What is a Scrum Master? The Complete Beginner’s Guide

This job title is growing in popularity—and, like many other roles in tech, it’s often a bit of an enigma.

We’ve all heard of it in one context or another, but exactly what is a scrum master, and what do they do? And how does it relate to other product roles, such as product manager and product owner?

Whether you’re working in the product sphere, considering a future career in the field, or even just working in the tech or startup world, it’s worth getting to grips with both the Scrum framework and the scrum master role. 

The World Economic Forum estimated that, by 2022, 33% of the most in-demand product roles would be scrum-related. And, with scrum job postings on the rise (and set to increase significantly over the next decade), it’s safe to say that these experts are in demand. So: it’s time to dispel any and all confusion surrounding the role. 

Are you ready to learn what scrum masters are and the role they play on product teams? We’ve put together everything you need to know in this guide, including:

  1. What is a scrum master? Defining Scrum and the scrum team
  2. What does a scrum master do?
  3. Product manager vs. scrum master vs. product owner: What’s the difference?
  4. How to become a scrum master
  5. What is the average scrum master salary?
  6. Final thoughts

Let’s begin. 

1. What is a scrum master? Defining Scrum and the scrum team

Scrum masters are employed in companies that take the scrum approach to product development. The scrum master is essentially the resident scrum expert, responsible for ensuring that the Scrum framework is followed correctly. 

They take on the role of coach, facilitator, coordinator, and optimizer—keeping the scrum team on track and making sure they adhere to the values and processes set out by the Scrum methodology.

This begs the question: What exactly is scrum, and what is a scrum team? Let’s explain. 

What is scrum?

Scrum is an agile, lightweight approach to project management.

The Scrum framework breaks down large, complex projects into smaller components that the team can tackle in short, timeboxed periods known as “sprints”. The purpose of Scrum is to build and iterate quickly and to make continuous improvements. 

Scrum was originally developed as an alternative to the “Waterfall” approach to software development. In the Waterfall model, a project is divided into sequential phases, with the next phase beginning only once the previous phase is complete.

The goal defined at the start of the project is set in stone, and the outcome (i.e. the product) isn’t tested until the very end. This doesn’t leave much (or any) room for feedback, flexibility, or a change in direction if new requirements come to light. 

Scrum, on the other hand, focuses on the achievement of smaller goals in two-week sprint cycles. It incorporates feedback and user testing at regular intervals, allowing for the product to be adapted and improved flexibly and incrementally. 

The Scrum framework outlines certain roles, principles, and guidelines which promote effective teamwork and collaboration for high-impact output. In an environment where Scrum is used, you’ll have:

  • Scrum accountabilities—that’s the people on the scrum team; those responsible for overseeing and implementing the scrum methodology and contributing to the development of the product.
  • Scrum events—this includes sprint planning, the sprint itself, a daily scrum (a quick meeting each day to evaluate progress and adjust course if necessary), the sprint review, and the sprint retrospective.
  • Scrum artifacts—these are the visible, tangible elements which document the work being done and the goals they’re building towards. Scrum artifacts include the product backlog, the sprint backlog, and increments. 

Scrum follows six key principles:

1. Control over the empirical process

This is steeped in transparency, ensuring everybody has visibility into the process and the product; inspection, providing regular opportunities to review what’s been done; and adaptation, allowing both the process and the product to be adjusted if necessary. 

2. Self-organization

This promotes both shared ownership and individual autonomy, empowering each stakeholder to take responsibility for their domain within the scrum guidelines.

3. Collaboration

The best outcomes are achieved when teams work together to problem-solve and deliver results.

4. Value-based prioritization

Within the sprint, tasks should be prioritized based on which outcomes will deliver the most business value.

5. Timeboxing

This confines certain activities and tasks to set time frames, ensuring that progress is fast and the process keeps moving.

6. Iterative development

Rather than building and shipping an entire product in one hit, iterative development builds the product bit by bit, incorporating new insights to improve the product gradually and continuously. 

Well, that’s Scrum in a nutshell. For a deeper dive, head over to our explanatory guide for product managers. Now, though, let’s explore the roles that make up the scrum team. 

What is a scrum team?

We know that the scrum master works with the scrum team to guide them through the Scrum framework. So what’s a scrum team, and who’s on it?

A scrum team comprises the various stakeholders who are involved in the delivery of a product. Scrum teams are typically on the smaller side, with between seven and nine members, and are usually made up of the following roles:

  • The scrum master who is responsible for leading and guiding the scrum team through the Scrum framework.
  • The product owner who ensures that the day-to-day (or sprint-to-sprint) work of the scrum team aligns with the overall product vision and strategy.
  • The development team of individuals who complete the hands-on tasks in each sprint. This can include designers, engineers/web developers, UX writers, and data analysts—essentially any role that contributes to the development of the product in some way. 

With an overview of what Scrum is and who’s on the scrum team, let’s return to the question at hand: What exactly is a scrum master and what do they do?

2. What does a scrum master do? 

Now that you know what is a scrum master, it’s time to look at their day-to-day. Essentially, the scrum master oversees and facilitates the implementation of Scrum. They offer their Scrum expertise to others in the form of processes, techniques, tools, and coaching—helping the team to effectively prioritize their tasks and manage the product backlog. 

They optimize processes, remove obstacles and barriers, facilitate meetings and scrum events, and generally ensure that everything’s running smoothly within and around the scrum team. 

Ultimately, the scrum master empowers the scrum team to use the Scrum framework to its full potential. With the guidance and support of the scrum master, the team can work collaboratively and efficiently to deliver results

That’s the scrum master job description in brief. Now let’s explore how different companies define the role, with the help of some scrum master job ads found on Indeed

The scrum master job description (with examples)

Our first example is a scrum master job ad posted by Software Savvy Queen, a career and business coaching and consulting firm founded by Ashley Hughes-Jefferson. 

They describe the scrum master as someone who will “coordinate and coach the software development team” and act as the “go-to person for applying Scrum to produce high-quality work.” 

Per the job ad, it’s the scrum master’s role to help create “self-organizing teams that are flexible and fully productive during sprints”. Key duties include managing timelines, resolving problems, and coaching team members on Agile methodologies

Our next real-world example of the scrum master job description comes from a vacancy posted by The Travelers Companies, Inc., an American insurance company. 

They describe the scrum master as someone who can “lead Agile practices at the team level for one team, assist with managing the flow of work, creatively solve problems to accomplish outcomes, track team output and achievement, and identify continuous process improvement opportunities.” 

Key aspects of the role include practicing and encouraging an Agile mindset and behaviors; coaching, inspiring, and mentoring teams on Agile principles, values, and practices; and generally ensuring the team’s progress towards KPIs and objectives. 

With our scrum master job description in mind, let’s explore the more specific tasks and responsibilities that belong to the role. 

The typical tasks and responsibilities of a scrum master

Based on scrum master job descriptions from different companies, we can summarize the typical tasks and responsibilities of a scrum master as follows:

  • Facilitating and coordinating Scrum events such as sprints, daily scrums, and retrospectives
  • Coaching other team members in agile and scrum principles
  • Working with product owners to manage the product backlog 
  • Assigning resources, planning projects, and setting milestones
  • Removing roadblocks and obstacles that are hindering the team’s progress
  • Tracking and reporting metrics, providing visibility and ensuring a data-driven approach to decision-making
  • Ensuring progress towards KPIs and objectives
  • Facilitating open communication among team members and other stakeholders
  • Interacting with customers/end users to answer questions and provide updates
  • Performing and/or overseeing quality assurance measures

You can read even more in-depth about these in our dedicated guide to scrum master responsibilities.

Bear in mind that the exact tasks performed by the scrum master will vary from company to company. We recommend reading through scrum master job ads to get a feel for the role and how different employers interpret it. You can start by browsing scrum master jobs on Indeed or LinkedIn.

A woman in an office wondering what is a scrum master has it explained to her by her colleague.

3. Product manager vs. scrum master vs. product owner: What’s the difference?

As you read about the scrum master role, you may start to wonder how it differs from other product-related jobs. There’s often confusion around scrum masters vs. product managers vs. product owners in particular. 

First things first: Product owners and scrum masters are Scrum-specific roles which only exist on scrum teams—i.e. in companies that follow the Scrum framework.

Product managers, on the other hand, are employed both within and outside of the scrum environment; they aren’t specific to Scrum. 

Now we’ve got a handle on what is a scrum master, it’s time to drill down more to differentiate between the three roles.

To do that, let’s set out a brief description of each:

  • A scrum master guides and facilitates the scrum team with their implementation of the Scrum framework. They are the in-house Scrum expert, responsible for ensuring that the scrum team performs to their full potential. As such, they take on a coaching, coordinating, and optimizing role—similar to a team leader.
  • A product manager develops a strategy and vision for the product, and they coordinate and oversee the implementation of that vision. They decide what should be built and why, considering both customer/end user needs and business objectives. The product manager is a strategic role, responsible for managing the entire product life cycle and generally ensuring that the product is successful. 
  • A product owner focuses on the operational work and day-to-day tasks that go into building the product and fulfilling the product strategy (as set out by the product manager). They supervise the work carried out by the development team, managing the product backlog and writing user stories and requirements.

Product manager vs. scrum master vs. product owner working example

So what does it look like when you’ve got all three roles in one company? Let’s imagine a startup which is developing an e-learning platform for junior school pupils.

Product manager

The product manager works on the overarching strategy for the product, looking at where it will fit in the market, what end-user needs it will fulfill, and how it’ll serve the goals of the business (for example, how will it contribute to more pupil sign-ups and increased revenue?).

They devise and manage the product roadmap—a single source of truth which sets out the vision, direction, priorities, and progress of the product over time, aligning the whole company on both the short and long-term goals for the product. 

Product owner

The product owner, meanwhile, turns the product manager’s strategic vision into actionable tasks for the development team.

They ensure that the work being done in each sprint follows the product roadmap and moves the product in the right direction. They manage the product backlog—a list of tasks that the development team needs to complete—and create user stories—short descriptions of what the development team will build and why. 

Scrum master

All of this is going on in an agile environment, so you’ve got the scrum master working closely with the scrum team (namely, the product owner and the development team) to ensure they’re following the Scrum framework.

They organize and facilitate scrum-related events, such as daily meetings and retrospectives at the end of each sprint, and work together with the product owner to manage the product backlog. They look out for obstacles and find ways to optimize the team’s processes so they can work as effectively and collaboratively as possible.

Ultimately, they both protect and empower the scrum team so they can perform at their best. 

To learn more about these different roles, we recommend the following guides:

4. How to become a scrum master

If you want to become a scrum master, you’ll need to become an expert in all things Scrum. The best way to do so is through independent learning and research, followed by a professional scrum qualification

Start by reading up on the fundamental principles and values of both agile and scrum. The Scrum Alliance is a great resource for beginners—check out their overview of the Scrum framework, core scrum principles, and their explanation of the sprint. They’ve also got a free Introduction to Scrum course to help you grasp the basics. 

Once you feel comfortable with the concept of Scrum, consider a formal certification. Some of the most popular courses and training programs include The Certified ScrumMaster Course offered by the Scrum Alliance, as well as a variety of professional scrum certifications offered by Scrum.org. You may also like this Characteristics of a Great Scrum Master course on LinkedIn Learning.

From there, it will be a case of honing the most important scrum master skills—such as leadership, communication, coaching, project management, and adaptability—and demonstrating them to potential employers.

5. What is the average scrum master salary? 

Like most other jobs, the average salary for a scrum master varies depending on a number of factors, the biggest of them being seniority. Let’s break it down, taking the average figures from job site Glassdoor:

So, how does this compare to product managers and product owners?

For product manager, the salaries by seniority can be divided as follows:

You can break these down in more depth and take a more global view in our full guide to product manager salaries.

Moving on to product owners, the average salaries tend to vary quite a lot as well, based on how many years you’ve been in the job and how much experience you’ve gained:

Of course, salaries vary depending on location, the kind of company you work for, and your unique skills and experience. But, as our averages show, scrum masters can expect to earn well—as can product managers and product owners. 

6. Final thoughts

So there you have it—now you know what a scrum master is!

Despite being a relatively new role, but it’s quickly growing in demand as more and more companies adopt the Scrum framework.

It’s not just software firms and product development teams that are adopting Scrum, either; it’s increasingly being used across finance, marketing, education, and various other sectors. Becoming a scrum master opens doors to a varied, collaborative, and high-impact career with an above-average salary. 

Even if you don’t want to specifically train as a scrum master, understanding how Scrum works and what role the scrum master plays will prove beneficial in any product-related role.

Keen to get your product career underway? Try out this free introductory product management course and check out the following guides:

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