Being a Scrum master is not just a role, it is related to personality and to the life experiences that led you to become that kind of person. Lately, I remembered what it felt like (again) to feel unempowered and frustrated with impositions. And this is a good moment I remind myself why I do what I do.
When I was a junior developer, back in 2003 when I worked for DMR Consulting (now Everis), I was definitely not the person I am nowadays. I was very shy, vulnerable and inexperienced with the ways of the world. I trusted my seniors on what I had to do and I expected to be told what to do, in a sort of authoritative way. I wish I’d had someone to look up to in a broader way. There were some people who actually treated me well, cared for my well-being and inspired me to be more productive in a healthy fashion, but generally I found people waiting for the right moment to stab me in the back.
The funny thing is: I thought that was the normal way and I even believed I had to be more like them if I wanted to become a good professional. I was so, so wrong.
After working there for two years (and this is 2002, so I’m not saying that this is an ongoing issue at all), something happened that I could never forget. A moment that defined my professional shape, although I didn’t know at the time. It’s remarkable how some specific moments that last minutes can change you completely over time.
The situation was as follows: I was sitting on my desk next to my team leader (a guy that would reprimand me if I was 5 minutes late from my lunch break, by the way), on any given day. Then, the senior project manager showed up and sat next to my team leader. We were, the three of us, at a very short distance from each other.
The project manager spoke to my team leader about me for around 30 minute, the way I should be working and what I should be doing in third person. He kept saying things like “I think that Dani should…”, “Dani is responsible for…”, etc., but he didn’t look at me or address me directly. He knew I was there. He knew who I was. But he was way above me to talk to me. I felt utterly humiliated, like a thing, like a mere resource, stripped from any glimpse of humanity. Made me angry. Made me sad.
When he left, he did finally look at me and nodded. It was ridiculous. A few months later I left my job there. It was the defining moment not just for that job, but for my professional career. I decided, being young and inexperienced, that I would never be that kind of person.
The people like me who truly believe in Agile for reasons like the one above and a long experience of negative and toxic behaviours during many years in my professional life (things got worse in my next employment, but that is another story), feels frustrated at how young people don’t see the value of starting their careers under an Agile environment because they don’t know any different, but at the same time feel hopeful and happy that times have changed. They will probably develop over time a very different cognitive behaviour at work. Because I admit that I will never be able to fully recover from those dark years, and I am contaminated myself.
And now, let’s talk about what happened recently at my current workplace, another experience to add to my long list of reasons on why a Scrum master is much needed pretty much everywhere.
We currently work under a tight deadline to release a new product, and we operate through an insane amount of bureaucracy to get things done. Legal sign offs, testing contracts, documentation and transitions, logistics on infrastructure… I’m pretty sure you all have heard of this. As the release date got closer, too many things going on were stressing, frustrating and demotivating my team beyond words. And what’s worse, I did detect an unacceptable level of own agendas and blaming games among individuals.
The team had already gone through a hell of lack of definitions, redefinitions, changes of scope or an MVP that was not really an MVP. While there was a good perception that everyone had made a great progress during our current PI, it looked like once again all voices raised the tone only in the last weeks prior to the release, and all arguments between departments minding their own agendas were projected, reflected and taken to the development level.
Furthermore, many of these discussions seemed to be big blockers and then they were reduced to a minor change after making a huge deal out of it for a couple of days exposing those discussion to people who should be out of them, effectively wasting their precious time. This was unacceptable, directly affecting both the productivity and the morale of the team. As a Scrum master, I did and I do try to mitigate and timebox Scrum meetings as much as I possibly can, but there’s only so much I can do as an individual.
I was the first one to understand that everyone had a point, that there were no simple answers to people’s enquiries. However, all this target deadline / political / agenda madness was just more than the team could tolerate, and therefore I urged everyone to reflect on what was going on.
Just a few weeks earlier the team had a very good vibe on the progress; while we reached a point where everything became chaos, which I don’t believe was the case. Perception and facts can be very difficult to align. In the end it all calmed down, but the harm was already done.
I became a Scrum master to avoid situations like my experience so many years ago, and this one as well. I wanted to give power to the teams I work with, to feel pride on what they do. I honestly, genuinely want them to trust me and know that I will be there for them. But then again, at the end of the day I’m just one single person. Perseverance is one of my qualities, but some days I feel I’m really alone despite I know I’m not.
A positivist thought, though: in my current company, we all are passionate about doing things right and this is always good; what failed and fails in my opinion in the case exposed above was the timing, the poor quality of the interactions and, most importantly, what I call the words speak louder than actions effect.
Did we learn? Only time will tell. Because bad experiences are only truly bad if we don’t learn anything from them.
Some days I feel like it’s just too much of an emotional burden to be a Scrum master, but then I go back to 2003, reflect on my life experience, and then I realize that this is the best job in the world. Because I’m truly making a difference. I’m helping people I care about.