This Blog is a 5-Part Series | Part -2
March 8, 2021 | BY Sarfraz Aaron, CSM, SSM, PMP
Welcome back to part 2 of my journey to becoming a Scrum Master.
Just to recap from blog 1, I had multiple technical roles over the first 10 years after graduating. This obviously helped me to gain a lot of technical experience, but my career did not focus on one specific direction.
In this part 2 blog, I am going to cover on what I did to move into project management and how I got introduced to Agile/Scrum.
This blog is a 5-part series that I will go over my professional career life journey, highlighting my thought process, what options were available and what decisions I took (good & bad!) that got me to this point.
Of all the things I’ve done, the most vital is coordinating the talents of those who work for us and pointing them towards a certain goal. ~ Walt Disney
Breaking into Project Management
As you probably know, when you want to be something like a doctor, an engineer or even a project manager, you need to identify what kind of designations or certifications will be needed in order to be recognized in that field.
In my case, at the time I was working for an organization that specialized in Satellite Television and Telecommunications. There was a Project Management Office (PMO) that had many project managers who handled all the projects in terms of infrastructure and software development.
Since I was curious, I had discussed with few project managers from the PMO department on what I needed to do to become a project manager. Their consistent advice was to pass the PRINCE2 project management exam. This was similar to PMP project management exam in North America. So I went about to enquire about this designation and managed to enroll for the course. After the course, there was an exam that consisted of both multiple choice as well as task based answers. The course did make sense to me as the PRINCE2 methodology approach was logical and very disciplined. However, the exam was very difficult as there were many scenarios given and to pass one had to think about the answers according to what the PRINCE2 methodology would do. This is no different from when you sit for the PMP. Having said this, I DID pass PRINCE2 exam and was certified!
Now, how do you go about getting a project manager job with just certification?
In life you always have to start at the bottom when you do something new. So for the first step, I asked the PMO manager in my organization whether I could work as a project manager. This request was approved to allow me to work in the PMO department on a short-term secondment. I moved into the PMO department and I was assigned to small or sometimes tedious projects since I did not have any experience. I did not mind as I needed the experience.
To make myself proficient in project management, I tried to learn Microsoft Project Plan, understand how to carry out project meetings, and how to capture and discuss risks and issues. These were all known to me from the learnings from PRINCE2, but I did not have any practical experience. I requested to be paired with an experienced project manager so that I could learn. This request was approved and I began to absorb everything the senior project manager did!
So by shadowing and seeing how the senior project manager executed the various tasks, , I was able to apply the same when I was running my own projects. This gave me great confidence and credibility.
Later after my secondment period had ended, I asked my organization to give me an opportunity to continue working as a project manager. This request was declined and I guess it was due to few factors, for example: I was too junior to prove that I was good enough as a project manager during the short time period, and secondly, my organization knew me as a technical support person and not as a project manager. This was very disappointing indeed!
The Project Manager
Somewhere down the line, the organization restructured itself and my role became redundant. So when I left the organization, I applied for specifically project management roles. My resume highlighted that I had few years of project management experience but I really emphasized the fact that I had a good technical knowledge. I tried to portray myself as an aspiring project manager!
My opportunity came when a landed a job as a project manager with a small company. I was super excited as now I could demonstrate and enhance my project management skills. What my previous company labelled me as junior project manager, now really did not matter anymore as I was hired as a project manager. I needed this break.
As soon as I joined the new company, I was given multiple projects to work on from the get-go (as to them I was a seasoned project manager!). This situation made me nervous as I knew that I am not a seasoned project manager but the expectations were set high!
One of the project was already in difficulty, where previously assigned project managers left the company making the client very upset as there was no consistent project manager assigned to the project. My first step in this regard was to straightaway amend the client relationship and to start gaining the trust of the client and build credibility. This idea or the approach was purely my gut-feeling. From the get-go I was under tremendous pressure to prove myself and to the company that I was an able project manager.
After a short period, my effort to work with the client was paid off as the project was on track after re-alignment of the project scope. As a result, the client was happy and continued to do more business with the company. In return, the company was pleased with me and I was pleased with myself. I was able to pull through this time by applying what I had learnt from shadowing the senior project manager and the PRINCE2 methodology. Another very important factor that I realized which helped to pull this first project through was my interpersonal skills. I realized that being a successful project manager one had to have excellent soft skills and the ability to work and motivate people!
This is how I broke into project management.
There is a way to do it better — find it! ~ Thomas A. Edison
Certified Scrum Master
After 6 months at this company, I was asked to attend Agile/Scrum course as the company wanted to leverage agile principles to deliver projects. This is the first time I had been introduced to the word Agile or even Scrum and the Agile mindset.
I attended a 2 days Scrum course and without any exam, I was a Certified Scrum Master!
Attending the Scrum course really gave me another perspective to project management - I was sold on the idea of Agile or Scrum. So back in the office, I tried to move into project management with the Agile twist. That's when I used scrum to execute the projects and I played the role of a Scrum Master. I ran all the scrum ceremonies and I had everybody attend our sprint demos since the company was small. I displayed all the sprint user stories on a large whiteboard that everyone in the office could see. Everyone was excited to see how agile or scrum worked.
This is the moment I got myself into Scrum. Almost back to back with project management!
Thereafter, I continued to manage and deliver projects using scrum. I was very grateful for these opportunities but felt under pressure as both areas were new to me and I did not want to tell anyone that I was junior in both of these areas of project management.
Within the next 6 months, around 2007, I moved to Canada with my family and continued to apply for either project manager or a scrum master roles. The problem was that all Canadian companies asked for Canadian Experience, which meant that anyone arriving to Canada will not have it! So how does one overcome this first hurdle?
Sometimes later, I did manage to get a role as a project manager but within 6 months of starting, I was offered a Development Manager role to look after all the developers, architects and testing teams. Subsequently, my effort to learn more about project management or apply agile as a scrum master, did not last long as I was doing more of the managerial stuff.
I had joined few other Canadian companies as a project manager but soon afterwards, I was offered management roles that I had accepted. I soon realized that I am not able to pursue my career as a project manager or even as a scrum master. Some of the companies that I worked for tried to introduce agile into the work environment but was never successful. Some of the reasons I could think of was that there was no appetite to adopt agile, people had misconceptions about agile and finally change was not welcomed!
Since in Canada PRINCE2 certification was not recognized, I prepared and sat for the PMP (Project Management Professional) certification. I attended a 5-days boot camp training course that covered all the topics under the PMP examination in just 5 days instead of few months. This was a tough crash course as there was a lot to cover and one had to think in terms of PMP way of thinking and not what I had learnt from PRINCE2 or my project management experience thus far. Almost felt like a reset.
In 2011, I was PMP certified.
I continued to work mainly in managerial roles but felt that I had to focus on a scrum master roles as I knew agile very well and believed the ways of working using the scrum framework. I was looking for that opportunity where I could practice agile in an environment that was purely agile centric. So for my next part of journey, I'll talk about how I become more focused on being an agile centric and play the role of a scrum master.
I look forward to seeing you on my part 3 of How Did I Get Here? My Journey to Becoming a Scrum Master.