Oliver Zech: Taking part in a job swap as a scrum master

Have you ever considered a short-term job swap? Sportradar’s Oliver Zech – Agile Coach in the Digital Platforms & Services division, based in Vienna – recently headed to Willhaben as part of a ‘craftsman swap’ and later wrote about his experiences on Medium.

By Oliver Zech

Inspired by articles about visiting other companies and hosting externals craftsmen (like the Codurance/Zenika craftsman swap or Code Cop’s Journeyman Tour) I took part on a craftsman swap between Willhaben and Sportradar.

As Nicole Rauch explains in her blog a craftsman swap is an exchange of two employees from two different companies to spend a certain amount of time working within the other company.

Working as a scrum master in my team at Sportradar is great and I am learning new stuff every day. Nevertheless, I have gotten the feeling of missing something while working for the same company for five years now. So my main motivation for the craftsman swap was to learn from different methods and experiences of other teams. I was also keen on getting to know a different company culture as well. In addition, I wanted to practice my coaching and feedback skills in a new and unfamiliar environment.

Apart from the articles I mentioned above, I found many more, all of them describing the different experiences of a software craftsman swap. Of course, they were mostly about (pair) programming with different developers and I could not find something about a swap as a scrum master, product owner, agile coach or similar. Obviously, the experience would be different but I was on fire as both companies approved the swap.

Willhaben, an Austrian online market place, hosted me for one week at the end of March 2019. Two weeks later Martin Lemanski visited my team at Sportradar for one week, which is working on a streaming platform for sports like football, basketball and ice hockey.

In the first part, I will tell you about my week at Willhaben and in the second part below I try to sum up my learnings and advice if you also would like to do a craftsman swap.

My week at Willhaben

Day 1 — What am I doing here?

I started my week with an office tour during daily stand-up time so I got the chance to introduce myself to every team and got a rough overview about them. The tour took us about an hour and it felt like I met a hundred new people — so no chance to remember a lot of names or faces.

After that, I met Andreas, who is Willhaben’s agile coach. I joined him while he was facilitating some of the team’s sprint plannings and also for a meeting of one team, where he assisted them at their switch from Scrum to Kanban.

At the end of the day, Martin invited everybody interested to a brief introduction of myself and a presentation about web development at Sportradar, which led to an intense Q&A session — at least it was very intense for me. There were a lot of questions about methods and processes that are different at Sportradar compared to Willhaben and discussions about which way is the better one. This was exhausting for me as I had no clear or definite answers to these questions.

The day ended with thoughts of doubt and insecurity. All teams of Willhaben are working on the same product which is totally different from Sportradar, where every team is working on their own projects. Their code base and their product are huge compared to our stuff — what am I doing here? None of my experiences or things that I have learned during my years as a scrum master could be useful for them. Better be quiet for the rest of the week and learn something from these experienced guys.

Day 2 — Facilitating a retrospective helped to overcome imposter syndrome.

The next day I stopped at a coffee house on my way to the office to reflect my first day and set some goals for day two. I wanted to get a better overview of the responsibilities and dependencies of the teams. I also wanted to find a chance to make a contribution to their work, even if it is only something very small.

Together with Andreas I joined the daily stand-ups of all teams and ended in the coordination meeting of the web team, which is responsible for the new web frontend of the platform and was ramped up just some months ago. I learned how they plan their roadmap for the next months while using Kanban for daily/weekly planning. It was interesting for me to see how the team makes sure, that their daily work takes them closer to their goals for the year and for every quarter.

To get a better understanding of the dependencies between the teams I joined the meetings of team coordinators and team leads, which are roles that represent either a team or a competency. After that, it was the first time that Andreas could take a break from his daily responsibilities to sit down with me for a chat about my first two days. He could provide me with some background on the current team situation and their challenges and obstacles. With that knowledge, my observations got in context and that helped to clarify many of my questions till that point. He also had some time to answer all other open questions I had and gave me an overview of his mid- and long-term plans and goals for the teams.

The exchange with another agile coach, while getting the chance to take some insights into his organisation, was really interesting. Talking to Andreas was very helpful, especially because I am on the edge between being a scrum master for one team and becoming the first agile coach of our organisation. He could tell me about his career, how he got to this position and about his thoughts what it means to be the only agile coach in a company.

After that Andreas invited me to facilitate the retrospective of the web team this afternoon. That was a perfect chance for an actual contribution and to get a deeper understanding of one team. Together we reflected their time since the last retro and I could show them an exercise for a better understanding of your team members, which they did not know before. It went pretty good and Andreas told me that it was pretty interesting for him to get the chance to observe a retrospective instead of facilitating it.

The day ended with a ‘Dev Cinema’ evening. Developers voted on some conference talks they would like to see and watched them together with pizza and some open discussion afterwards.

The meetings and discussion of the day helped me to get a good overview of the team structure and the successful retrospective made me feel me a lot more confident than the day before. I was looking forward to the next day to get deeper insights into the workflows and dynamics of the web team.

Day 3 — First time I really felt like a part of the team.

Again I started the day in the coffee house with some reflection and goal setting for the day which felt like some good routine already. As I was in the middle of the week I wanted to start focusing more on the web team, to get some deeper understanding in addition to the rough overview of the last days.

During the day I sat next to the web team, joined their stand-up, recognised their ad-hoc discussion and got a feeling of how a typical workday of them looks like. I also sat down with some of the developers and testers so that they could describe the development and release processes. That gave me a better understanding way between the specification of a new idea/feature and the release.

I also got the chance to attend a meeting of the architecture guild, where they discussed some pretty big redesigns of the current architecture which was impressive, especially the approach how they decided to tackle such a big challenge.

As I was about leaving the office I ran into some developers in the kitchen who were preparing dinner. They celebrated the move of a developer from one team to another and invited me to stay for a beer. Actually, it was not only one beer this evening and the day ended with feeling part of the team.

Day 4 — Tomorrow is the last day already?

After my usual morning routine at the coffee house, I realised that this day will probably be my last chance to get answers to still open questions as I knew that we will have office breakfast on Friday and craftsman swap retrospective — so not much time left.

I tried to follow up with all the colleagues I had met during the last days and did not get the chance to talk with yet. So the topics of this day were very different — I talked to many other departments like UI/UX & research, product management, data, operations and HR. It was interesting to see how all these departments work together with product development.

After Andreas got the chance to observe a retrospective facilitated by me on Tuesday, now I got the chance for myself. He facilitated the retrospective of the data team and chose the four Ls (liked, learned, lacked and longed for). Again it was pretty interesting seeing another scrum master/agile coach in action while you know the team a bit already. You can always think about what would you do, ask, push or temper if facilitating this retro?

I realised that the week was nearly over which made me quite sad. It went by so fast and saying goodbye seemed tough, even if I knew all of them just for some days now. But I was looking forward to sharing my experiences at Willhaben with my team and to try out some new ideas.

Day 5 — I have got some great experiences and ideas to share at home!

First Friday of the month is always the time for the Willhaben breakfast. About ten randomly selected employees prepare breakfast for the whole company in their big kitchen. Every breakfast team tries to provide the best event that everybody keeps talking about for months. There we scrambled eggs, pancakes, varieties of ham, bacon and cheese, fruits and vegetables. That was a great start in the day and a good chance for socialising.

At the craftsman swap retrospective Martin, Andreas and I had a talk about the last week and tried to answer the usual retro-questions. What did we learn, what surprised us and what should we had done differently. Most of these learnings are listed below and some of them you may have got while reading this post. I also tried to sum up all interesting or surprising things about Willhaben’s process of product development that I observed during my week. While I am not able to decide if these things are right or wrong, I thought they are unusual. It may be useful to think about it for Willhaben. What are the reasons? Why we are doing things the way we do?

After the retrospective the week came to an end. I made some last notes, got my stuff together and walked through the office to say goodbye to everybody and thank them for an interesting and enhancing week. For making me feel more than welcome, making me feel like part of the team. Part of the dream team. Even if it was only for one week.

My Learnings

As expected I saw a lot of different methods, processes and ideas. Some of them may work for us and some of them will not. I will share these ideas and experiences in my company as much as possible and if I can find interested colleagues we will try to implement them. It will be interesting to see if we can adopt some of Willhaben’s successful practices.

Most important was that I saw completely different approaches to familiar challenges. The stuff you know is so little compared to the stuff you do not know — the craftsman swap definitely showed me that. But that should not discourage you from doing a swap. Just be prepared that you will have to confront your ignorance and avoid judging practices you do not know or usual oppose. Try to figure out why things are done that way. Were they changed during the past? Did they try out different ways? Usually, this is a good sign for a learning process and you can participate now.

Of course, spending a week in a different company is exciting. You will meet many new people and get easily in touch with them because of everybody’s curiosity about the swap. It also is intense and exhausting because of loads of new impression to process. Good preparation and knowing your goals is essential to get most out of it. Especially as scrum master you have to shape the agenda on your own, it is difficult for the host to tell you what to do.

So the answer is yes — you can do a craftsman swap as a scrum master. The experience will just be different than the experience of a developer.

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