Q&A with University Scrum Students: Building an Agile Career

This is part fifth and final in a series of blog posts derived from a one-hour Q&A session I had with University of Alabama students who were using my Essential Scrum book as the core of their course curriculum. You can read the prior four blog post here:

College students are understandably interested in careers, of understanding what’s possible and how to get started. The students I spoke with at the University of Alabama were no different. They wanted to know about my career journey and also my opinion on certain paths they might take. I started with some brief background on me, as shown in the graphic below. You can get all of the details on Innolution’s About Us page. I then transitioned into answering their questions.

Ken Rubin Overview

How did you go from studying computer science at the undergraduate and masters university level and move into more strategic and management levels of work? What did the transition look like for you?

I’ve always looked for work that would stretch me and challenge me, especially in areas where I knew I was weaker. For example, early on I realized I was not a very effective speaker and only a fair writer. So I took on work that allowed me to develop these skills, which are essential for working at the strategic and management levels (arguably any level!).

Also, when I was at ParcPlace Systems (in my mid-20s), I was fortunate to be in a position where I met frequently with executive IT / Development management to help their organizations adopt object-oriented technology. As a result I learned how to interact with people in these positions. These two early career-building decisions helped me acquire my first executive management position when I was in my late 20s, as a Director in the IBM North American Object Technology Practice.

I enjoyed my time at IBM, but working there taught me an important lesson. Unless you are senior enough in a company to make a difference, you really can’t affect any real change. Here’s what I mean. My group at IBM was generating about $25 million a year in revenue. My group’s revenue was aggregated together with IBM North American Global Services revenue—a large number that ended with a B, not a “measly” M. My epiphany was that even if I doubled my group’s revenue, the result would only amount to a rounding error inside of IBM. I decided I would rather work in or with companies where I could make a difference I could see and feel. At the end of the day, I wanted to know that I made a difference. And for me, this meant I needed to aspire to the senior-most levels.

This is why today I am spending more and more of my time working with senior executives at companies that are adopting agile. They can inspire widespread change throughout an organization. I can help make a difference.

What motivated you to want to share your experience in a book format?

I wrote my Essential Scrum book for three primary reasons. First, to provide a single source of Scrum information for people who can’t take classes either because their companies won’t pay for classes or they can’t afford to do so on their own.

Second, to provide in-depth follow-up material for people who do take my classes or those taught by many others. I wanted people to be able to take a class and then have the book afterwards to reinforce and expand what they learned.

Third, books make wonderful marketing tools for services. Even though Essential Scrum is a number one best selling book on Amazon, I estimate I make far less in book royalties per hour of time invested in my book than I could have made just doing training and coaching. So the real economic value of the book to me is not in the royalties, it is in the additional opportunities I receive as the author of the book.

What is your natural role on a Scrum team? Product owner, ScrumMaster, or development team member.

For my own projects, I am most likely to be a product owner (since product owner controls the economics and I am typically spending my own money). When I coach companies, I am more likely to be a ScrumMaster (agile coach).

You were the first managing director of the Scrum Alliance. Can you share some insight on the value or lack of value in certifications?

Certified ScrumMaster (CSM) is the most popular entry-level certification in the world. In hindsight it is not well named. It is hard to imagine that anyone is a “master” after two days of training. It is best to think of CSM (and CSPO – Certified Scrum Product Owner) as a starting point.

Do I think these entry-level certifications are valuable? Sure! After all, I teach the classes that prepare people for these certifications. But I also want to make it very clear that CSM and CSPO are not the end of the journey; they are the beginning.

If you want a certification that goes beyond the entry-level CSM or CSPO, then you should consider becoming a Certified Scrum Professional (CSP). Candidates for the CSP need a minimum of 36 months of successful Agile/Scrum work experience implementing Scrum inside organizations as team member, product owner, or ScrumMaster—all within the past five years.  You also need to gather and submit 70 Scrum Education Units (SEUs)—and those have to be earned during the most recent three years. You can learn about CSP at site

With all that being said, I want to emphasize that no matter your list of credentials or your experience, no one is ever truly through learning. I still look for and find ways to challenge myself every day—and I don’t believe I’ve ever left a training class or a coaching engagement without understanding or knowing at least one thing more than when I began. A career is built over time with great patience and with a deep insight into who you are and who you want to become. I wish you the best of luck on your journey.