Product Owner: A Business or Technical Position? (Part 1)

Today I’m going to tell you a story about the Product Owner debate that occurred when I was working with a different organization. I’m curious what you’ve encountered in your career and wonder how you would recommend moving forward. So please, feel free to comment away!

While working with one of my former management teams, the identification of the Product Owner was a hotly debated subject.  Not just “who”, but to whom should they report and what skill set should they have.

The company was a large organization that traditionally had a Product Manager role on the business side as well as a Platform Manager on the technical side of the house.  Product Managers knew the market, the users, and developed the strategy for the product.  Platform Managers executed the technical delivery and were adept at managing vendors (our primary development vehicle).

Business recommended that the Product Management team fill the Product Owner role so appropriate business representation occurred on the Scrum team – without that the team would be  completely made of the IT organization.  They were also concerned that if the Platform Manager (IT) filled the Product Owner role they would not have the domain knowledge needed to steer the direction of the product without spending significant time eliciting requirements, and the team would achieve fewer benefits from the Agile process since the Scrum team wouldn’t truly be working directly with the business. One of the biggest benefits of the Agile process is the improved business and IT alignment. The goal is to engage the business to such a degree that they are equally (if not more) responsible for the delivery of valuable products people need. Ultimately, true Agile requires them to be an active participant in the process as opposed to a casual observer of the development process. This approach would allow for that benefit to be realized.

Alternatively, the IT organization recommended that the Platform Manager should serve as the Product Owner because of his technical expertise and experience with digital product delivery.  They were concerned that Product Managers wouldn’t have enough time to spend with the Scrum team and had never led technical projects in the past and this would be a risk to the project success.

So I ask…

  • Have you encountered this sort of situation? If so, what did you do?

  • What would you recommend if you were coaching this team?

  • Are there any other questions you would ask before making a decision?

Please leave a comment to start the conversation, and check back next week to find out what we really did!

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About Troy Plant

Troy Plant has more than 10 years of working in the software development field and has a diverse background in development, business analysis, product and project management roles. His strong background in Agile methodologies has presented opportunities to coach and train teams in the US, England, Romania, Moldova, and France. His breadth of knowledge regarding the complete software development life cycle provides a deep understanding of challenges organizations face from startups to Fortune 500 companies. He is currently a Certified Scrum Professional (CSP), SAFe Program Consultant (SPC), Pragmatic Marketing Certified, and is actively involved in his local Agile community.

5 thoughts on “Product Owner: A Business or Technical Position? (Part 1)

  1. I definitely come down on the side of Product Management! They have accountability for delivering a project that will sell well and created happy, loyal customers. Technical robustness should be a given and built into a Test Driven Development culture and backed up by a strong Definition Of Done. The Product Owner needs to represent (and therefore deeply understand) the customer’s needs and help the team to create great solutions for those needs. Just think how many times a technically superior product looses out to one that appeals more to the users.

  2. Hello Troy,

    I have experienced this first hand for the last three years. In the organization that I work for, we have Product Owners that come from both the Product/Portfolio Management side of the house as wells as the Platform Management (IT) side of the house. This has caused a great deal of confusion on what a true Product Owner is supposed to do and who is really helping to determne the priority across the board. As an end result, neither side is truly perceived as being “actively involved” and the Agile Teams that they are supposed to be serving have suffered as an end result.

    Without being nebulous in your request, I’d ask for a Product Owner that can provide the most “active involvement” to the teams themselves, while representing the true needs of the customers that the organization serves.

    • Hi Eric,

      Thanks for sharing and providing your input. Yes it seems to be a common problem in the industry still. I would agree with you having active involvement and being engaged and interested in being part of the process is critical. We also discuss in our training classes that a good Product Owner needs to have the following. 1)Available 2) Empowered 3)Knowledgeable

      Thanks again.

  3. Thank you for this article it has helped me tremendously, I am new at this and I walked right into a situation where I have a Technical PO and a Business PO, it’s not whats taught in Agile training but it is very real.

  4. I’m a BSA, and the business unit that I work for has recently moved to Agile and is facing the same problem. We have a small set of online products, so our projects tend to focus on new end-user functionality But we also have some projects that only deal with platform work. For these platform projects, the non-technical product owner is relying heavily on the team for input, and it’s causing a time-suck Plus causing uncertainty around the overall project direction. From what I’ve seen over the last 6 months, I think that it would make sense to have a platform product owner, If we can even find someone with a combined skill set of business savvy plus platform experience. Or maybe we find someone with one or the other skill set and train them up in the other. I’d welcome any feedback :)

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