WTF Is Cloud Native, Product Management

Oh, So You Are a Product Owner Then?!

I’m a (Technical) Product Manager, but if I had a pound for every single time I’ve been asked if I was a Product Owner…
Well, in truth I wouldn’t be any better off really, but maybe I could just afford an extra takeaway for two, or perhaps even a return ticket to London with one of the glorious southern or southwestern British railways providers.

I started my “London tech career” somewhere around mid 2015, and in all honesty I’ve always worked in environments where teams were operating in either a pure Kanban style, a lightweight Agile way, or some flavour of Agile-Waterfall hybrid. Regardless though, in each case the product manager role was very well understood and applied throughout the whole organisation.

I have however encountered a few people, every now and then, who have either “mistaken” me for a Product Owner, or referred to me as such.

When that happened, people meant well; they genuinely believed that the two roles were completely interchangeable or, in most cases, just the same role but with two different names.

Now, the second point, in my humble opinion, is where the confusion often originates.
I have identified two main scenarios: number 1) is where people operate in a working environment where Scrum is the framework, and therefore product management doesn’t really fit within the product team, and number 2) is where I need the next paragraph to elaborate, even if Matt LeMay thinks arguing about roles and titles is a waste of time.

Dear cloud/digital/software/tech companies/organisations out there, some of you are indeed using functions/titles just for the sake of it, and that is not cool.

I find it frustrating, but weirdly fascinating at the same time.

I often wonder if at some point there is a C-level or Executive or Very Senior Person that reads one of those top-charting non-fiction books and suddenly wakes up deciding that, from the day after, the whole company will embrace Lean, or Team Topologies, or product management.

To be clear, I consider the two books mentioned absolutely brilliant, and everyone needs to keep up with the latest trends, but I would embrace the cultural change behind those concepts first, and only then would I worry about re-defining functions and titles, if you find there is a real need for it.

Otherwise, it just gets really, really confusing.

So, is there a difference between the two roles? Is it easy, or even possible, to clearly define their respective responsibilities?

The answer to both questions is yes. However, depending on the size and maturity of the business, the development framework in use, and/or the kind of product offered to users, the two roles can coexist, overlap, or be mutually exclusive.

When you build a product or a service, there are always three key elements that you must take into consideration:

  1. What is the problem that you are trying to solve?
  2. Why are you solving it?
  3. How are you going to solve it?

You can write the above questions in plural form if you like, but the essence does not change.

Defining the what, means two things:

  • choosing which problem is worth solving
  • deciding what needs to be solved first

Defining the why, also means two things:

  • business needs
  • users’ needs

Defining the how means finding a solution to the problem.

The role of a product manager is to focus on the what and the why.

By being an outstanding communicator, an excellent researcher and a critical thinker, the product manager leads the vision, strategy and roadmap of the product, whilst constantly engaging with end users and internal stakeholders to gather requirements, define the epics and release strategy, provide direction to the product teams, report on objectives and key results, and iterate upon feedback to make sure that the product meets user needs, and therefore the business gains/retains competitive advantage.

A product manager looks at the entire lifecycle of the product, but should rely on product teams to figure out how.

The role of a product owner is to work within an Agile team to figure out how to solve a given problem, the what.

By being an expert in the field, a problem solver and a tactical player, the product owner owns the product backlog, writes and refines user stories, prioritises tasks within the backlog, defines acceptance criteria, participates in story acceptance to make sure they deliver business value and, overall, works closely with the development team participating in all Agile ceremonies.

A product owner looks at a specific part/stage of the product, relying on product managers to define the why.

Often, the focus of product managers is defined as external, as they set the long-term strategy based on market research and customer needs. Product managers are also known as wearers of multiple hats.

On the other hand, the focus of product owners is defined as internal, as they implement requirements and oversee the development process. Product owners are also known as product specialists.

Now, you may be a product owner reading this article and having some sort of identity crisis, as in your current role you may cover many of the responsibilities of a product manager, if not all of them! Product managers, you could be facing the same dilemma.

Either way please don’t panic, you haven’t suddenly become something else.

In my experience, the number of responsibilities also varies by seniority, whether junior, mid, senior, lead, principal, head or whatever. For instance, a junior product manager would most likely spend their entire day on user stories and backlog. A senior product owner would very likely play a key role in defining the why and setting the strategy.

Oh and by the way, the responsibilities per role I have elicited above are not exhaustive, in any way, shape or form, I just wanted to provide the most commonly identifiable tasks per function.

There is an excellent article from Melissa Perri that really resonates with me, which in short states that especially within some frameworks, when you confine product managers to mere external functions, and product owners to their teams, you may end up with horrible silos.

I also wholeheartedly agree with Perri on the importance for every product role of speaking with customers/users. Requirements should not just be cascaded from top to bottom.

The key element really is flexibility.

In startups, due to the early stage of the product life cycle, necessity for a quick go to market strategy and other factors, the product manager role is the most common. In scale-ups, due to the necessity of expansion and growth, product management roles are still more common, and we often have many of them, maybe lead by a Head of Product. In larger organisations or multinational companies, product professionals cover the whole spectrum and it really gets down to the structures and internal departments, but product owners definitely play a pivotal role within product teams.

p.s.: I haven’t touched a user story in ages … please don’t tell my boss!

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