Product Owners are in high demand. Searching on Indeed for “Product Owner” pulled up 103 new jobs posted this month. While its existence is relatively new compared to a Product Manager, it’s gaining attention as Agile and Scrum begin to overtake traditional methods of building software and managing creating projects.
The Product Owner (PO) is responsible for creating the product vision and guiding the team as they work to make the vision a reality. They are the bridge between stakeholders, team, and the end users. It’s a job that requires a number of different hard and soft skills, from knowledge of Agile and Scrum to a Mama bear instinct to protect the product.
One of the most frequently asked questions in our CSPO classes is whether technical knowledge is required in a Product Owner role. The short answer is no, but the long answer is that technical skills are helpful, but not in the way you might think.
When you’re looking for a new PO, you want someone steeped in product development experience (clearly). The list below consists of hard and soft skills required in the PO role in addition to the years of experience needed. Because this post pertains to product ownership, we prioritized it in order of least to most important. You’re welcome.
From looking at usage stats, user demographics, resource allocation, and market data, you need a PO who is at home with data and can put the various points together to make smart decisions and see the big picture.
As someone in product development moves through their career, they will pick up an understanding of how products are made and be familiar with architectures, languages, and build cycles. However, that’s really all they need to have in terms of technical skills. Remember, they’re not building the product, they’re just collaborating with the people who are. They need to learn to rely on and partner with the assembled team of technical experts.
Written, verbal, and presentation skills
Can they listen to understand instead of listening to reply? Can they articulate their thoughts and ideas so that anyone within earshot can understand them? Can they present information to stakeholders with confidence? Product Owners use their communication skills-written and verbal–on a daily basis. In addition to listening and talking, their user stories must be clear so that the team understands the work while at the same time capturing the task’s intent. The vision statement must be inspiring enough to carry the team through the months of work ahead.
Agile & Scrum Knowledge
For those who are new to Agile and Scrum, the Product Owner may seem like a hydra with three heads: Product Manager, Project Manager, and Business Analyst. It is similar to these roles but has specific responsibilities which are unique to Agile. It is important for anyone stepping into the PO role to take a CSPO workshop so that they are able to communicate with their Agile team. They need to understand their role and the daily interactions required with the team.
I have already discussed how product owners are the liaisons between stakeholders and the team. Another primary PO responsibility is to create and prioritize the Product Backlog. The Product Backlog is a prioritized list of all the features or components of the project with user-centric descriptions. It can contain bugs, technical work, and knowledge acquisition. A Sprint Backlog is the work that needs to be done in the upcoming Sprint. The PO should come to the Sprint Planning meetings with the Product Backlog Items (PBI’s) prioritized, ready to be discussed by the team. In order to create this list, the Product Owner needs to be able to work with a disparate set of stakeholders and leverage their input to create an ordered list of priorities for the team to pull into their Sprint Plan.
Guts, determination, courage–people with gumption have all of the above. Product Owners bridge the gap between stakeholders and the team, which can be a difficult task because what stakeholders want (more, more, more!) can be at odds with what the team believes can be done within scope. They need to be able to say no to stakeholders if their desires are out-of-reach, which takes a lot of courage. They need the determination to make sure the product vision becomes a reality, even if that means extra work.
While creating a vision may seem soft and squishy, communicating a vision is a hard skill Product Owners should have. Vision statements explain why accomplishing the mission contributes to a better future. Part of Apple’s current vision (revised by CEO Tim Cook) states:
“We believe that we are on the face of the earth to make great products and that’s not changing. We are constantly focusing on innovating. We believe in the simple, not the complex.”
This part of their vision explains their guiding principle when it comes to design: simple is best.
Visions can also explain how teams will work together and values that will carry them through the project. Apple goes on to explain:
“We believe in deep collaboration and cross-pollination of our groups, which allow us to innovate in a way that others cannot. And frankly, we don’t settle for anything less than excellence in every group in the company…”
Finally, a vision explains what makes the product or company unique in the space, which requires a substantial amount of market analysis. The job of the Product Owner is to clearly communicate a vision that aligns the team around a common motivating purpose.
Speaking of market analysis, the number one skill a PO must possess is domain expertise. Whether it’s an EMR or finance software, Product Owners are the subject matter experts for that tool’s domain. They know the user to the point of obsession and the value the product will bring. They know what users are using now and how and why the new product is different from the rest and they use the UVP to make it a success.