The Misunderstood Scrum Master
So, what is a Scrum Master?
If you ask that question; you'll receive a number of different responses. A few examples might be:
A servant leader for the team who facilitates the Scrum ceremonies and protects the team from outside influences.
A coach for the development team, who also removes impediments.
A Scrum/Agile expert who teaches best practices to multiple teams and the organization.
A servant leader keeping the team accountable to themselves for the commitments they have made.
"The servant leader is servant first... It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead." - Greenleaf
As you can see from these examples (and your own definition you were thinking of while you read the ones above), the definition is not always clear. In fact, it can vary from one organization or even between teams in the same organization.
So What Role Do They Play?
Is the Scrum Master a coach, mentor, or servant leader of the team?
A good Scrum Master likely does all of these things; but at what level? That's a great question, and can be the source of disagreement depending on whom you ask and their prior experiences.
At this level, the Scrum Master will often coach individuals on the team, as well as the team as a whole. Best practices around process, interactions, as well as the intent and purpose of the ceremonies and interactions, just to name a few. As a mentor, they may identify skill gaps and goals of individuals on the team to help them learn and attain greater satisfaction and additional skills. This in turn benefits the team as a whole as the members are getting stronger individually. These both already play into their role as a servant leader. All of this activity has been for the benefit of the team and individual members, not for themselves. Of course, this role does more than just this, but it's a good start.
This area is likely less common than the previous one, but the Scrum Master article by Large Scale Scrum (LeSS) explains the role at a much higher level. To some, this might be what they envision the role of an Agile Coach doing across the enterprise. Over time, they suggest the Scrum Master takes on more focus with the organization and development practices, while reducing their focus on the development team and product owner.
Where Do Scrum Masters Come From?
Since this role doesn't really exist in traditional project management, there's not a 'career path' per se. Some very successful Scrum Masters have come from being project managers, developers, product managers, and a wide variety of other paths. However, there are just as many (or more) examples of people coming from these paths that have not been successful in this role. Ideally, finding a fit for the team, culture, and purpose of the role to the individual's natural skill sets are going to have the greatest chance for success, vs. blindly assuming since someone was a PM in their last role, the natural progression means they are now a Scrum Master in their new Agile environment.
So Where Does That Leave Us?
With all of this in mind...
What do you think a Scrum Master is and does?
What are the ideal traits and skills they bring to the team and organization?
Where is their time and energy ideally focused?