A frequent question I receive in my workshops is, “Where do Tech Leads fit into scrum teams?” If you look at the Scrum Guide, it defines three key roles: Developers, the Product Owner, and the Scrum Master. It does not describe the Tech Lead role at all! But, the Tech Lead role is still important.
Technical leadership is still essential for software scrum teams
If a scrum team produces software, they must move as a single unit. As a team is made up of different people, you can have many competing opinions. Scrum teams can still come to a stalemate if they fail to find a way forward when it comes to making a decision. A different outcome might also mean individuals go their way because the team cannot agree. A typical scrum response is that it is the team who owns decision-making. It also creates the possibility of a tragedy of the commons problem. Put differently, if everyone owns a responsibility, others assume someone else will take care of it, which leads to no one taking responsibility.
Scrum Teams can still have a Tech Lead role
A Tech Lead is a common role that acts as a safeguard. They are often one of the more experienced technical team members or someone with a long history with the system under development. An effective Tech Lead does not make all team technical decisions. In fact, if the team is truly owning all technical responsibilities, the Tech Lead will not need to take an active role and can return to being a full-time individual contributor.
If a team cannot reach a technical direction, then a Tech Lead steps up to facilitate the decision-making process, balancing the need to make a good enough decision in a timely fashion. They are also there to ensure the team invests in enough technical quality to keep a software system continually evolving over time.
In larger organisations, the Tech Lead often plays another role, the technical contact point for the team. They might be the first person to respond to questions from the team or the first person to get involved in technical discussions on behalf of the team, such as agreeing on a standard interface, API or data exchange format with other teams. Many organisations prefer the simplicity of having a nominated contact rather than interrupting all team members to get a response.
Rather than repeat all the Tech Lead activities and responsibilities (see The Definition of a Tech Lead), you can see that just because a software team is using Scrum, it doesn’t make this role redundant.
Conclusion: Scrum Teams Can and Should Have a Tech Lead
In truly agile organisations that use Scrum, Scrum is the starting point. Agile organisations realise that the scrum guide is not intended to be comprehensive. An idea’s absence in the guide does not imply, “Do not use.” Instead, seek ideas that complement the guide and be prepared to experiment. After all, a crucial part of Scrum practice is “Inspection and Adaption.” Software teams always need some form of technical leadership, often fulfilled by a Tech Lead.
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