Agile teams display an interesting dynamic: As teams mature the team members' roles tend to blur. Developers might take on ScrumMaster roles, product owners can test in a crunch, and testers might meet with customers. These role changes typically happen because team members work so closely together and learn new skills.
Combine this cross-training with urgent situations, and members will step up to meet team commitments. Eventually, these behaviors become part of the team’s norms. At my company we have seen a new role grow out of this process—the technical product owner.
This position requires a unique skill set, and those who have taken on this role developed the necessary expertise as part of an agile team. Of those who have taken on this new role, some started from the product side and developed technical skills; others started as technical resources but found they also had a knack for the product side of the business.
The new role greatly assists the team in a number of areas. First, a technical product owner carries technical knowledge into strategic conversations about the product. Since long-term road mapping requires an understanding of technical capabilities, having a person with this knowledge as part of the discussion provides a significant benefit. Without a technical product owner, a development resource has to be involved, which will impact short-term deliverables and the output for the current sprint.
Second, since product owners are responsible for grooming the product backlog, having insight into the technical requirements of individual stories allows for a more efficient process. It’s common that product owners require a technical resource to explain dependencies of different items. Having this work done prior to Sprint planning can greatly reduce the time spent discussing what goes in and what stays out. The less time spent meeting means more time coding and testing.
Finally, and most importantly, having someone who can bridge the desires of the customer and the capabilities of the technology removes one of the biggest barriers in software development. There are times that understanding both sides can greatly enhance the quality of the product.
When programmers are debating the best way to deliver data, having someone participate in that conversation who also understands the needs of the customer can greatly influence the ultimate technology decisions. On the flip side, understanding technical options when developing product ideas will open possible avenues not previously considered.
Agile’s whole-team approach provides a stark contrast to waterfall’s practice of siloed skill groups. The whole team approach allows people to grow in ways unheard of in highly structured organizations.
When individuals are allowed to combine technical and product knowledge, a unique role is created that enhances value to the company. The technical product owner's role is to create the bridge that has long been elusive in the software development industry. Agile has become the primary mechanism by which normally incompatible roles crossbreed and create distinctive positions that bring great value to a company.
Steve Vaughn is a twenty-year survivor of the IT wars. He has worked a variety of organizations as a software developer, architect, and ScrumMaster. Steve has spent the past five years attempting the impossible—managing software developers. He is now using this experience to act as an agile coach and help develop high-performing teams.