Perhaps you are thinking about becoming a Scrum Master (SM). Maybe your organization has recently embraced Scrum and is just learning to be agile. Or maybe you are a Scrum Master already and deal with complex technicalities on an everyday basis. Whatever your situation is, you are facing the question of whether you need to have the technical knowledge to be a good Scrum Master.
The short answer you are looking for is “No.”The long answer involves diving into a role of a Scrum Master, so you can understand why Scrum Masters do not need to be technical to fulfill their role well and why having technical skills can be (dis)advantageous.
Who is a Scrum Master?
According to the Scrum Guide (updated in 2020), Scrum Master is a non-technical role. As the name suggests, they are the masters of Scrum—they know the framework, values, and principles very well and ensure that their team (Product Owner and Developers) follows it, too. They are responsible for the effectiveness of practicing Scrum by their team.
Apart from being the masters of the Scrum framework, you will also come across another term: “Servant leaders.” The philosophy of servant leadership is based on a belief that the most influential leaders strive to serve others rather than seek power and control them. This philosophy is firmly embedded in the role of a Scrum Master. As an SM, you will be a facilitator of principles and values and a coach to your team members; you will be helping them remove impediments and never try to manage either of them.
Scrum Master as a Servant Leader
What does Scrum Master do to serve others? Please take a look at the infographic below where we have summarized Scrum Master’s responsibilities to their team and organization. You will find further information in the official Scrum Guide, and we encourage you to browse through it to learn more about Scrum theory, events, roles, artifacts, and much more.
Hopefully, you have noticed a few things once you have scanned through it.
First, Scrum Master is not limited to their Team and Product Owner. They also serve the organization as a greater whole. Second, nowhere does it say what skills as a Scrum Master you need to fill all those purposes. Third, there is no single word saying there are technical and non-technical Scrum Masters covering different bases. And fourth—these responsibilities have a lot to do with soft skills.
So, when you think about such responsibilities as facilitation, collaboration, education, coaching, it is safe to assume that you do not need to know how to build a spaceship or code a banking app. But you need to know how to talk to other professionals. You will also need the necessary know-how to handle technical teams and product development processes. For instance, you will not be writing code when working with software development teams. Still, you should be familiar with CI/CD (Continuous Integration and either Continuous Delivery or Continuous Deployment) practices.
Now that we have come to the point of communicating with other professionals, you might be asking yourself: How am I supposed to talk to technical people if I am not technical myself? Or better yet: should I have engineering knowledge on par with the Developers to predict and handle the impediments I am supposed to clear?
Good question. Let’s go back to the idea of a “non-technical” Scrum Master for a moment.
Non-Technical Scrum Master
So what does a “non-technical Scrum Master” even mean? Simply put, the non-technical Scrum Master is an artificial term meant to describe SMs with no formal technical background. As opposed to “Technical Scrum Masters” (also not an official name), they do not originate from the Development team or do not have technical knowledge comparable to the one of an engineer. Again, you will find no division for technical or non-technical SMs in a Scrum Guide. Scrum Master is a Scrum Master. Period.
What is also important to emphasize is that the “non-technical” term does not imply the lack of understanding of technical skills SMs need in the given industry (software, automotive, aerospace, etc.). It simply means that Scrum Masters do not need in-depth knowledge of the given engineering product composition. However, the scope of expertise when working with software development will depend on the industry and the particular project. The necessary know-how will come as you gain experience and devote some time to self-development.
So the bottom line is—next time you and your team are talking, you are not the one to suggest solutions or technological stack. That is not your job. Your job is to understand enough to follow the conversation. For that, you will be asking a lot of questions. Those questions will help you and the team understand the problem better. Also, it will stimulate critical thinking and explore the issue from different angles. The goal is to ensure the team finds the solution and understands the business value proposed by the Product Owner.
Scrum Master wears many hats
Another vital thing to mention is that Scrum Masters do much more than the core responsibilities of a servant leader. They often carry out some (or all) of the following duties, not all of which are defined by Scrum:
- Protect the team from scope creep and over-committing.
- Participate in sprint reviews and listen to feedback.
- Facilitate daily standups as needed.
- Administrate a Scrum board with a dedicated tool (e.g., BigPicture).
- Analyze burndown charts to understand sprint cadence.
- Participate in retrospectives to capture areas for improvement and action items for future Sprints.
As you can see, Scrum Masters wear many different hats, but being an engineer is not one of them.
What if a Scrum Master happens to be an engineer? How do they compare to so-called “non-technical” ones?
Technical Scrum Master
Again, technical Scrum Master is not a formal classification you will find in a Scrum Guide. This term was arbitrarily devised for Scrum Masters, who transitioned into a new role after working on product development as engineers or testers for some years.
The significant difference between technical and non-technical SMs is that the former understand the product on a very technical level. Tech SMs can stimulate the team with different questions to help them understand their problem and find a solution. This approach, however, must be used with great caution. It can be very tempting and easy for a technical person to become part of the technical conversation. Even worse, they could go as far as starting to suggest tools or other solutions. In this case, technical Scrum Master would cross their competencies and lead to a conflict of interests. Consequently, instead of building trust and good relationships within a team, such a Scrum Master would achieve the opposite effect.
Moreover, technical Scrum Master can also fill in small “gaps” in their team’s tasks. For instance, they could write a code or prototype a mechanical part in CAD. However, such a scope is NOT Scrum Master’s job. There may be organizations that would desire a Scrum Master who could go beyond their regular duties, but that would be a very individual case, not a rule you should worry about. After all, if a technical professional decides to become a Scrum Master, it means they want to become more of a “soft skills” person.
So, is a Scrum Master a technical role?
As defined in the Scrum Guide, current or aspiring Scrum Masters do not need to worry about being engineers or having strong technical skills. However, they do need to have a sound understanding of the agile process and a general understanding of the technicalities of the industry to become successful servant leaders.
By the end of the day, it all comes down to how well Scrum Master can balance their background with their role. Besides, do not forget that no Scrum Master is the same. So, if you ever feel that you could use technical skills—ask a fellow technical Scrum Master for help. After all, it is not only your team who needs guidance; you should also guide yourself to find ways to handle various challenges in your daily work.