In my previous career people used to tell me that once I got started talking about a subject it was hard to get me to stop. If I opened my mouth to explain something that I was passionate about it you could expect that it would take about 25 minutes for me to stop talking again. It’s with that in mind that I now write my fourth posting on the Agile principle of simplicity. For me simplicity is more than just a good idea in software development – finding the cleanest path through complexity with a solution that maximizes the amount of work not done. For me simplicity is a life principle. As a father I regularly encourage my kids to find a few things to invest deeply in rather than being too scattered, and I seek the same simplified focus in my personal and professional life.
And that’s what had me thinking this week about the core commitments of a product owner. I’ve been blogging about my thoughts on being a product owner in an Agile software development environment for nearly a year and have shared quite a few thoughts about this topic in that time. If I had to sum up the key activity of an effective product owner I would say this: Talk to people. I wrote a few months ago about how ‘nothing important happens at my desk’ because I spend most of my day talking with other people – mostly the development team and the product manager but also with users of the product and with the team of product owners so that together we can discuss our company’s product portfolio. And the most frequent image I have used for the role of product owner is the bridge; my central goal is to connect the coding, testing, designing team and the technical aspects of the product with the product manager and the end users and their business concerns. Listening to and talking with folks on both sides of this bridge serves to diminish the potential chasm between them and helps us all feel on the same side working toward the development and use of a great product. The chief activity of my day is talking with people.
Talking with people and tending the backlog. The two keys things that product owners focus on are talking with people and tending the product backlog. As new defects are discovered, new features envisioned, and new enhancements discussed, it is my job to create and help prioritize good user stories capturing these ideas. I want to make sure that the development team has a steady stream of items to work on that have been well articulated. I also need to determine when items previously added to the backlog are no longer relevant so that the list of potential items to work on for a given sprint does not become overwhelming. So talking with people and tending the backlog are the two key parts of my job.
Also testing the product. The three main things I do as a product owner are talking with people, tending the backlog, and testing the product. I need to make sure that our testing team is developing a thorough suite of automated tests that run regularly; this ensures that each new development feature does not inadvertently break some existing piece of functionality. I need to test the features that our sales team uses on their product demonstrations to be certain that these core components work well at the end of each new sprint. And I need to be part of the testing effort of our ongoing development so that I know the state of each item on our sprint plans and so that I can communicate with others about what new functionality is coming out. So the three fundamental tasks I have as a product owner are talking with people, tending the backlog, and testing the product.
And telling the story. Among the key responsibilities I have as product owner are the following: talking with people, tending the backlog, testing the product, and telling the story (in case you haven’t picked up on it yet, here’s the link you might want to check out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7WJXHY2OXGE). A big part of my job is to be a ‘product evangelist’ sharing the story of our product internally and externally. I tell the story of client needs and product marketing successes to our development team so that they know their efforts are not in vain; there are real users in the market who are hungry for good solutions and thrilled by what we offer. I tell the story of our development struggles and triumphs to the product manager and the sales team so that they know about what we are proud of and what we are working on. Telling our product story across the company helps other product owners know what our priorities are and lets our management team know what the product teams are investing in. Telling the story, along with talking with people, tending the backlog, and testing the product, is central to my job as an effective product owner.
So maybe the core responsibilities I have as a product owner aren’t exactly easy to sum up (even if there is a nice alliteration to them – another vestige of my previous career). But focusing on these few central tasks can keep me from getting distracted by the many other items that clamor for my attention. And if I get these few things done well then I am generally on top of the most important aspects of my job. As I try to apply the Agile principle of simplicity to my broader professional life these are the areas where I try to focus. Of course, in truth it’s not that simple.