A Product Owner is a widely recognized role in agile software development methodologies. In this article, I'm going to tell you who a Product Owner is and how to become a better one. There will be practical tips and general advice. While the role is sometimes mistaken with the classic team lead position, the Product Owner's job, in general, doesn't include as many responsibilities related to people management.
This article is a summary of what I've learned about a Product Owner role while working with one of my employers. It was written based on a series of interviews with other Product Owners, therefore it is an opinionated set of tips and suggestions. Contents of this article do not apply to every project at the but certainly can inspire you and educate you on the general responsibilities of a Product Owner in a software services environment.
I'm going to use a PO acronym for Product Owner from now on.
I've collected this set of thoughts in order to pass the experience of being a PO to new and existing work colleagues but I'm sure an online community can benefit from it as well. I've been in the role multiple times and got a lot of feedback. It's time to share.
Disclaimer: Product Owner role described here is not a direct implementation of Scrum Product Owner. The tips are targeted but not exclusive to service-type work. I do not hold any Scrum certificate.
Let's start with some definitions. Most of the publications agree on the following statement about the role.
A (Scrum) Product Owner is accountable for maximizing the value of the product resulting from the work of the (Scrum) Team. How this is done may vary widely across organizations, (Scrum) Teams, and individuals.
The multifaceted nature of the role is also widely acknowledged.
But to do this, an agile product owner takes on several roles, including business strategist, product designer, market analyst, customer liaison, and project manager. In short, agile product owners are an integral part of any scrum team.
The variety of responsibilities usually causes new POs to be lost. The struggle to balance the interests of customers, management and development teams is real. They have to deliver product increments on a typically tight schedule. When communicating with everyone they have to stay assertive while having limited decision-making power.
Considering the above, candidates for the PO role are expected to be experts in the field and possess strong domain knowledge accompanied by maturity in communication and willingness to learn the new responsibilities.
I have held multiple conversations with other Product Owners and asked "who is a PO? what does she do?". There were too many answers to try to make a coherent block of text out of them.
That's a lot.
Let's try to have a look at the role from four different perspectives: company's, team's, client's and a technical one.
From a company perspective, the Product Owner is someone who leads the contract. She is responsible for backlog and minds the definition of done. At the company I use as a case study for the article, in smaller projects, at least 20% of a person's time spent should be spent on the role if one also maintains heavy technical engagement. Ideally, one person should "own" one product.
From a team perspective, the PO is the guide on the path forward. This is viewed by many as the toughest part of the job. She should also be a servant, catering to team's needs. The PO usually is also responsive for team composition. She decides who's needed to successfully deliver the product. Teams usually expect POs to be scribes, maintaining notes from relevant meetings. POs are not supposed to micromanage but maintain functional product backlog. She doesn't have to know every single detail. The PO should have a vision for the product, not the project. She should be a proxy and minimize organizational overhead for the development team.
Clients expect POs to be their point of contact, the responsible one. The PO is their proxy, understands them and cares for the success of their project. Additionally, the PO negotiates features with customers when a budget is limited (which is always). Product Owners should also coach inexperienced clients in software development methodology in order for them to understand consequences of certain design choices.
At this particular employer, leadership role candidates are sourced from individuals with higher competence levels. That said, good leadership doesn't come with expertise and requires additional knowledge and experience. From the technical perspective, the PO should follow the company's SDLC (Software Development Lifecycle) or a set of standard practices in the absence of one. POs are advised to apply Continous Testing - "we think project goes smoothly because we don't test, we don't test because we don't want to know it's bad". Lastly, the Product Owner should facilitate smooth and constant deliveries.
Other responsibilities of a Product Owner include:
The Product Owner should be present in the process from the beginning of the project development process. A typical process includes:
The presence of a PO at different stages is debatable and is highly dependent on a company structure. It is however a consensus that every employee sells mostly indirectly by execution of their job and maintaining contact with clients.
On each of those stages, one should remember a truth repeated numerously in the interviews I conducted:
** BACKLOG is THE tool of PO**
As a Product Owner, you should be aware of the key points of concern in the Software Development Lifecycle, agile processes and your role in them. I have tips for some of the meeting types you're going to take part in.
Here are key tips:
The goal is to specify the value increment that will be developed in the next Sprint.
By status meeting, I mean catchup with a client.
Keep those in mind. In the international setting, people are usually educated in intercultural communication or at least accustomed to it, so they will adjust their social behaviours to you. But it should work both ways. If you're starting a project with a client from a cultural or regional background you know little about, do some light reading.
The first time as a product owner can be stressful. But as long as you're sensible and communicate what you really mean you should be fine. We're all human.
Don't be afraid to ask for help. Your manager and business developers will likely help you with anything client contact-related. And tech leaders are there for you to reach out and consult larger technical decisions. Use your environment to your advantage.
Cover photo by fauxels from Pexels