Hiring Agile Coaches

A team with a coach leading from the back

I was inspired by this tweet from Dave Nicolette to talk a bit about what I look for when hiring Agile professionals.

Understanding the value of Agile coaches

While I have been working exclusively with Agile techniques since we adopted Extreme Programming at a start-up where I was the development lead in 2000, I had never encountered a team-aligned full-time Agile professional before I joined Spotify in 2013. My prior experience with Agile was always that the team was responsible for it.

As a development lead, I was the XP coach when we did Extreme Programming. When my teams chose Scrum, I might take the role of Scrum Master, or it was the Program Manager, someone else on the team, or float between multiple people.

When I came to Spotify and found that I had three Agile coaches in my tribe, I was first a bit skeptical about the role. The coaches I worked with were not program managers, not scrum masters. They didn’t “lead” Agile in the teams with whom they worked. I wasn’t sure what their purpose was.

I first came to understand their value when one of them went on an extended vacation a few months after I started. At Spotify, I had found the most advanced and mature implementation of Agile/Lean product development at a scale that I have ever seen. I knew the coaches helped this, but I wasn’t sure how.

The coach went on their vacation, and everything kept going on as usual for a while. I would visit the stand-ups, and teams were adding stories and tracking them across the boards. One day I sat in on a squad’s stand-up and noticed that they had added a couple of swim lanes to their Kanban board. They now had more swim lanes than developers—a big red flag.

Over the weeks the coach was gone, the teams slowly slid into some bad habits. Velocity started to slip. I did my best to make them aware of this and get them back onto better paths, but I couldn’t be with each team enough.

The coach came back from vacation, and within a week or so, things were back to their high levels of performance. I wanted to see how he did it, and so I watched the ceremonies when I could. He didn’t cajole or quote Agile texts at them. He gently reminded them what good looked like, lessons they had learned in the past. He asked them many questions around why they thought what they were doing was a good idea. He didn’t “fix” them. He got them to fix themselves—a true coach.

Now I understood the value of the Agile coach role.

Good coach, bad coach

As Spotify grew and the number of Agile coaches in the company swelled, I also got to see some challenges with the role. Some coaches were highly effective and some less so. I had been lucky to start with three excellent coaches in my team. Some of my peers struggled with the coaches in their organizations.

As I came to understand the characteristics of the coaches that I found successful, I started to look for those qualities as we hired into our team. I have continued to look for those qualities as I have created those roles at companies in the US and UK where the role of Agile Coach (versus Scrum Master, Delivery Manager, or Agile Project Manager) is still novel.

Before I enumerate those characteristics, I want to make one point about careers as an Agile professional.

It is a tough job.

In many parts of the world, full-time Agile roles are very hard to come by. Mostly, companies hire Agile folks on a contractual basis. So, most Agile people have to string together six- or twelve-month stints at various companies trying to earn a living.

After reviewing hundreds of CVs in the US and Europe, the same companies show up often. These companies are always the ones who are in year X of a one-year Agile transformation program. Those are soul-crushing gigs.

The stringing together of short-term jobs can lead to a consultant mindset. These folks have the wisdom from having to jump into hostile environments, trying to survive. They have seen many mistakes that companies have made. Few have held the more extended roles where they have not only got teams functioning in an Agile way, but also helped them to evolve to a much better level. Their experience is broad, but not deep.

It is vital to keep that in mind as you review applicants, you need to understand their world and watch out for folks who have gotten stuck in that short-term mindset.

What I look for when I hire Agile coaches

  • A product development background.
    It isn’t critical which specific history the person has as a developer, tester, product manager, UX designer, engineering manager… I want to see that they had direct experience shipping a product. Agile roles have been around long enough that people can be trained in them in school and go right into the profession. From my experience, Agile people without experience building products can have a hard time making the trade-offs that are sometimes necessary. They may focus too much on the “how” without understanding the “why,” “what,” or “when.”
  • Broad knowledge of Agile frameworks and techniques.
    While the core of Agile thinking has been around for many years, new practices and methods continue to evolve. Like any profession, I look for a candidate to demonstrate that they are not only keeping up but are interested in what is happening in their field.
  • Experience growing a teams’ proficiency over time.
    As I mentioned above, many Agile professionals get stuck in an endless series of Agile transformations at different companies. While this is a valuable experience for an Agile consultant, it isn’t that practical for someone coming into a long-term role.
  • Pragmatic, not pedantic.
    Pragmatism is something I look for in everyone I hire. I would not expect this to be an issue for an Agile professional, but I have interviewed people whose definition of what was or was not correct was defined by a single book.
  • Knowing what good looks like.
    The characteristics of a high-performing Agile team are incredibly context-dependent. There is no single way to be an effectual team. So how do you convince teams to invest in improvement? You need to give them the vision of what they can be, which means that you need to know what “good” looks like.
  • Knowing what bad looks like.
    The converse of knowing what good looks like is knowing what bad looks like. I want to hear what the candidate identifies as harmful patterns in a team. The patterns they identify, help me understand how they look at teams. I also want to listen to their techniques for breaking teams out of these patterns. I want to hear what has worked and not worked for them.
  • A desire to build something bigger than themselves.
    I want to see some ambition in a coach. Not just to get a group working well, but to redefine what a group can achieve with the right support. If a candidate thinks their job is complete when the team has regular ceremonies, a groomed backlog, and a good flow of tickets, they probably aren’t what I am looking for.
  • Experience working with cross-functional stakeholders.
    Too many people view Agile as a software development thing, with defined boundaries aligned to the engineering team. Successful Agile organizations interface with the whole company, even if those functions do not choose to work in an Agile way.

Building an Agile coaching practice in your organization

If you want to build a new Agile coaching practice within your organization, it is best to start slow. Hire one coach, work with them to establish what the role means within your company. When the organization demands more time from them than they have to give, it will be time to hire a second coach, and so on.

Each coach should be able to support multiple teams, especially if you want the teams to own their practices instead of the coach (this is one reason why the coach should not be the scrum master for the groups they work with). Working with multiple groups also helps give some visibility across the organization about the quality of Agile practices and is an excellent conduit for best practice sharing.

You may have over-hired on coaches when the Agile coaches end up driving their deliverables and organizing their work as a function. That may mean that the coach to team ratio is off.

If you are serious about evolving your Agile practice as an organization and improving the quality, efficiency, and happiness of your teams, hire an Agile coach.

But make sure you hire the right one.

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