One of the development teams elects to have a developer as a product owner? What would your response be?

One of the development teams elects to have a developer as a product owner? What would your response be?

Welcome to part 40 of our scrum master interview questions series where John McFadyen answers common questions asked of scrum masters in interviews and client engagements.

Nothing wrong with that. In the same way that a developer can become a scrum master, there is no reason why a developer couldn’t become a strong product owner.

In fact, when you look at many of the most successful start-ups in the world, the lead developer and founder IS the product owner. They were the ones who developed the concept and built the minimum viable product to launch.

They are the person who came up with the idea and it’s their baby. They want to see the product become the best version that it can be, and they want to delight customers with each new iteration.

Can the developer do the product owner role justice?

A great product owner is a visionary figure. They play such a critical role in the advancement of the product, and play such a critical role in aligning customers, product stakeholders, and the scrum team. It really is a critical role and so you don’t want to have people taking a crack at it.

You want people who are deeply committed to innovation, the product, customers, and the team.

This isn’t the kind of role where you get your feet wet and test the waters. It’s all in, right away, and sleeves rolled up to do the hard work.

Remember, a developer is there to:

  • Build the product to the correct technical standards.
  • Solve complex problems.

A product owner is interested in:

  • What are we building?
  • Why are we building it?
  • Why is it important?
  • When should we build it?

There is great overlap, but a great product owner doesn’t need to be a developer to succeed in the role, whilst a developer needs to be a great product owner to succeed in the role.

The product owner is thinking about big picture items rather than being consumed in the details.

  • How does this item fit together in the big picture of what we are trying to achieve?
  • What is the vision for the product?
  • What is the goal for the product feature and how does that integrate into our strategy?
  • How does this product or feature solve a complex problem in our customer’s lives?
  • What will this product of feature empower our customer to do?
  • What are our future goals for the product and where are we taking it?

And so forth.

They are strategic thinkers.

If the developer can step into that role, that’s great, and it could be a major asset to the team to have such a technically savvy individual at the product helm.

So, it’s ok if a developer wants to take on the product owner accountability but it does come with a caveat.

Are they the BEST person for the role?

Sure, the developer may be a great fit for the product owner role, but are they the BEST person to have in that role? Is there a better option out there to BE the product owner?

This is a tough call.

If we didn’t live in such a complex, competitive, and volatile world this kind of a call would be unnecessary. We could take our time and allow people to find their feet and grow into the role.

But we do live in an incredibly complex, incredibly competitive world and so we need to ask the tough questions. Is this the best we can do? Is this going to escalate our market share and position us as the premiere product for our customer segment or are we wishing upon stars?

Be clear about the call that the team are making.

Are you making this call because you don’t have a product owner and think you might need one? Are you making this call because your current product owner is dropping the ball and you want to quickly replace them? Are you making this call because it just feels like the right thing to do?

Or are you making this call because this developer has demonstrated time and again that they are exactly what the product and organization need to make significant strides forward?

If it’s the latter, winner, bag that and run with it.

If it’s the former, you may want to think about what it is that the organization needs versus what might be quick and easy to fulfil right now. Sure, they could play an interim role until you find the dream product owner, but it would always be a temporary role.

So, give it some thought and make a call for the right reasons.

About John McFadyen

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John McFadyen Managing Partner
John McFadyen is an Executive and Enterprise Agile Coach with proven experience working on some of the UK and Europe’s largest, most complex Agile Transformations. As a Certified Scrum Trainer, John brings a wealth of experience as an Agile coach, Agile practitioner and software developer into each of the four core courses he provides. The war stories, the insights into successful Agile transformations and everything he has learned from coaching high-performance Agile teams combine to provide course delegates with a unique, compelling training experience that transforms as much as it empowers.

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