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Professional Scrum Trainer Spotlight: John Riley's Journey to Scrum Mastery

April 29, 2024

This episode features guest host PST Ryan Ripley interviewing John Riley about his experiences that led him to becoming a Professional Scrum Trainer. Coming from a development background, Riley first encountered Scrum in 2004, drawn to its agility and project outcome improvements. Despite initial failure in an agile transformation, he remained interested. In 2010, while working on a banking application, Riley became deeply engaged in Scrum, inspired by his team's Scrum Master. He transitioned into the Scrum Master role himself, realizing the framework's effectiveness.

Riley's approach evolved when he learned to view Scrum as flexible rather than rigid, after team feedback. He shifted to a more observational coaching style. His advice for aspiring Scrum Masters includes finding a mentor, staying open to learning, and pairing up with experienced practitioners to better grasp agile and Scrum mindsets.



Lindsay Velecina  0:03  
Welcome to the community podcast, a podcast from the home of Scrum. In this podcast we feature professional scrum trainers and other scrum practitioners sharing their stories and experiences to help learn from the experience of others. We hope you enjoy this episode.

Ryan Ripley  0:19  
Hi, everyone. I'm Ryan Ripley with Agile for humans and professional scrum trainer with I'm stepping in as a guest host for episodes highlighting the experiences of other Professional scrum trainers. I hope you enjoy getting to know these amazing people. Welcome to today's episode of becoming a scrum master. I'm your host Ryan Ripley joining me today. Mr. John Riley. John, how are you, sir?

john riley  0:44  
Doing great, Ryan, how you doing?

Ryan Ripley  0:45  
I'm awesome. I get to talk to people like you all day today, which has been great. It's great to talk to you too hard to complain when you're doing what you love.

john riley  0:55  
That's right. That's right.

Ryan Ripley  0:57  
We'll jump right into it. I know the listeners like like when we get straight to the point. John, can you share the story of how you first encountered Scrum? And what motivated you to become a scrum master? Was there a particular moment or experience that sparked your interest?

john riley  1:13  
Yeah, this is a great story. Ryan are a great question. So regarding the first part about how I first encountered Scrum, it was actually sort of by mistake and sort of by you know, my wanting to have some kind of change, because I came from a development background. And great, you know, I was great developer, a great architect, everything like that. But in the end, one thing was always striking me and that was that something was always wrong. When we released something was wrong, I think I mean, it wasn't maybe it was buggy. Maybe it was just something that didn't, you know, people didn't like, anyway, I started becoming aware of Scrum and agility when it first came out and really didn't do anything to practice it until a couple, you know, a couple years into, like, I would say around 2004 was really my first experience with it, you know, took a class that someone had said, Hey, try this scrum thing. Then I, I did something really dumb I, I did an my first Agile transformation, when I really didn't understand agility. It was a massive failure. For several reasons. One, I tried to do it by myself, too. I didn't understand why we're doing what we were doing. And so it was just, you know, just complete failure. So anyway, fast forward a few more years by 2010 was about my first exposure to a real scrum environment, and open spaces, everything I was on the dev team, and it was for a banking application. And within a week, I was like, wow, okay, this is what I was expecting. I was in an environment with a team that was actually able to manage their own work, we were able to have conversations about things, we had things that were right, split, everything like that, well. I also saw what the scrum master was doing. And she, she was doing an amazing job running around trying to get facilitate the needs of the team, the organization. And I said, You know what, that's what I want to do, I want to be a scrum master someday. So I actually got an opportunity once that scrum master left to become the scrum master this team. So that's really what it was, it was almost like a fish water kind of thing where something was wrong. And then I finally understood, all right, well, we're really trying to focus on what the customer needs are. And that's why we're developing what we're developing. And it was more about the, you know, bringing value to the team, the organization uses self self management and empiricism, which are really discovered, you know, what empiricism really means by making things transparent first. And really, that's kind of how I got started. It was it was really just out of experience. And, you know, kind of saying, hey, well, what can we do here to improve ourselves? And so that role was, Oh,

Ryan Ripley  4:32  
it's great. And that kind of bleeds into this next question here about a specific project or situation where there was like a Eureka, or light bulb moment that really highlighted the power and potential of Scrum, and if you could describe that.

john riley  4:47  
So it was actually it's funny you say that that was a nice transition, because it was actually with that first opportunity where I had the scrum became a scrum master. In that banking application, so, you know, not much experience being a scrum master, or you know, interacting with Scrum Masters. And so the only thing I really had was the scrum guide. And I, back then I treated the scrum guide like a, like a Bible, this is a set of rules that we follow to make sure that we are doing things correctly. That was pretty much my mindset. And so I came in guns blazing. Right, so we're done, we're gonna get to do 15 minute daily scrums, and no more. And, you know, we have to make sure that we have the checklist of things that we do for the sprint planning and also that kind of stuff. So yeah, that was another kind of a failure moment. Because people started not trusting me, I noticed that there was a lot of resistance to more resistance to doing, you know, making things transparent, moving things on a board or whatever. And I'm just like, oh, this is kind of strange. And notice a lot of silence in retrospectives. So, just had to take a moment, it was actually the eureka moment came when we had a conversation at lunch with a couple couple guys around the team, who were my friends also. And they just kind of they kind of said, or they didn't kind of say they said to me, you are really, you know, you're really taking this too seriously. We're not really liking you on the team. I mean, they've in so many words, that's what they said. And I said, Well, okay, this is news to me, What can I do to improve? He's, she's guys just like, lighten up, just, you know, and that kind of had me take a step back and have some awareness of what what what do we mean by that. And that's where I kind of took a step back. And so as Scrum, as its, as its presented is nothing more than a framework. And there's reasons why things are the way they are and the framework. And it's up to us to then make our own rules, and principles and practices around that framework, based on empiricism, self managing teams, and professionalism. So that's really what was the eureka moment for me and seeing then how the team was behaving towards certain influences on the team. And you know, just me taking more of a backseat on things, and just making sure that I could do some more obscene observation types of things, rather than doing, you know, direct coaching, sometimes, for example, you know, it's like, you know, one time I just put a 1000 piece puzzle, in the team space, just put it there didn't say anything else. And little by little people would just, you know, take a break from what they're doing, and just kind of do that puzzle puzzle or whatever. And people notice things like, Yeah, this isn't great environment to be in. It's just like, the little influences the health, the behavior, the team, you know, and help it be a space where it's, you know, where you can actually get things done, for example, if that's what a true Scrum Master does to really, you know, bring some value to the team, for example. And then

Ryan Ripley  8:31  
the slight nudges just have such an a huge impact. Right? Right.

john riley  8:35  
Right. And sometimes that's all it takes. And it varies from team to team, some, some teams have absolutely no idea how to even work in a team space. So they might need more coaching. And so really, it was that eureka moment to not take Scrum, for, you know, you know, just as set of rules, it's a framework. And there's reasons why things are the way they are.

Ryan Ripley  8:59  
That's great. And it's kind of again, I love working with PSPs, because we're good at these transitions. So how is your perception and execution of the scrum master role, or the accountabilities as we say now, how has all that evolved? Are there aspects of the role or the accountabilities that you view differently now compared to when you first started doing

john riley  9:20  
the most definitely. So the execution of Scrum Master. What I tend to do when I'm first on a team as a Scrum Master, is I kind of take a temperature of the team, the organization, and you know, the, the other teams as part of my first role, so I take an observational point of view first, and I've learned that doing that rather than seeing all the dysfunction and doing something about it first, is the most effective on the team You know, there's some like, especially alignment line managers, you know, who managers who manage people on the team might say, Oh, we're expecting you to do some more. And, you know, sometimes that's a good time to say, okay, great, what are your expectations of me on the team? You know, and that can transition into? Well, your expect, this is what the expectations are. And this is the desired outcome. And, you know, it's, and then I kind of take a coaching stance and say, Okay, well, let's see how this works in a month. And I'll tell you what I can and cannot do. So. It's all about setting those boundaries, right. So, you know, then it transitions into, okay, let's set boundaries for the team with set boundaries with managers that set boundaries with the product owner with set boundaries with other people that you work with on other teams. So So yeah, it's definitely evolved into something of a more of a more of an observational point of view. And then I can get into some direct and indirect coaching.

Ryan Ripley  11:04  
Amazing how how, just as good fences, make good neighbors, good boundaries, make good relationships, right?

john riley  11:10  
Absolutely. Set the end. And I found that setting them up as soon as you can, at the right moment, is so very important. Because if you let those boundaries go, then, you know, then that's when expectations kind of gets, you know, misread or whatever. But yeah, that's a great analogy. I love that analogy, by the way. Thanks.

Ryan Ripley  11:36  
What advice would you give to someone aspiring to become a scrum master? Is there a particular mindset skill or habit that you believe is crucial for success? In this role, or while fulfilling the accountabilities? Yeah, 100%

john riley  11:51  
my very first piece of advice, because of someone becoming a scrum master, and this is a practice that I still partake in, is to find a mentor. Whether that means find someone who has been in a scrum master role before, or someone you really care about that has had the same experiences as you find a mentor, and let you know, get their take on what it's like to be a scrum master, maybe a day to day thing laying out like, you know, what's the first 90 days? What can I expect here? How should I, you know, how should I coach the team and even, you know, the good mentor is going to challenge you. So, you know, based on scenarios, like you know, something that someone comes to the team and says that they they're not getting along with someone else in the team, how would you handle that situation as a scrum master? Something like that. But I've, I've always liked the pairing up relationship. You know, in the dev world, we talk about pair programming a lot. But that's really what advice I would give is, find a mentor, someone you can trust to help you understand what the Agile and Scrum mine mindsets all about. Yeah,

Ryan Ripley  13:11  
I think it's a great piece of advice. Last question here. What is the one book every scrum master should read? And it doesn't have to be agile doesn't have to be Scrum. Prefer, it's not one of mine. A lot of a lot of people that have commander's Oh, it's gotta be fixing your Scrum. Alright. Besides that, what's the and maybe a different way to frame this one, if it helps, like, what's the book that you read that made a lot of things click or really impacted the way you show up in the workplace, or with teams, you know, that kind of that kind of experience. The

john riley  13:47  
one book that you should read for every Scrum Master, is drive by Daniel Pink. Okay. It's just an incredible book on leadership. I actually read the book before I became interested in Scrum. It was written in the mid 90s. But I think that a lot of the a lot of what I practice it goes back to some aspects of that book. On

Ryan Ripley  14:16  
it's great, it's a good recommendation drive is definitely an important work about motivation, both intrinsic and extrinsic. So good stuff there. John, anything you want to get in front of the listeners and the viewers before we wrap this one up? I'm

john riley  14:37  
not really I think that pretty much Dr. That pretty much wraps it up, so

Ryan Ripley  14:41  
awesome. Well, John, thanks for doing this. I really appreciate it.


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