I really wanted to help people.
I had a vision of a product that would do it, and after months of interviewing potential customers, reading business strategy books, and staying up late working on product designs, I finally had it…
…a powerpoint deck.
Unfortunately, powerpoint decks don’t solve a lot of problems for people in the real world. To make real change, we have to build real things. If we’re trying to create software, we don’t necessarily need to have a technical background to get things done, but we do need to be a great member of a software development team.
For many software teams, the role of the domain expert – the one that knows the most about the market and business that we’re developing for – is called the “Product Owner.” Whether it is our official title or simply part of our job description, understanding how good product owners work is critical to helping our product visions become real, working software.
What is a Product Owner?
The Product Owner is the gal or guy that decides what features a product has, and in what order these features will be implemented.
More than anything else, the Product Owner’s job is to maximize value of the work that the development team is doing for the company. Product owners do this in two ways:
1. The Product Owner is the Prioritizer
…of what features a product has, and in the order that these features will be implemented. Building a product is a delicate balance between short and long-term goals, internal and customer-facing features, and a host of other factors, including balancing a realistic understanding of a development team’s capabilities with the goals of other departments in an organization (like marketing, strategy, sales, etc…)
2. The Product Owner is a nexus of communication
…for the stakeholders, end users/customers, and the product development team. It isn’t the PO’s job necessarily to know everything, only to make sure that the right information is flowing to where it is the most useful.
How does the Product Owner Communicate her Prioritization?
Product Owners expresses strategy with a master “To-Do” called the “Product Backlog.” The Product Backlog is a list of features that the product will grow to have over time, arranged so that the features we’re implementing soon are at the top. Co-located teams (teams working in the same location) often keep track of the backlog with notecards on the wall, while distributed teams use digital methods.
Who should be the Product Owner? Am I?
Sometimes it is easy to recognize if you’re the Product Owner. If it says so on your business card, or someone pointed to you the other day and told you “Sophie, you will be playing the role of product owner,” then welcome, you’re part of the club now!
In other situations, you may have the role without the title. If you’re the CEO or a tiny start-up (like I once was), you may be the product owner. If you’ve just pitched an internal project and it is up to you to communicate the requirements to the development team, you may be the product owner.
Essentially, anyone that is in charge of defining who and what a product is for, which features will provide the most value to the customer and the business, and has the power to prioritize these in development is playing the role of product owner.
What qualities make a good Product Owner?
There are four important qualities for a Product Owner to posses.
1. Accountability and Control
Because the PO is the nexus of information about what the product should be, it is important that the PO has the final say over what features the product has, and in what order they are implemented.
It is the PO’s job to know and articulate what we’re building and why.
3. Communication Skills
Communication is important in any role, but for the Product Owner, it is critical.
4. Strategic Mindset
The development team can only build so much, so deciding what to build now and what to build later is a tough strategic challenge.
Because the Product Owner has so much control over the product, it is important that the PO is someone that both the organization and the development team really trust. If your devs don’t trust (or like) you, you aren’t going to get much done. If the business stakeholders don’t trust you, well, you’re unlikely to be a PO for very long!
Why is being a good Product Owner so important?
One of the biggest problems with software projects today is lack of clarity in the development process. Learning to be a good product owner means saving time, money, and a lot of frustration.
The business world is changing rapidly and modern digital strategies require a closer and more flexible working relationship between the business and the development team. The product owner role is responsible for acting as the nexus between these two worlds and – whether it is an official title or not – knowing more about the tools and methods of successful product owners will help us turn our project ideas into functional software.
I found this video (15:51) particularly useful when I was first learning about becoming a product owner.
Read more about becoming a certified product owner on my FAQ Page.
Camu Studios wiki – a wiki I personally use to collect and store my notes. It is my personal collection, but it is accessible online. This is my brain, so apologies – it is a little messy! Today, I pulled information from my Product Owner and Product Backlog pages.
Also, check out my Bookshelf, Toolbox, and Product Owner FAQ’s for more things I find useful. You can also follow me on twitter, where I share useful articles I find day to day about becoming a great product owner and responsible remote team member.