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Who is the agile Product Owner?

In 2011, while agile methodologies are more than mainstream, the Product Owner position is still not well understood or defined. While I’m convinced the “Team engagement in a stream of value creation” is one key factor of agile principles, I can’t find a slogan for the Product Owner.

When you want to learn about agile, you browse the Internet, find the best books to read, find a local community or an active mailing list. If you want to understand the agile Product Owner thing, you have a few ways to learn about this position. To be efficient, the first step is to understand your current context:

Do you work in a project world with:
  • A unique customer who knows his end users and pays for what he specified years ago? Your customer is inside or outside of your company, but the project’s health is yours and your customer’s problem.
  • A customer who defined several bunches of requirements and wants to implement them step by step? Your customer is inside or outside your company and he can decide to change sub contractor at each step.
  • A stream process where your unique customer has a short regular deployment schedule and where all content is evaluated by the end user and the contract can be continuously renegotiated.
A contract definition and a delivery process were deliberately linked in the previous description. But obviously you can also multiply the context possibilities by splitting them.

Do you work in a product/service world where:
  • Your several customers are identified, meet in customers’ conversations, and understand either a stream or an iterative process.
  • You have identified a few customers but do not really know where your market is.
  • You have an idea, but like as a start-up, you do not know yet if the people that you consider as customers will buy your product.
So regarding each situation, the Product Owner skills are different, but there is clearly a difference between a product context and a project context.

There are a few interesting ressources about the Product Owner in a Product Management world.

For example, in his 2008 talk “Product Companies Need Product Managers, Not Product Owners”, Rich Mironov clearly explains that the agile alliance view of the Product Owner is a developer’s inside-out view.

Still in the product management world, an interesting stream of posts have been published following Saeed Khan.‘s bomb: The Scrum Title “Product Owner” must die!"

Backlog manager, Technical product manager, I do not know the perfect term, but these discussions really emphasise the need for clarification.

Custom software supplier
To start from the beginning, a post from the brilliant svproduct blog explains that the origin of agile comes from the custom software world.

“The custom software world – building special purpose software for specific customers - has long been a brutally difficult type of software. This is partly because customers notoriously don’t know what they want, but they have a need so they write a contract with a custom software supplier …”

This notion is really important because making a project for a specific customer who has order something that is different in his mind every day, needs pragmatic processes and people. The agile methods with a pragmatic PO who understands the technical principles and has the ability to interview, exchange, influence the customer, really fits the situation.

In the IT world, customisation for a specific purpose is common. The Business Analyst (BA) is well-known as the person who identifies business needs and determines solutions to business problems” (see BABOK).
So as per this description, this person must be the Product Owner at least in the IT custom software world. But sometimes for a BA, the transition from Traditional Requirements Definition to Collaborative Requirements is a difficult cultural change.

In the software world, a technical person with a great openness or a marketing/sales person who enjoys complexity, are both good candidates.

Independent Software Vendor
Now, if you are an Independent Software Vendor (ISV), with a working software product, you either need to add new features, lean your product or kill it.
When you build a new one, you may follow the traditional product management principles or use the “Lean Startup” ones. But in each case you need to understand the difference between your customers’ needs and those from the market (VOC versus VOM). So not considering product management principles for a PO in an ISV context will drive your company to death. So you need someone with market analysis skills and regarding the size of your company, it could be either the PO, a consulting product manager, a combination of PO and PM, or the CEO.

Jurgen Appelo : Top books list
Pragmatic Marketing : Product Companies Need Product Managers, Not Product Owners
On Product Management : Why the “Backlog Manager” fits best for Scrum focused ISVs
Wikipedia : Business analysis
Wikipedia : A Guide to the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge
Agiledad : Agile BA
svproduct : The Origins of Agile
Wikipedia : Independent software vendor
On Product Management : Guest Post: Voice of the Market vs. Voice of the Customer


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