tester too. And it makes it easier to extol the virtues of being T-shaped to others when you practice what you preach!

For me, personal organisation is the key to success. And this is an area in which I’ve had plenty of opportunity to improve! If you’re not able to manage your time between the two roles, you could end up letting down twice as many people…

Not a walk in the park then?

Not always. At a cognitive level, one aspect of the role can often end up at odds with the other. I have to consciously take off my “developer hat” to consider a problem as a Scrum Master. It isn’t easy to facilitate a retrospective and take an active part in the meeting. As much as I’m learning about the agile process, are my technical skills eroding as a result?

Likewise, the workloads aren’t always complementary. They don’t always intersect in a nice clean way. And this comes back to the point about self-organisation. You need to be able to switch contexts between the two streams of work, otherwise your 50-50 workload split will end up being 60-60, or worse!

The variety of responsibilities can also affect the way you work with others. For example, pair programming becomes a different beast. Your irregular workload guarantees that you’ll be working at a different cadence to your fellow developers. This means there’s a risk you’ll end up hindering rather than helping. (In my team, we use various collaboration techniques other than the traditional driver-navigator. It gets around the problem, and works well for us.)

Will it blend?

The general feeling in the wider agile community seems to be that part-time Scrum Masters don’t work out. My opinion - you have to look at each situation but so far I’ve found a happy balance between the two sets of responsibilities. Your mileage may vary. I’m lucky - where I work at NewVoiceMedia, I have the support of an excellent Scrum Master community. We constantly teach and coach each other, and I’m always learning something new. And crucially, despite the fact that they’re all full-time, and I’m only a part-time Scrum Master, I never feel less than a full member of the team.

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