Agile Coaches Without Technical Knowledge: How To Overcome the Paradox

April 19, 2022

Agile Coaches Without Technical Knowledge: How To Overcome the Paradox

Agile coaches play a vital role in helping companies implement Agile into their ways of working. Coaches may be internal employees of a company, or contractors providing these services on an on-demand basis. In both cases, their goal is to help clients diagnose organizational and interpersonal challenges, and make suggestions on how to use Agile to overcome them.

The day-to-day of an Agile coach depends largely from coach to coach and organization to organization. Sometimes, their tasks involve teaching new techniques to large teams; other times, they might help set objectives for an organization, or mentor managers.

“We need to be prepared for whatever is going to be thrown at us,” says Erin Randall, an Agile coach. “We might be coaching a product owner on, where are we trying to go with this? What’s the roadmap look like…. We might be doing some basic teaching on how you write a good user story.”

While the job is diverse, the background of these professionals might be as well. Some come from a traditional technical career path, others have experience in coaching and take an interest in Agile—the possibilities are endless. In this article, we’ll explore some ways non-technical Agile coaches can bridge the gap that separates them from the technical teams they’re serving.

Do Agile Coaches Need Technical Knowledge? The Paradox of Coaching Specialists in the Technical Field

While Agile methodologies may sound simple, they are surprisingly hard to implement, especially without the help of a knowledgeable, experienced coach.

When a team embraces Agile, they are expected to handle this change, learn Agile and increase productivity, all at the same time. The role of the coach is then a vital one to support the team in adapting to the change and moving toward self-management as its members learn the methodology.

But would you hire a kicker coach for the NFL who knew nothing about kicking? Or a chef who could not cook? While your immediate answer might be a resounding “no,” let’s look at this scenario in more detail.

Agile coaches don’t strictly need detailed technical knowledge. After all, their job is to coach the technical team members on doing that job, not doing it themselves, which allows them to remain on a higher level of operation. 

However, it’s important for an Agile coach to understand software architecture, at least to some extent, as that will allow them to help teams better, especially in how they organize. Team Topologies, created by Matthew Skelton and Manuel Pais, provide a useful “adaptive model for organization design and team interaction, where team structures and communication pathways are able to evolve together with technological and organizational maturity”. 

Team Topologies proposes a team structure based on the principle of having teams that deliver business value and other structures to support those teams. Therefore, some technical knowledge is required for an Agile coach to help a team implement such a model. Only then will the Agile coach be able to balance technology and processes to create great products. If you’re assisting an organization implementing Team Topologies, check out our tips in this article.

    How to be a Successful Agile Coach Coming from a Non-technical Background

    agile team topologies

    As Agile expands outside of technology, many Agile coaches are coming from more diverse and non-technical backgrounds. While for some purists this might be a hindrance, the truth is that a different career path can actually help your position as an Agile coach, as it will bring a fresh perspective that teams often miss for being too focused on the set ways.

    However, if this is your case, there is still a bridge you need to build to be able to connect both worlds: coaching and technology. These three steps might be a good place to start doing precisely that:

    1. Learn Agile Frameworks

    Most people have experience working with one or two Agile methodologies, but if you are serious about your Agile coach journey, it’s also important to have a fair understanding of other methodologies to give you a better overview.

    1. Get Involved in the Agile Community

    This helps you in three ways:

    • It keeps you updated on current happenings and trends in the Agile world.
    • It exposes you to Agile methodologies and to what peers are practicing in their own organizations.
    • It demonstrates that you are committed to practicing Agile, which is important when you get to the next step: becoming a certified Agile coach.
    1. Get a Formal Agile Certification

    Certifications are a valuable asset when applying for an Agile coach position. Companies value them because they show you are willing to put in the time and effort to learn the foundation on which you will then develop your daily work. Some of the certifications with more relevance in the industry are the ones of Scrum Alliance, such as the Certified Team Coach (CTC) and the Certified Enterprise Coach (CEC)

    5 Tips to Coach with No Knowledge of Software Development

    If you are looking to start your career as an Agile coach but have no experience in software development, we give you 5 tips that, when applied, will help you on your journey.

    1. Master Some Agile Frameworks and Methodologies

    You might not have the technical knowledge or work experience in the area, but you should know the theory behind Agile methodologies. Otherwise, how are you supposed to coach people on something you don’t even understand?

    Pick an Agile methodology of your choice and make sure you know everything there is to know about it. If you are unsure which one to pick, Scrum is the most widely used and, therefore, would give you the best chances of landing a job. According to this survey, 56% of teams use Scrum, with the second most used methodology, a hybrid of several, coming at only 14%.

    When learning Agile methodologies, pay special attention to the points where it might break, to adopt a preventive posture in your work, rather than a corrective one. Here we collected some anti-patterns and tips on fixing them.

    2. Master Individual and Team Change Work

    Now that you know about the theory of the methodologies, focus on the people-side of things. An Agile coach coaches people, but understanding and dealing with people is a never-ending, ever-evolving challenge. Make sure you are well equipped to deal with it.

    Learn coaching basics and techniques. To be an Agile coach you need to coach, but also train and mentor the people you are helping. Once you know how to help people on an individual level, step it up and learn how to interact with teams and bring the best out of them. Learn how to facilitate their interactions to bring the most value out of every individual member of a team and out of the team as a whole.

    3. Master Organizational and Leadership Change

    For an organization to implement Agile, the change doesn’t happen only at a team level. Rather, it must be a company-wide, structural change in a way that everyone, including management, sees the way they work.

    Without this step, an organization can not truly implement Agile. Therefore, your job as an Agile coach also includes training management and helping them implement changes based on transformational leadership.

    4. Focus on Teaching, Mentoring, and Training

    These are skills that are detached from any industry but are extremely valuable to possess as an Agile coach.

    Teaching: A coach needs to recognize if a team is missing knowledge in any area and, if so, fill the gap and teach the group what they need to know to reach their goal.

    Mentoring: This also means passing on knowledge but in a more nuanced way. Coaches who are able to mentor their teams don’t usually have a fixed objective and are more focused on smaller groups and individuals as opposed to teaching.

    Training: This might be about Agile itself, specific areas of product knowledge, or anything else. But all coaches will need to do some training, sooner or later in their careers.

    5. Sharpen your Communication Skills, Patience, and Empathy

    An Agile coach’s job is all about people, and three skills are vital when dealing with them: communication, patience, and empathy.

    Knowing how to communicate clearly, using the right words, and adjusting the tone to each situation is a valuable skill, especially for anyone in an Agile coaching position. 

    Also, being able to be patient with the teams you’re working on, while they work their way through Agile adoption, makes a huge difference in how people perceive you and, therefore, how willing they are to listen to you when you have something important to say or show.

    Lastly, empathy goes a long way when aiming at connecting with people, especially people who are going through change processes, as is the case of teams transitioning to Agile.

    Conclusion

    To sum it up, we’ll leave you some tips to keep in mind when getting started with this career path:

    • Obtain a certification such as Agile coach or Scrum Master because companies tend to prefer candidates who have them. Although they will only teach you the theory, it’s a good start to then be able to apply them to real-life scenarios.
    • Apply for projects that use Agile methodologies to be exposed to Agile in practice.
    • Apply for projects that include an Agile transformation in a company, as this will give you valuable first-hand experience on how Agile is introduced in a company.

    If you’re interested in this career path and feel you can contribute with some value to organizations in their Agile journey, we would like to hear from you! We are looking for Scrum Masters, Agile Coaches, Product Owners, Agile Leaders, and similar professionals. To know more about the positions and submit your application, please check our Careers page here.

    Søren Pedersen

    Co-founder of Buildingbettersoftware and Agile Leadership Coach

    Søren Pedersen is a strategic leadership consultant and international speaker. With more than fifteen years of software development experience at LEGO, Bang & Olufsen, and Systematic, Pedersen knows how to help clients meet their digital transformation goals by obtaining organizational efficiency, alignment, and quality assurance across organizational hierarchies and value chains. Using Agile methodologies, he specializes in value stream conversion, leadership coaching, and transformation project analysis and execution. He’s spoken at DevOps London, is a contributor for The DevOps Institute, and is a Certified Scrum Master and Product Owner.

    Value Stream Optimization?

    We specialize in analysing and optimizing value streams.

    0 Comments

    Learn more about our consulting services

    Get in touch with us