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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OKRs in Agile infographic

I am indebted to Yoan Thirion for created this infographic to illustrate Succeeding with OKRs in Agile. He’s done a brilliant job on both the graphics and the summary – undoubtedly better graphics than I could have done and probably a better summary than I would too, sometimes one can be too close to a thing.


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What is it with Business Agility?

Top of my Slack channels is the Business Agility Institute, just below that is the old #NoProjects slack that sometimes comes to life. Recently someone on #NoProjects asked:

Q: What do you guys think about Business Agility?

My reply: Business Agility, bit like apple pie, how can one not be in favour?

Of course, what flavour of business agility is another question. Lots of people seem to use the words “business agility” but I’m not sure there is a consensus on exactly what it is. I am a member, and supporter, of the Business Agility Institute which was founded by Evan Leybourn who also published a NoProjects book.

Evan and I were in regular communication while we were writing our books, we both saw the flaws in the project model and both arrived at the conclusion that as the business world digitalises business is never done therefore technology is never done. In essence that is the genesis of Continous Digital. While I wrote a book on the subject Evan founded the Business Agility Institute.

Q: So whats your take or how you think business agility is different from no-projects? is people just rebranding stuff to BA now?

My reply: Business Agility is good, it makes sense to go “up” from software to the business. Now look at the things you might want from Business Agility:

▪ Quick to market

▪ Fast to deliver

▪ Responsive to customers

▪ Reactive to trends and changes

▪ Efficient/effective

▪ … add your own here…

Isn’t that what any business wants? Whether you call it Business Agility or not? – these are apple pie things, hard to argue against and if you read (almost) any management textbook in the last 30 years they say the same things.

These aren’t #NoProjects, that is a very specific critique of the project model. Some people may have believed that projects facilitated those things, however what #NoProjects says is: the model is flawed, if you want those things you need to find another way. For me that other way is Continous Digital, which is why my presentations talk of #NoProjects evolution: it is not enough to say “projects don’t work”, one needs to suggest an alternative.

So how is Business Agility different?

First off: even if the things Business Agility offers aren’t new the rise of Business Agility is a new opportunity to push an agenda which is good, sometimes things need to be “rebranded” as new to get attention. Should’t be but there you are.

Second, the methods have changed: two forces at work here, Digital and “Millennials”

Digital tools – driven by Moore’s Law and the falling price of CPU power – have changed the way business works, it means that the things executives often want to avoid, software development, is now the power house of your business.

Hence, “the business is the technology and the technology is the business.” Think Uber: how do you separate Uber’s technology from Uber the taxi company?

This is why I have take to saying “IT is dead, IT’s Digital”. Information technology in business is no longer a cost centre, it is no longer “just” and enabler for business services, Digital means it is the business, it is were innovation happens and it is a driver of revenue and profitability.

That also means “Agile Methods” (a la software engineering) come into focus because a) you need to create software and b) as digital tools permeate every aspect of business life agile becomes more applicable.

Agile methods are the processes that maximised the benefits of digital tools. Agile started with software engineers (and friends) because they had early access to digital tools (email, IM, VOIP, web, wiki, etc.) and are able to create “missing” tools

Millennials: those born about 2000 are said to want more meaning, purpose and autonomy in their work. Personally I’ve always wanted these things and I think everyone does. Whether I am right or not this is a trend which has been running for a while, millennials exhibit this most clearly. (Plus the pandemic adds to this)

This too fits with agile because agile methods recognise the people aspect, people in agile are not plug compatible (although we do encourage a more team based approach.). Agile considers motivation and recognise those doing the work as experts in their own right – are better at addressing that need.

Hence, and a point I’m making in my “Reawakening Agile with OKRs” presentation which I’m delivering this year, we need to think more about purpose driven development – PDD. Our software needs purpose so our people have purpose.

Ultimately, while business agility might not be anything new there is a greater need for it.


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