Scrum’s team-centric philosophy is what helps those teams flourish. Members of a Scrum team learn to trust each other, how to apply each others’ strengths, how to learn from one another, and how to come together to drive toward shared successes. But even Scrum teams need leaders. There’s the Product Owner, who provides vision and direction and helps define the value of the work. There’s the Scrum Master, who guides the team through Scrum’s tenets and coaches them to maximum effectiveness. And then there’s the Scrum Tech Lead who…
Wait. Stop. Back up a minute.
What does standard Scrum have to say about the Scrum Tech Lead?
A scrum team is comprised of Product Owner, Scrum Master, and the development team, which owns the authority and responsibility of creating the technical solution.
OK… How about Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)? What does it say about the role?
This term does not appear as a formal role anywhere on the SAFe website. In fact, the term “tech lead” appears only once.1 Same for “technical lead” — only once.2 As for “Scrum Tech Lead”? “Scrum Technical Lead”? Nowhere to be found.
But this is a leadership role in the true servant leadership tradition of Scrum. And it’s one that has played an important role at Dealer.com as our Agile Scrum teams have matured. Recognizing this void in the shared tradition, the Scrum Tech Lead COP at Dealer.com combined their collective wisdom and experience and wrote their own definition. Broadly speaking, the Scrum Tech Lead’s responsibilities fall into three categories:
- Technical Leadership
- Mentoring and Support
- Technical Communication
Let’s dig into them here.
A Scrum Tech Lead’s first responsibility on the team is to provide it with technical leadership. What does technical leadership look like in action when you think of it as a servant-leadership role?
The Scrum Tech Lead helps the team to bridge the gap between product architecture and detailed design. She defends the technical integrity of the product by working with the team, the Product Architect3, and Product Owner to identify opportunities for improvement, and to validate, refine, and prioritize those stories. She advocates for the team’s technical quality by insisting on design and code reviews, performance tests, by encouraging test automation, and helping refine unit test strategies. She actively monitors the health and performance of the applications that are under the team’s purview: are they stable? are they scaling? are releases making things better or worse?
And while the Scrum Tech Lead may not be the majority contributor to the code, she maintains a general understanding of the team’s work at all times. She may not know every last semi-colon, but she knows the architecture. She knows why the team decided on a specific technical approach and can defend it because she already challenged it. She doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but she’s confident that she’s asking the right questions.
Mentoring & Support
Through that technical leadership, the Scrum Tech Lead provides essential technical support and becomes the de facto mentor for each person touching code on that Scrum team.
The Scrum Tech Lead is the team’s lens for focusing technical questions, the first stop when a question can’t be answered by some internal documentation or a Google search. She facilitates feedback on designs and moderates debates in code reviews. She coaches developers to build the right solution at the right time,4 and builds the trust and confidence that the team will get to make that necessary refactor in a future iteration. She also makes space for the developers on her team to learn and grow so that they start making ever-increasingly important decisions on their own.
The Scrum Tech Lead is an accelerator. She identifies pairing opportunities so that the knowledge fans out. She explains the architecture. When two boxes are connected on the whiteboard, she draws the missing Rabbit queue in the middle. She points out that one of your peers is giving a talk on Spring Boot next week and you might benefit from that.
Being plugged into the technical tasks that constitute the sprint’s value stream, the Scrum Tech Lead is the ultimate owner of their technical communication.
She serves as the technical liaison to stakeholders. Release notes? Technical details during a production anomoly? Product Owner needs clarification before acceptance? Publishing a library that other Scrum teams need to update? The Scrum Tech Lead is all over this.
Or maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe there’s an integration that her Scrum team is performing and they need technical details from some other Scrum team. She ensures that the critical technical lessons learned are captured, digested, and applied.
Saying that a Scrum Tech Lead provides essential technical leadership for Scrum teams is vague and hand-wavy. But if you consider the Scrum Tech Lead’s technical leadership along these three dimensions, you can get a clear picture of what the role is all about. That “essential technical leadership” is about communicating clearly, about teaching freely, and about leading by example.
Special thanks to Dealer.com’s collective Scrum Tech Leads for the insights that contributed to this definition, to Jonathan Ferry for leading toward a refined definition, and extra special thanks to Ross Hughes for his invaluable feedback on this post.
- And that “once” is in a comment by Dean Leffingwell. ↩
- And in a parenthetical aside, at that. ↩
- “Product Architect” is (technically) another role that SAFe doesn’t say anything explicitly about. However, from the looks of things, the “System Architect” role appears to align well with what we at Dealer.com call a Product Architect. ↩
- We talk internally about “solution fidelity” and use that as a reminder to not “over-build”. The favored analogy goes something like this: Dirt Roads ↠ Cobblestones ↠ Highways Again, as in the tradition of Scrum, the emphasis is to produce an MVP first, prove the value, and then iterate. Don’t box yourself in with bad choices (the Scrum Tech Lead can help there, too!), but don’t sacrifice shipping for scale — especially when you’re not even sure that you’re building what the market really wants. ↩