Product Owner Role – What Scrum Leaves Out

The Product Owner role in Scrum is a well-defined description of how a single person who represents the business interacts with a Scrum team to get software or products implemented that the business wants or needs.

This is in no way a complete description of what the business has to do to reach that point, nor is it intended to be.  But too many Scrum teams think that the description of Product Owner is a complete description of the business role and do not recognize why the person they think should be in the role is seldom the right person.

So what does “the business” do?  First, we have to identify what “the business” means. In this context “the business” is how the company makes money. It can be for example a product, product family, business line, or service unit.  Sometimes “the business” is an internal unit of the company, such as accounting, that supplies necessary services to the corporation. Someone is responsible for that business, typically someone who is reporting directly to the CEO or COO of the company.

What is that business owner responsible for? This person is responsible for knowing everything that could impact business including the market, the users, the regulatory environment, and the competition. This is the person who decides when to pivot, what to do about disruptive technology, when to enhance a product, or when to remove a product from the market. The business owner makes suggestions to the C-executives about budgets and is responsible for the Return on Investment (ROI) for their business. For overhead units (those that do not make money), the business owner is responsible for providing the services in the most cost-effective manner.

Unless the business is tiny, this is not a job for one person. The ultimate business owner has a team of people who work to collect information, create reports, suggest work to be done, suggest budgets and so on. The staff working for the business owners are experts in their own areas. All of this information is reviewed by the business owner and is the input to his or her own decision making processes.

While the business owner is ultimately responsible for the business, this person is rarely involved in the details of the work to run the business. That is why they have staff to do that work. For any particular project that needs to be done, it is seldom the case that the business owner is the one who knows the details of that work, and so that person makes a poor choice to be Product Owner to the Scrum team.  Yes, this person is ultimately responsible for the vision and return on investment of the business, but that does not mean the business owner wants or needs to be responsible for the vision and return on investment of a particular initiative, nor do they have the time to do so.

So who will take on the Product Owner role for the duration of a particular initiative?  The person who is the Product Owner will be someone who has the knowledge of what needs to be done and the trust of the ultimate business owner to deliver the required ROI. This person is trusted to balance the needs of the users, the needs of the business, and what is technically possible in order to achieve the best overall result.

While the Product Owner will usually be able to make the day-to-day decisions, there may be times when he or she needs to discuss questions with the ultimate business owner. Some complex situations may be beyond the ability of any one person to handle, and so the person who is the Product Owner may sometimes need to get a team of people together to work out the best thing to do. This should never be because the person with the Product Owner role is too junior, but should be due to the size or complexity of the work.

Business owners make a big mistake when assigning very junior people to the Product Owner role. This is a role for a person with deep knowledge and understanding of the business vision and the market (or of a specific supporting domain such as accounting), and the the ability to deliver on the required ROI. People like this are very valuable to the business and cannot be converted to Product Owner as their full-time job.  Instead, they should be assigned to a specific initiative which they are best suited to guide. The work of Product Owner should take only part of their time, since they need to also spend time continuing to keep track of what may be changing that impacts their business and the specific initiative they are guiding as Product Owner.

For business units that make money for the company, the Product Owner will often have job titles such as Product Manager, Marketing Engineer, Marketing Visionary, Business Analyst (on the business side, not from IT), Solution Anthropologist, User Experience expert, and possibly even Head of Sales.  For overhead departments you might have a Lead Accountant, Statistician, Big Data Guru, Lawyer, Operations Manager, or Head of Customer Support.

Scrum teams should always keep in mind that to get someone with the knowledge and authority to be responsible for the vision and ROI, they will have Product Owners who have jobs that go far beyond the Product Owner role. The Product Owner role only describes the interaction of the business with the Scrum team, which should rarely be a full-time job (and then only for brief periods).

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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