What is a Product Owner?

Let’s start with the who. Who are the product owners?

Currently, we have two products that we’re working on: Lark (the authority records platform) and Starlight (the digital exhibits platform). Each product has a product owner -- for Lark, it’s me (Jessica Hilt, UCSD) and Starlight, it’s Chrissy Rissmeyer (UCSB).

But what is a product owner?

When we talk about product owners, we’re talking in the context of scrum/agile style of development. If you’re not a developer (or you are and you don’t know what that means), don’t worry. It’s the methodology of how we’re getting things done. But it might help you to know the terms so you know how this role fits in. I want to us all to speak the same language so here’s your vocabulary words:

Product backlog - A prioritized list of all the features that we want in the product Sprint - A set period of time during work needs to be completed and be ready for review at the conclusion

A product owner is a person, not a committee. They are the person with the authority and responsibility to maximize the value of the product and the work of the development team. Very fancy! Okay, okay. What does that mean though?

Let’s start with a list of jobs that the product owner is responsible for:
• Clearly expressing Product Backlog items;
• Ordering the items in the Product Backlog to best achieve goals and missions;
• Optimizing the value of the work the Development Team performs;
• Ensuring that the Product Backlog is visible, transparent, and clear to all, and shows what the Development Team will work on next; and,
• Ensuring the Development Team understands items in the Product Backlog to the level needed.

(This is taken from The Scrum Guide and used under Creative Commons license, like a Library does: https://scrumguides.org/docs/scrumguide/v2017/2017-Scrum-Guide-US.pdf).

Even if this work is delegated (for example, if she’s asking for user stories to clarify the backlog work), at the end of the day, she is the one accountable!

What does that mean from each perspective?

From a product group/customer/stakeholder perspective, the product owner is the communication person.  She takes all their needs and priorities and translates those needs into a roadmap for a product. She knows the status at the end of each sprint and where the next sprint is going and she lets everyone know.

The way that agile works, that product won’t be perfect for awhile but the product owner will be constantly talking to the stakeholders to make sure that the team is on the right track, the goals are the same, and the product features work as they envisioned.

From a developers perspective, the product owner is the communication person too. They get the product vision and roadmap and understand the feature they’re working on and where the product is going. They respect the prioritizing of the work that needs to be done and doesn’t take the work out of order. The product owner may help with problems blocking developers if the tech lead needs it.

From a higher management perspective, the product owner has the final accountability and responsibility for product success. She is responsible for making the work visible and realizing higher management’s (perhaps implicit) mandate to optimize desired impacts. The Product Owner, with support from Tech Leads, engages higher management’s help to improve the organizational design.

Hopefully, that clarifies the role of the Product Owner. Next up, let’s talk about tech lead.