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An agile coach is like a scrum master, only more so – an interview with Bartosz Janowski | Call for Tech

Hi Bartek, could you please stop by and tell us what you do for a living?

Hi, Bartek Janowski. I am the head of Agile Center at mBank. I am an agile coach and I deal with Agile.

Before becoming an agile coach, you were a software engineer. What was the source of this career change for you?

At some point, I noticed that this work just doesn’t turn me on. I had been involved in technology there for years, there I got a computer in elementary school, and now computers are getting it much earlier. I was a math-physics major in high school, then I was at the polytechnic, that is, an engineer of the real kind. At some point, I noticed that I was losing enthusiasm for work. I wondered what this was due to. I was a developer, so I started testing more in the direction of Quality Assurance, not just checking cases. And something about this life didn’t sit well with me. Because I was a guy engineer I had this belief that soft skills were for babes. I’m sorry, that’s what I thought, but I once had such an event that I was in a scrum team, I was a scrum master. Once a man came to talk to us. “You were doing something you wanted, something was on my mind there. You know what Bartek, you used this and that method that we practiced six months ago at some workshop.” I didn’t notice that it was this method at all. That is, I had become so competent and the competence was already unconscious. And so I began to wonder chicken, why not move away from this technology? I asked myself questions. After 3 years, I answered that it should be, however, to go in this direction related to Scrum, Agile, and working with people.

You mentioned that you walked away from technology. But is this knowledge regarding technology, which is from that previous life, useful in your work?

Definitely. I largely work with technology. Maybe not with such modern technology anymore.

Because the last piece of code was probably 8-9 years ago I wrote, so in this technological area, it’s years gone by. On the other hand, just understanding the concept is certainly useful. I also see a lot of influence from work. What I learned while being at the polytechnic, is this approach. Whether common sense maybe. However, so put together to draw conclusions, it certainly helps too.

In 2001, the Agile Manifesto was created. Do you think the tenets that were included there are still relevant today?

That’s how the market is starting to expand a little bit. There is a point there that working software is more important than documentation. Somehow I think in 2014 I saw a version of one of the Scrum Guide developers. He changed it to a working product over documentation. That is, this is already starting to expand. Anyway, the whole concept of Agile. As we’ve met a bit since the Agile Manifesto we’ll start to see what this Agile means. It’s actually quite universal, but the roots are definitely in IT.

And do you see this Agile expanding to other industries as well, beyond IT?

Yes, I like to know the definition of what we are talking about. Now agile is conjugated by cases. Everything is agile. I once got such a question – Bartek, could you support us in an agile project? I say good, what do you mean by an Agile project? There was such consternation. Well, you know, because we work with people. And before that, who were you working with? So a lot of people misuse that statement. For me, Agile is just the kind of feature that allows, for example, companies to respond to change quickly and painlessly. And it’s so universal that it’s no longer just IT, but, for example, in times of war or pandemic, it was all companies, the whole world that had to adapt quickly to new conditions. Those who were able to do it quickly and with as little effort as possible survived.

That is, he could advise even these companies on how to adjust.

Yes, advising is quite simple. I could say at least a couple of such good high-level concepts work. First and foremost is that even as it is written in the Agile Manifesto, not to stick to the plan, but rather to respond to what has happened, what is happening.

In the IT industry, the profession of Agile Coach or Scrum Master is not always flattered. And here I will quote some such quotes, two such quotes: “If you could get your Scrum Master to understand all this programming, into what skill or knowledge would you push him?” And the second: “If he could make it comprehend, he would embrace it and see that it’s useless.” What do you think? What’s the point of Agile anyway?

I suppose this is from the group: Problems of the Polish IT industry. I’m following it, I like it a lot. Very possible, exactly from there. I’m also reviewing these types of posts, something I’m observing in the market, that as I said before, now everyone is agile. What does agile mean? It means that we have Jire and Scrum Masters. This is an indicator that we are agile. In many places, these scrum masters are like flowers for the sheepskin. I have the impression that in a large number of organizations he annoys even the developers. So I’m not surprised by such comments. Sometimes I read them a little deeper. It’s there that I’m able to read what mistakes the Scrum Master is making that these people treat him that way. And in fact, this Scrum Master should serve the team or the organization. My guess is that somehow he has been mislearned and misunderstood this role, and perhaps he is more fulfilling, fulfilling his own goals than he is listening to the team, listening to the organization, and thinking about what is really important and what he is responsible for.

That is, you are saying that scrum masters make a mistake, among other things, because they don’t listen to companies. What other mistakes do they make?

I think they don’t understand their role, that this is a role where the main purpose is to work on the efficiency of the team or organization. That’s what I would say in a nutshell. As I look at some of the behavior of scrum masters, I have the impression that it is quite far from that. That is, competency deficiencies, and sometimes attitude deficiencies, if we talk about the Scrum Master, is described as a process manager, and also as a change agent. In many organizations, this Scrum is introduced and maintained, so naturally, he should have some skills related to change management, that is, he should change the organization, not stay in what is now. So definitely that kind of proactive, leadership attitude, that we’re really going to change something. One thing I also notice, a lot of people, to put it simply, want to get into IT. Not having technical competence through a scrum master role, if they have some of their own non-technology related education. And, for example, I don’t know are coaches, or psychologists, it pulls them more in working with the team into those competencies that they have. And sometimes these kinds of anti-patterns that I see in some agile meetings. Instead of talking, suppose the team has quality problems, every now and then they are on the strip of a well-known TV station because they have technical problems, and instead of talking about it in retrospect, there are I don’t know – group psychotherapies where most people get a white fever. And probably those developers you mentioned.

During your talk on what they pay a scrum master for, you said that there are different definitions of an agile coach. What is your definition? How would you differentiate it from a scrum master?

I like the definition very much because it is very simple. Besides, it is mine. Agile Coach is kind of like Scrum Master, only more so. There are different definitions that I come across somewhere, or by the Spotify model. There is an Agile Coach, it is described. I also in Erica Atkinson’s book also describes somehow there this agile coach. For me, it is a more experienced Scrum Master, who already knows not only scrum but a couple of other ways of working agile, maybe less agile. In addition, he has more experience than a scrum master in working with management. Some companies divide that the scrum master is the one who works with teams, but can’t stick his nose outside the teams or talk to management himself, and the agile coach is someone more important. When you see job ads, most people want to be an agile coach, not a scrum master. I know such cases. An agile coach just talks to management but does not touch the teams. Absolutely not. One role, another. In my mind it’s just development, that’s all. And I also care about that, because I also recruit. And I also have such cases that just someone, a’la: Bartek, I’m applying for a coach. You tell me to work with the team? Just so you know what life is like on the front line.

You talked a little bit about these predispositions and hard skills, mostly about the soft ones that one needs to have for the agile coaching profession. How would you say so in a nutshell what is important, what skills, what skills such a person should have?

I very much separate skills, skills, and knowledge from attitudes. These are the two things I pay attention to. It is simpler to provide a person with knowledge, competencies, training, mentoring, and experience. Working with such a person, building these competencies is much simpler than changing attitudes. Something that is important to me, as I have already mentioned, is if I talk about leadership attitudes, we don’t stand and wait. The attitude is giving. If I’m going to be a change agent and I have the first problem right in front of me and I say oh gee, a problem, that’s not good. I don’t look for such scrum masters or I don’t value such a person. However, if we indeed change agents, we change things.

Certainly, openness. Certainly, it should be fun to work with people. One should also be sensitive to it. I think those are the most important qualities. It’s all things related to agile, scrum, and kanban, It’s manageable to educate a person, in this it’s much simpler than to change values. I don’t think we should even change attitudes somehow.

So if you were to rank attitude, soft skills, and hard skills like this, what would it look like in your opinion?

Let’s start with attitudes. And after that? Later, I think, soft skills. This is where I wonder, depending on the area you’re working with there’s this philosophical question not yet answered among the agile community – should a scrum master be technical or non-technical? This is such an incredibly important phrase. I think he should be technical, he should know the technology, if he works with technical teams, so that he is sensitive to the problems that are happening so that he is able to identify whether at this moment it is better to talk about a conflict or the fact that we have more and more bugs in production. In a while, we won’t be able to deliver new functionality. It’s for this that I need to know the domain in which I work, it will certainly be easier for him.

And what would you advise such people who are thinking about entering, and starting their career with Agile, what should they do or where should they start?

That’s the first thing to consider is whether I really want to work in that role, because it’s a change agent, which means you meet resistance. There’s this perception that when I come to an organization there and I’m going to introduce this agile, scrum, their people pour rose petals under their feet and say yes, we want to change, everyone wants change, change me first. Then I don’t know. This is resistance work, that is, you have to be and somehow deal with this resistance. That’s for sure. A little focus on your strengths. What can it give? What can I give? I also like this kind of question when I talk to scrum masters or agile coaches: Well you are somehow built like this, what are the qualities that help you in this role? And something I would pay particular attention to is if someone is trying to educate themselves, pay attention to who they want to educate themselves with and how they want to educate themselves. Now as I said, Agile is incredibly popular. Plenty of companies provide training related to agile, and scrum. There are companies that specialize in training. Today they do project management, tomorrow with scrum, and the day after tomorrow with making egg paste. I get such offers sometimes. I look into the resumes of such trainers, for example. If someone has never worked in Agile, especially in good agile, how is he supposed to teach others?

That’s still referring to those jokes on the Internet about Scrum Masters. Recently I saw an advertisement for a company, where there was a picture of a mother and children. There it said: under the mom it said – Scrum Master, under the kids – developers. It’s funny, but it’s actually embarrassing.

Because what does it mean that these developers and guys in their 30s, 40s, and 50s are kids? They have homes, they have families, they had a company, and here comes a Scrum Master who, God forbid, comes to such a company from such an advertisement. God forbid someone from that company has this idea that a Scrum Master is just supposed to be such a parent and those kids are supposed to develop there in some way. Then what does such a developer do with such a person?

According to the quotes from the Internet, I have another one. “I stated that I would become a Scrum Master. After all, it’s so easy. I had one interview and got feedback that they were looking for someone with better interpersonal skills. I’m not judging, but there must be something **** in their heads, after all, I can be nice and say: any updates? Filling out these dumb cards reading at the same time.”

This says a lot about the schools or some Scrum Masters. Now I’m going to pull it a little bit. You said it from a developer’s perspective. Now let’s imagine that we are the owner of the company. Should we pay for such people? Would we really pay for a person who sticks cards there? And he still has free time to do something on I am not surprised by these comments. I agree. I know that they kind of spoil the market or their perception of the role because it is largely distorted just by being so popular. If the role of the Scrum Master is just for him to stick these cards. Or that he only has these interpersonal skills is a bit too little. Of course, interpersonal skills too. Soft skills now it is called, base skills basic in a person. They are essential because if we are talking about change all the time it is good to have some contact. To be able to talk to them, to be able to listen and hear them, to understand their needs. As we talk about change, often the other side is full of fear. We all have that. Then how to work with such fears? It is necessary, but it is not sufficient. Isn’t it a little bit that this dislike of this profession, of these people, is due to the fact that these people are perhaps a little less liked, well, because if they are agents of change, and people think that everything is ok, nothing needs to be changed? This person is tiring me, telling me, getting out of my comfort zone. It’s a bit like that, these people don’t have, they don’t have it lightly, They have an uphill battle though, I think. They meet with a lot of resentment and just hostility. And this then has its end on the Internet. I definitely fully agree, because just like going back to this example scrum master is not supposed to be a parent, a mom who strokes people’s heads, it is also said to challenge the status quo, it means that I should sometimes say ok, it’s fun for us to work, appreciate some things, but also say gee, here is wrong, this is what we should improve. It is said that the Scrum Master is the conscience of the team. It is here once figurative, metaphorical. On the other hand, he really should not be afraid to point out, to have the kind of courage to say: here we are weak. And people react differently to this, of course.

And have you had such moments of crisis in your career, where you encountered some hostility and resentment and doubted perhaps the validity of your mission? Did you have such situations and how did you deal with them?

It’s more of a question of which one I should choose from all of them because there is a lot of them. Certainly, if the change is going slowly. You can see this resistance, but you can’t see the progress, it’s rather hard. I work in a large organization now. Large organizations are difficult to change. You have to be actually, I am phlegmatic by nature, so this pace of slow change doesn’t bother me that much. I even discovered in myself that this trait of mine is what helps me. But there were a lot of situations that, interestingly enough, sometimes a person beats his head against the wall and doesn’t see a reaction now, immediately, this week. But it turns out, for example, that in a while these changes are there. Maybe someone resisted at first but thought maybe this discussion and something germinated for him there and after some time he changed. Or there he found somehow differently that you can actually try. I think the biggest example was probably six years ago somewhere someone came and said: You know what, Bartek, but what you said there once, we will implement even here. Oh boy, six years! It’s a good thing that I work here so much and noticed it. Because he wouldn’t even know about it, right?

We talk a lot about Agile, but before Agile became so popular, the most popular method of running projects was Waterfall.

Yes. On the other hand, today it is a bit in reverse.

How do you feel about it? Rightly or Wrongly? Maybe it works yet, though.

For me, whether it’s a design approach, sometimes called predictive design, or an agile approach is two different tools. Nothing special. I don’t have any philosophies, that kind of thing, that kind of thing, and depending on what class of problem we have and we use the predictive approach and the agile approach.

If we make a mistake and choose wrongly, depending on which way we go wrong, we may have problems. Why build buildings with an agile approach? Do we anticipate that things will suddenly change during construction? We started to build a single-family house, suddenly it turns out that we want a palace, but then we get the idea of a supermarket. This is not done, or it is not profitable. Because agility also has a certain cost. That’s what this project approach is better suited for. In the same way, we do some implementations, we know what we want to achieve, and we know the way. All we need to do is execute it. For me, these are two equal tools. Akurat in today’s world because of the quite high variability of what we have, this agile approach seems to be more popular, but it also depends on the industry.

And in addition to the construction industry, probably the automotive industry, maybe airplanes, ships, or something else yet?

Depends, because the aircraft has a lot of systems in it. If we think to ourselves to nimbly change engines then maybe not, but changing the software probably does. We have so much technology that applies elsewhere, too. Before we started recording, we talked about watches. We happen to have the same watches from the same company. Once a month, once every 2 months we get updated. At first, there was no measurement, at least in my version. There was no measurement of blood oxygen content. Now there is. Even Tesla updates, after all. Even the automotive industry updates its software. The military, especially the U.S. military, too, they say. Their approach is – I don’t want to say close to agile or taken from agile, but an appreciation of small, self-contained units, which are also used in Agile. This is exactly what is used by autonomous units, small so that you can build the effectiveness of these people. Autonomous, because you have to react quickly to things changing, and not wait for an operator or for some information from the staff. This is quite universal and not only in software applied. I think, again, Waterfall also works well in such cases or such projects that are repetitive and somewhat predictable. At the very beginning, we are able to define there the schedule, budget, and scope of the project and in such projects, this waterfall will work best. Why take Agile for this? Will we have to have these scrum masters? To hire, pay, and for what?

You would still have to buy a lot of cards so they could attach themselves. Big cost, unnecessary. In recent years, many companies have made the transformation from Waterfall to Agile or have introduced Agile. How do you feel about what mistakes are most often made during such a transformation?

I would say two. One is leadership, is there really leadership of this change, because when we talk about change, if we really think about change and thick change, sometimes you also have to change the structure, that is, some people have to be thanked, that is, just fired, and someone has to be strong in the company to be able to carry out such changes. This is important to me and the purpose – why? I have the opportunity to talk to different people from different companies that are going through or have gone through a transformation. As I asked such a question why did you do it you have already finished this transformation and if this goal has been achieved, I know that this is quite a difficult question. I have this conviction. Like I said it’s a shame now in the city not to be agile, but why be? Every change costs money. Why should we send our employees to Agile and Scrum training? Why should we download Scrum Masters? God forbid we do an Agile Center yet. Somehow appoint a boss for this Agile Center like me, if we don’t know why we do it. We are pointlessly spending money. First of all, think about why we are doing it, and what we want to achieve. And whether we are achieving those goals.

And don’t you think that from the employees’ point of view it’s a little bit that they want, they crave this agile and they want to work in agile teams than in Waterfall-managed teams?

This is how I observe it. It seems to me that here such a main argument is something that this agile approach promise autonomy. That is, often in the cascading approach tasks are scheduled. Today I’m going to test this there, tomorrow I’m going to code that. It should take me 30 days there and that’s what I’m supposed to do. In contrast, Agile uses people’s autonomy to make teams more effective. I prefer to work as a mature person in such a way that I have a say in what I do, rather than the boss coming in there and checking me every half day to see if I’m doing it right or not. The reason I also ask this is that in the past, back when Agile wasn’t so popular, we were also doing recruitment of candidates, if we saw that he was working in scrum, that was one of the assets we talked about. And that actually attracted candidates. As we have conversations about the meeting. About the scrum team, cool, I like that, because I don’t know that. I would like to try that.

So today in the other direction. If the team works in a waterfall, there is a downside that candidates don’t always want to hear. So from our perspective. I’ve also heard such arguments that rather developers work. Sorry, they prefer to work in these agile teams.

And how do you see the future of the profession in general? As far as agile coaches are concerned?

I once spoke with a specialist from Forrester about the future of Agile. He told me that the era of better Agile will come. I was talking about predictions. It’s hard to talk about predictions if they are about the future. It seems to me that, first of all, agile is already becoming a daily reality. It’s not a place where we start bragging about it, we just start improving, improving, not implementing, just improving what we have. It seems to me that also companies will look more critically at the expense of implementing or maintaining this way of working. If we see that Agile, it’s just cards, meetings, and training, it just doesn’t pay off. It seems to me that also some people will give up, so they will fire people like Scrum Masters or move away from this method because it doesn’t bring value. As more and more companies get into this Agile approach, it seems to me that there will be a big focus not so much on the agility of individual teams in a large organization, but on how to make many teams and many teams agile. That’s what I’ve been thinking about now, whether there are any solutions on the market. There are a lot of them. I don’t think there is one that actually gives you that Silver Bullet solution, one that will actually be effective. Further companies are looking. It seems to me that this is the direction it will go.

That is, as far as Agile is concerned, it will also spread further, and where it is, it will become more efficient and there will be more input. That’s what efficiency is left for, and the elimination of such, let’s say, behaviors, or such pathological situations, for the reason that it’s sticking cards and that’s it, yes?


Well, Bartek. Thank you very much for the interview.

Thank you. Thank you for your questions and see you soon.

See you.