What a CTO needs from their scrum master …

April 19, 2022

In my technology career, the movement from Waterfall (which should never have been adopted and is in the original paper as not being suitable for most software development) to Agile development of either Kanban or Scrum are the main processes adopted.

Bags of time and effort has been spent on which method is better.

It generally comes down to the capability of the team, with the self-managing better suited for Kanban and the less experienced, for Scrum. 90% of my teams have run a Kanban process.

I could easily disparage one, big up the other and reopen that old debates about which is best. But for a CTO, it doesn’t really not matter.

From the development teams, the CTO is only concerned about delivery. Making sure that new features are released and any bugs (never in my systems) are fixed. Whether you have a continuous delivery or fixed at specific times, other teams in your business need to be aware of what has been delivered and what is not in the release, along with what is coming up.

It is the “what is coming up” and the bigger picture that a CTO needs to communicate, but can be very difficult with many of the Agile systems and processes. For example, Jira is great at the micro ticket level, but very bad at trying to communicate the roadmap and strategy for a product, both to the team(s) and to the company. (There have been some improvements recently but it is still disjointed).

The purpose of a roadmap is to allow the rest of the business to prepare for new functionality that is arriving, whether that is for marketing to prepare campaigns or sales to use it to close deals. It’s clearly important and the CTO needs to know from scrum masters the status of the work and if there are any blocks or issues coming up that might cause problems. Hiding problems and expected delays, which is particularly common in the public sector, can cause a project to be delayed at the last minute, creating embarrassment and distrust at all levels of a development team and with the rest of the company.

The best working relationships are those with radical transparency, particularly when working in a high performing tech team.

If the scrum masters are honest (and if the CTO has built a team that is not reliant on superstars, it will help!) then the CTO needs to reciprocate by giving them clear direction about the wider business strategy and how the roadmap fits into it. That CTO will then need to give the scrum masters required time and resources to deliver their part of the roadmap.

How does this work in practice?

Take a software company selling SaaS on a monthly subscription. There is concern about customer churn.. Assume the software is nice to have but not essential. This could be addressed several ways

Superb customer service by identifying customers that could leave

  1. Adding new functionality
  2. Making it sticky in a way that it becomes integrated in client’s culture examples include for accounting & CRM software
  3. Change the pricing
  4. Change the sign up period – move from monthly to annually (kicking the can down the road)

Some of these solutions can be addressed by development but let’s concentrate on the third and how to convert that in practice.

Making it sticky means integrating with other systems and becoming part of a process providing significant value to a customer. Thus if a customer wants to leave they will have to change their whole process. Back to the roadmap – “integrate with X system”. To an uneducated scrum master and team, this could be just another piece of functionality, potentially perceived as pointless? But if a CTO explains the thinking behind the functionality then teams are able to make intelligent decisions. In this case, they may decide to build a framework for the functionality today, so that integration with other systems can occur more easily in the future.

The CTO needs to explain strategy and roadmap, in a way that scrum masters and team feel engaged, energised and more than just implementation robots.

The CTO has to communicate to the rest of the business on behalf of the tech team, and will need openness and honesty from the scrum masters to ensure this is done most effectively.

For the scrum master to maximise the potential of their technology career and move from scrum master to CTO, they need to understand in reverse, what the CTO needs.

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