Why Invest in a Dedicated and Present Product Owner?

As part of a group of professionals that rely on Agile and as a member of various scrum teams over the past few years, I think it is safe to make an observation about best practices. I have noticed there are some organizations that still do not see the value in a role that takes care of their products and ensures the products are exactly what they asked for. However, in my experience, I have noticed the most intrinsic part of the scrum life cycle is, in fact, the Product Owner. 

What Makes a Good Product Owner?

A question stakeholders have asked me in the past is: “What qualities make a good Product Owner?” As a developer, I would love a technical Product Owner; someone that would understand me if I say that I have concerns or questions about the type of authentication that we are using for a certain type of micro-service. As a Scrum Master, I would love someone that keeps backlogs clean and is easy to understand; one that writes consistent acceptance criteria and knows exactly what features he or she wants to see as part of the product by the end of every iteration. As a stakeholder, I would love someone that takes care of the little details for me so I can focus on the big picture. All this being said, you now see where the problem lies. Every member of a project has a different set of qualities they would like to see in a product owner and it seems unrealistic to hope for someone that has all of them. Or is it?...

Because I have been able to work on all ends of the software development cycle, I would say that a mix of everything is the sweet spot.

Besides being detail oriented and understanding the agile cycle, in my experience, these three qualities are the mix needed for a good product owner: 

  1. You don’t need a PO that has a deep knowledge of the technologies or even the languages that you are using to develop the software, but he or she needs a basic understanding of how to use the software, browsers, operative systems and the terms that developers love using so much.
  2. He or she needs to have a familiarity with the software that you use to track your work and progress (Rally, Jira, TFS, etc.). This understanding of agile software is crucial when it comes to understanding the scrum rituals (or activities as I like to call them).
  3. He/she knows how to read the charts and the iteration status’. This helps the scrum master to keep a realistic snapshot of the team’s status on the charts.

If you are a stakeholder, and you have a Product Owner that does all of this for you, imagine all the accurate and relevant information he/she could share with everyone on the team!

Who Shouldn’t be the Product Owner? 

Yes, we ask a lot from our Product Owners. We want them to filter what features make it to the backlog, answer questions about the functionality of the product we are building and we want them to be present and know the business. The president of a company once told me, “I know exactly what I want from this product, so I’ll be your Product Owner.” To this day I can still remember the chills that it sent down my spine! I asked him: “Are you not going to be the President of the company anymore”? To which the president responded: “Sure I will, I can do both, how difficult could it be?” 

Problems without a Dedicated Product Owner 

These are only some of the problems and situations that we experienced as a result of not having a dedicated PO on that project:

  1. Incomplete backlogs
  2. User stories with vague descriptions
  3. Confusing acceptance criteria
  4. Changes in the scopes of the user stories and even the features in the middle of the iterations
  5. Wrong prioritization of the backlogs
  6. Problems with estimation
  7. Countless unnecessary large and exhausting grooming sessions

He, of course, was not able to be a dependable PO because he was also the president of a company with a million different things to worry about. The little details that dedicated PO’s care about were not a priority for him. That experience made me have huge respect for our product owners and helped me become fully aware of how important they are to the success of any scrum team.

Conclusions

Yes, scrum masters keep everything in sync and they get rid of blockers. Yes, the developers actually build the product. Yes, our Quality Analysts make sure that our product is high quality and follows high standards. But, just as important is our Product Owner. The product owner is the piece of the team that tells us what the business needs are and the one that approves or rejects everything that the team builds. Having a dedicated Product Owner for our teams is not a waste of a resource, but an investment of time and effort in a position that will most likely determine if the product we are building brings value to the business. And isn’t value what really matters?!  

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Oscar Alfaro

Oscar started his career as a software developer in 2005. By 2012 he started to shift his career to the project management side. The new tendencies on how to accomplish goals and actually deliver high-quality products really got my attention. He's been part of big multinational companies as well as small projects and he's noticed that managing projects shapes many aspects of his life.

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