More and more organizations are discovering the beneficial effects of introducing Agile, from small several-people companies to large corporations with thousands of employees. In order to help them with the transition to Agile, companies are starting to look for certified Agile practitioners, mostly those knowledgeable about the Scrum framework as the most popular Agile approach.
In such a job market, it has become important to understand the kind of Agile interview questions that will help employers identify job candidates who are truly knowledgeable about what it takes for the new approach to truly yield results.
On the other side of the coin, job seekers who are looking for Scrum Master, Product Owner and other Agile positions have to be better prepared for interviews.
The goal of this article is to help both these “parties” become better prepared for such interviews.
A Few Considerations
Before we get to the actual questions, there are a few things that should be pointed out which make Agile interviews different from other types of job interviews.
For one, the point of being Agile is not to get too constrained by the various frameworks and practices. The majority of Agile approaches are rather liberal about how they best provide value and the ways different experts will approach introducing Agile can differ greatly.
Because of this, the answers to certain questions may also differ without some of them necessarily being wrong. In general, the questions are aimed more at illuminating the ways in which candidates might approach a hypothetical situation than at giving structured, definitive steps on how to handle the issue.
We should also point out that these will not involve such questions like “What is a Sprint Review?”, or “How long should the Sprint be?”. We are interested in more insightful questions that will reveal more about the candidates and prepare the candidates for these more "advanced" questions.
Agile Interview Questions
While Scrum interview questions will definitely account for larger part of this article (due to Scrum being by far the most commonly adopted Agile framework), we will also feature a number of Agile questions, for a couple of reasons.
For one, some of these questions can help employers find out certain things about the candidates, whereas candidates can better explain their approach to Agile. Furthermore, even in teams and organizations that work in Scrum, certain practices from other Agile approaches are also adopted. Finally, there is a chance that an organization or a team has already adopted an Agile approach other than Scrum.
Question #1 - Why Agile?
There are a number of ways to formulate this question, but the basic idea is always the same - to find out how the candidate sees Agile, what they see as the main ideas behind it and as the main benefits of introducing Agile into a team or organization.
In general, the best answers to this question will be based on the four main ideas from the Agile Manifesto and the additional 12 principles behind the Manifesto. The best answers will emphasize (internal and external) collaboration, adaptability, continuous delivery of working software, welcoming change, self-organizing teams and a continuous and active self-improvement of teams and their processes.
While different candidates will see certain beneficial ideas behind Agile as more important than others, it is essential that they do not display tunnel-vision where they are overly focused on just one of the ideas behind Agile at the expense of others.
This is also a great question for identifying Agile and Scrum practitioners who are too focused on processes and tools and who are often still clinging to a certain waterfall way of thinking.
Question #2 - How would you approach an Agile-resistant environment?
This is a crucial question for candidates who are applying for a position in a company that is only starting to implement Agile into its organization. The answer may seem like an invitation to list a number of actions required to approach an environment that is not that welcoming to Agile, but this is not the case.
The answer employers will be looking for is an elaboration on how complicated this can be and the need to tailor one’s approach to a specific situation with an organization. There are innumerable ways in which organizations reject and only half-accept Agile and the candidates should display their understanding of this and share their past experiences on how they dealt with this.
One of the worst approaches to answering this question is to start to contemplate on the ways in which Agile can be implemented as a modification of the existing (usually waterfall) model of doing things. While it may show some resourcefulness on part of the candidate, all experienced and knowledgeable Agile practitioners know that these Agile-like abominations help no one.
Question #3 - What Agile processes have you worked with in the past?
There is a number of things that employers will look to learn from the candidates’ answers to this question.
To start off, they will get a clearer picture of the candidate’s past experience. This will also give them an idea of how comfortable the candidate is with the different Agile approaches such as Scrum, Kanban, Lean, Extreme Programming, Test Driven Development and others.
In addition to this, this question will also reveal how the candidates actually see the processes, practices and concepts such as Scrum and Kanban boards, pair programming, burndown charts, Retrospectives, backlog refinement, continuous integration, etc. Ideally, they will not be focusing on the technicalities, but on the reasons as to why these are practiced and how they improve the way in which the work is improved.
Question #4 - What Agile metrics do you use?
Agile metrics are used to find out more about a present situation within a team or an organization, as well as to notice patterns and inform decisions that will hopefully move those patterns in the right direction in the future.
When asking this question, employers will be looking for a few things. For one, they will be able to tell if the candidate in question understands the point of using metrics or if they are only concerned about metrics as a reporting tool. They will also be able to tell if the candidate understands the difference between quantitative and qualitative metrics and whether the candidate understands the value of getting actionable data within a context as opposed to just getting any data.
Of course, the more details they share about their preferred Agile metrics, the better. Perhaps they will have their own custom qualitative questionnaires or ideas about Lead Times and Cycle Times, for example.
Above everything else, the answer to this question will help identify those people who are in love with velocity a bit too much or, even worse, who see Agile metrics as a tool to grade the work of individual team members.
Question #5 - What are the disadvantages of Agile?
When asking this question, employers are looking to find out whether the candidate in front of them is level-headed and ready to talk about the not-so-perfect points of Agile. Agility is about transparency and inspection and if someone refuses to acknowledge that Agile is not perfect, they are not truly Agile.
In addition to this, discussing these drawbacks of Agile will unearth how a candidate solves problems and how they might approach a situation where the disadvantages of Agile threaten the work being done.
On the candidates’ side, they should be very careful when answering this question, especially if the company they are interviewing at is only starting its Agile transformation. The candidates will want to come off as realistic, but at the same time, expanding on Agile’s occasional issues should be held in check as it might reinforce certain negative sentiments towards Agile that their interviewers may hold.
Scrum Interview Questions
Now that we have covered the most insightful Agile interview questions, it is time to get to the Scrum-related ones. The reason why Scrum gets so much attention is that it is usually the number one choice for companies that are Agile and the majority of interviews set up for Agile practitioners actually call for Scrum practitioners - Scrum Masters and Product Owners. Also, after all, this is the VivifyScrum blog.
Question #1 - How do you see your role?
Regardless of whether the organization is looking to hire a Scrum Master or a Product Owner, this is usually the most insightful question.
While the role of the Product Owner is not managerial in the traditional sense of the word, it is still a leadership role which entails serious responsibilities and an approach that delivers results in the end. Of course, different Product Owners will put an emphasis on different aspects of their role (a coach, a tactician, a facilitator, etc.), but it is important that the candidate understands this.
The Scrum Master is a servant-leader role where the individual provides leadership by serving the team and the whole Scrum process. A good Scrum Master will make this obvious from their answer, elaborating on their supporting and coaching efforts in making the Scrum Team more successful. Ideally, and this is especially important for organizations that have only recently started introducing Scrum, the Scrum Master candidate will also point out their leadership role in Scrum adoption.
Just as important is that the candidates understand the limits of their roles and that they do not overstep their “authority”, thus jeopardizing the effectiveness and the success of the Scrum Team as a whole.
Question #2 - Are you comfortable with saying “No”?
One of the main ideas of Scrum is to give power to developers and teams in general. It is supposed to provide a safe environment in which the people who do most of the work can get it done without too much pressure or unrealistic requirements.
In order to do so, their Product Owners and Scrum Masters need to be able to say “no” when the circumstances call for it.
For example, the Product Owner needs to be able to say “no” to stakeholders who might want to push something into the Product Backlog or prioritize something other than what the PO established as a priority. An organization in which the Product Owner cannot say “no” to requirements like this simply cannot be Agile. Of course, the Product Owner needs to be comfortable with saying “no” in the first place and not be afraid of confrontation or debate.
The Scrum Master also needs to be able to say “no” when it is necessary to protect their team. For instance, the stakeholders or even the Product Owner might want to push more work into a Sprint than the team is willing to take on and in this situation, the Scrum Master has to say no. A good Scrum Master will also feel comfortable saying “no” to various suggestions on how to modify or tailor Scrum to fit the existing structure within the organization, as this is usually just another word for Agile Waterfall or some similar abomination.
Question #3 - How do you work together with the Scrum Master/Product Owner?
Good collaboration between a Scrum Master and a Product Owner is essential for a good Scrum Team and regardless of the position an organization is hiring, the candidates need to understand this.
Both Scrum Master and Product Owner candidates should be able to provide insights into exactly how they would support the other role and, just as importantly, when they would ask for assistance from the other person.
Just as an example, both Scrum Master and Product Owner candidates should understand how they should collaboratively present the product, the Product Backlog and the work to be done to the Scrum Team. By working together closely, the SM and the PO can also ensure 100% open lines of communication which call for easier problem solving and a more efficient process.
The important thing is that the candidate understands how these two roles have a common goal and how they can support one another.
Question #4 - What does a good User Story look like?
This question may seem like a basic one, but the answers to it are always more revealing than one might think.
Namely, besides providing the requirements that need to be fulfilled for a User Story to be considered ready, good candidates will usually also say a thing or two about the very process of writing User Stories.
For example, a good Product Owner will say that they prefer to involve the entire Scrum Team in writing User Stories instead of just handing them over to be worked on. A good Scrum Master will also mention how they like to collaborate with Product Owners on this and obtain as much insight into User Stories and the ideas behind it for the Development Team.
Truly great answers might also introduce the whole Agile debate on estimates, different ways to do them, certain experts who say that estimates are not even Agile and so on.
Question #5 - How do you see non-User Story work (refactoring, fixing bugs, research)?
Anyone who has ever worked on developing software has had experience with technical debt and bugs. If not addressed, these can wreak havoc down the line and it is essential that the Scrum Team has the time to commit to dealing with these. Researching new technologies and solutions should also be an integral part of a Scrum Team’s work.
Both Scrum Master and Product Owner candidates need to be aware of this, have formed opinions on how to handle these and be able to work around situations when the Sprint involves urgent work and there is no way to accommodate the refactoring and bug fixing work. They should also be able to say a few things on the best times and ways to include research spikes into Sprints.
This question is important because it will easily identify candidates (most often Product Owners) who are not convinced of the importance of these and who could be described as “feature chasers”.
Question #6 - How do you see your role in Scrum ceremonies (Sprint Planning, Daily Scrum, Sprint Review, Sprint Retrospective)?
This is yet another question that seems like an easy and a not particularly insightful one - everyone can learn what they are supposed to do at these meetings, right?
In reality, however, answering these questions can reveal a lot about the candidates and their approach to their roles. The answers to these questions can also reveal Scrum Masters and Product Owners who have certain “holes” in their understanding of Scrum and Agile in general.
For example, if a Product Owner candidate starts describing a Sprint Planning meeting in which they take requirements from external stakeholders, transcribe them into User Stories, prioritize them and give a list of those to be worked on in the upcoming Sprint, alarms should be going off. The same goes for a Product Owner who thinks they have a right to barge in on Daily Scrums demanding daily updates of who did what.
It’s even worse when a Scrum Master sees nothing wrong with this. Another Scrum Master candidate red flag would be if they have a certain Retrospective format that they have been using for years, without a single change and they swear by it. Not only are they missing the point of Scrum Retrospectives, but they are also oblivious to their Development Teams being disengaged (which they will be in a situation like this).
In addition to raising red flags, the answers to this question can also help identify candidates who truly understand the importance of transparency, inspection and adaptation as well as the beneficial effects of true collaboration on the team, the process and the product.
Question #7 - What do you think about the [latest Scrum hot topic]?
The Scrum community is a very lively one with experts contributing their expert opinions across various channels, with conversations exploding on all kinds of social networks (shout out to Scrum Practitioners on LinkedIn), with articles and papers being hotly debated for months on end.
When posing this question, the employer is not looking to find out what a candidate’s opinion is on a certain topic (could be a bonus, though). Instead, they are looking to find out whether the candidate is truly interested in Scrum and the Scrum community or if they just got a certificate because they thought it would get them jobs.
If you are already interviewing people for their Scrum knowledge, experience and (why not) passion, you need to know they are genuine.
Employers will probably also want to ask questions that will reveal more about the specific practices and rules of Scrum and candidates should expect such questions. That being said, we believe that the questions we suggested here will provide another layer to any Scrum or Agile interview, providing the employers with additional insight into their candidates’ understanding of Agile.