Developer becoming a product owner/product manager?

Product Owner choosing postits

A few weeks back I had an e-mail exchange with a blog reader about the product owner role which I think other readers might be interested in, it is a question that comes up regularly with clients. In this context the product owner is a product manager (regular readers know I consider product manager to be a subset of product owner).

Reader: This makes me think that the [product owner/manager] role is indeed super hard. Do you have a view on hiring versus training internally?

I’ve had great success with moving people from development into product owner/manager roles – I did it myself once upon a time. And I remember one developer who’s face lit up when I asked if he would like to move to a product role. A few years later – and several companies on – I got an e-mail from him to say how his career had flourished.

When to many the move looks obvious it is actually far harder than it looks and there are pitfalls.

The key thing is: the individual needs to leave their past life behind. Changing from developer to product owner/manager is changing your identity, it is hard.

The mistake that I see again and again is that the individuals – sometimes encouraged by those around them – continue to wear a developer hat. This means they don’t step into their new identity. They spread themselves thinly between two roles and their opinion divided. They seem themselves as capable of everything rather than specialist in one so don’t devote the time to both learn their new role and mentally change their perspective.

Imagine a hybrid developer/product manager comes back from lunch and has three or four hours spare – of course this never happens but just run with this thought experiment. Are they best: (a) pulling the highest priority item from the backlog and getting it done, or, (b) reviewing the latest customer interviews, site metrics, and perhaps picking up the phone and calling an existing customer?

Coding up a story clearly adds value, it reduces the backlog and enhances the product directly. Picking up the phone and analysing data may not have an immediate effect or enhance the product today, the payoff will come over weeks and months as better decisions are made and customers served better.

Product owners/managers need to empathise with customers and potential customers, they need to feel the pain of the business and see the opportunities in the market. Skilled coders feel the code, they hear it asking to be refactored; they dream about enhancing it in place; they worry about weaknesses, the places were coupling is too high and tests too few. In short, coders empathise with the code.

It is good that product people empathise with customers and coders with the code. But what happens when those things come into conflict? The code is crying out for a refactoring and customers demanding a feature? Ultimately it will be a judgement call – although both side may believe the answer is obvious.

If the code is represented by one person and the customer by another then they can have a discussion, balance priorities and options. If you ask on person to fill both roles then they need to have an argument with themselves, this is not good for their mental health or the final decision.

These problems are especially acute when the developer in question is either very experienced or very good – or both. They come to represent the product and champion it. But that makes the balancing act even more difficult. It also means that those understand when a No is a no because there is no business justification and when No is no because the code is a mess.

Hence I want the roles of developer and product specialist kept separate.

In a small company, say, less than 10 people, it can be hard to avoid this situation. And when the product is new technology or and API it is often difficult to disentangle “what the customer will pay for” from “what the technology can do” but those traps make it more important that a company addresses this when it grows.

So my advice is simple: the key thing is that the individual changing roles needs to put coding behind them – and step away from the keyboard. I know that seems hard but to fill the product owner/manager role properly one has to live it.

I usually recommend the person in question away for training. And I do mean away (lets hope we can travel again soon!). The person changing roles needs to immerse themselves in their new life. Sitting in a classroom with others helps make the psychological switch.

When I did it – with Pragmatic Marketing (now Pragmatic Institute) – the training was difficult to get in Europe so I went to the USA which added to the experience. Product manager culture is more developed in the USA than elsewhere – and even more developed on the West Coast simply because it has been there longer.

Going somewhere different and immersing yourself in a new culture and new ideas is a great way of breaking with your past and creating a new identity for yourself.


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