How To Hire a Successful Product Owner


03 February 2021

Software Development





What constitutes a successful product owner? Is it their experience and knowledge, or their potential?

One of the risks of software outsourcing is not having a product owner who understands the full circle of management skills, including software delivery and development principles. The project goes forward without a product owner and fails.

Let’s uncover the product owner in more depth so you come out with a successful software product by the end of it all.

What does a product owner do?

A product owner is the turning cog that makes sure the engines of the development and customer plants are running smoothly. The key job is to coordinate product development and maintain close contact with customers to pry out the most valuable user stories.

A product owner’s job also means developing technical innovations and conceptualising new interface integrations. They define and refine features, re-plan backlogs and call the shots for release time.

More importantly, a product owner churns out exceptional results from their crystal-clear vision and objectives. Without one, you fall into the half where 50% of software projects fail because of absence of a product owner.

Who should be a product owner?

Product ownership can be considered a true craft in the sense that you acquire and apply skills to given situations. From building deep relationships with teams, customers and users to applying critical judgement; there is much more than regurgitating what stakeholders demand.

Number one priority for a product owner is to be available. Product owners must be in tune with from the very beginning and be a strong sounding board to inform decisions within the team. This is why most “borrowing” methods that stretch from those in current full-time jobs to those without skills or experience to simply “play” product owner doesn’t fare well in the long-term. This is especially exposed when a project goes awry and big decisions need to be made.

What do you want to hire for?

It’s important to understand these perspectives about hiring a product owner - your ability to grow them into the role, and level of team empathy.

Product owners can come from many different skill backgrounds and industries. At times, the best product owners aren’t those with an in-depth knowledge of software development, but rather those that are industry domain experts. How much support can a product owner expect to receive, and what kind? What level of understanding of the role does your organisation have?

If your organisation has a secure grasp of what a product owner contributes, hiring a product owner with a track record and years of experience under their belt may not always be necessary. Such a product owner is difficult to come by, and since this is the case, look out for warning signs and practice healthy scepticism. We’ll lay some out soon.

On the other side of the coin, if you have an organisation that isn’t familiar with the domain, hiring an experienced product owner with a solid track record will help the team solve the right problems and implement user solutions.

This aspect involves a depth to understanding and feeling user pains. This comes along with regular interaction and direct access to them.

High team empathy equals better understanding of pains, needs, problems and goals. The output from this results in easier collaboration, problem solving and prioritisation.

It’s imperative this industry knowledge is picked up and sticks with your product owner, to make sure their understanding of what is occurring at each stage, and why, is well-fledged. Lack of this usually slips through the cracks at meetings, to which unwanted tasks and seemingly small things get uncovered and will require urgent attention down the track.

Hiring the right product owner

“Think of the product owner as the person who champions the product, who facilitates the product decisions and who has the final say about the product.” Roman Pichler states the ultimate responsibility of a product owner is to create value for customers, users and the company. A general overview of this role involves:

  • Setting the vision
  • Developing the product roadmap and strategy
  • Communicating with stakeholders, development teams, and squad lead

Within scrum iterations, the product owner works as the empowered lead for the team and involves these duties:

  • Develop user stories: Brief feature descriptions are provided to help discern a user’s point of view to define a product or feature requirements. Product owners will manage the flow of such feedback and adjust the backlog.
  • Manage the backlog: The list of requests for work to be resolved. This involves adding, editing, triaging and prioritising backlog items to maintain clarity through every piece of information.
  • Plan releases: Release planning is a highly detailed tool to streamline communications and establish timelines for milestones and product delivery.
  • Limit the Scope of an iteration: Scrum iterations are deliberately designed in short cycles to build a defined application, not as a step in a longer process.
  • Give final approval: As the gatekeeper, approval of work and decisions whether it meets acceptance criteria rests with the product owner.
  • Change the project’s course: Within the iteration’s boundaries, product owner can steer the team in a different direction based on customer feedback and stakeholder needs.
  • Engage stakeholders, users and the team: It’s imperative there is no loss of information in handoffs between the development team and user stories. Encourage creative approaches between the team and customers when you identify challenges in user stories.
  • Adhere to business goals and manage finances: During development, the product owner is responsible for all resources. These decisions are based on best ROI and understanding costs and benefits when prioritising the backlog.

Warning signs

When deciding on who to hire as essentially the backbone of the project, meerkat-like attention will literally pay off. Watch out for these signs:

  • ‘Internal borrowing’ of managers or staff: Phrases like “their manager won’t free them up; we can make this a part-time thing” or “we’ll tell you what the software is meant to do – just write the stories and make sure the stuff works” is a big red flag for the gravity of a product owner’s duties.
  • Absence: Someone acting as product owner doesn’t show up often, resulting in poor user stories and a poor backlog with no acceptance criteria. The team keeps churning code and track story points. The building continues to burn.
  • Tag teams: Product owners that have volunteered for some iterations and then return to their regular jobs as new volunteers arrive. Breathes life to continuity issues and inconsistent priorities.
  • Lack of confidence: As the gatekeeper of the project, having conviction and confidence in your decisions is vital to creating and maintaining the entire team’s trust to make sure the ship sails smoothly.
  • Poor knowledge of the business or industry: As mentioned before, seeing a project successfully come full circle goes hand in hand with the ability to garner and upkeep knowledge of the industry or business.

Avoiding the failure of a software product can easily be done. Our latest guide on How To Build a Successful Software Product is a free download filled to the brim with activities and advice for product owners and alike to discover their product market fit.

Contact us here for a free consultation and guidance on your next project.

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Shannon England

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