Lead Engineer as Product Owner
Many companies I meet are confused about roles and responsibilities. They're not sure the difference between product managers and project managers, or between product managers and product marketing, or between product managers and interaction designers, as just a few common examples.
I have strong opinions about what roles are critical to success, and I am always looking for who is playing these roles on a team.
That said, there is no reason why one person can't cover more than one role, if they are willing and able to do so.
I have written earlier about the very common (and desirable) startup situation where the product manager role is often covered by the CEO or one of the co-founders.
In this article I wanted to talk about another situation of role combination that I find myself increasingly recommending. This is when you have a strong engineering lead or engineering manager (or even a startup CTO) that has the raw talent to also serve as a very strong product owner.
It's usually not very hard to spot engineers with the potential to serve this combined role. They are very smart, very passionate and articulate about the product, and often insisting on meeting with customers personally. They want to understand the reasons for decisions and they want to be convinced. They get very frustrated when the work of the engineers does not result in a win for the customers.
When I spot people like this, I often try to convince them of the impact they can have on their company and their own career if they were to move to the product role. While some are open to the career move, others may not be willing to move laterally across the organization for a role they're not sure about. So in this case, I will sometimes suggest that they try the combined role.
I wrote recently about the necessary contribution of the product manager, so I won't repeat that here, but the key is that there are very specific and essential obligations of the product manager beyond what the engineers and designers contribute. I walk through these responsibilities with the strong engineering leader to make sure he understands what he'd be signing up for.
I have to admit that in more than a few cases, when I explain to the engineer what's required, he decides he is not willing to take on the additional responsibilities. However, for those that are up for the challenge, I then discuss with them what to prepare for as they move into this additional role. This article spells out the key differences.
I always try to warn the engineer that he is signing up for very long days and a lot of work. Performing the role of the tech lead or engineering manager as well as covering the product management responsibilities is very demanding. However, I also point out that there are some real synergies in the combined role. If you take someone that has a very strong technology foundation and immerse him with your product vision and your customers, the results can be extraordinary.
Similarly, I also love the combination of an interaction designer and product manager, especially for consumer products.
Please note that when I describe having the engineering lead or interaction designer also serve as product owner, I am not implying that you still need a separate product manager – that creates bigger problems. This is a combined role where the person covers both sets of responsibilities.
Hopefully you can tell that I very much like the combinations I am describing. So why aren't there more such people? Unfortunately there are many more people that are willing to take on combined roles than are able. We have always had, and always will have, many engineers that want to be product owner too. We have always had, and always will have, product managers that want to be designers too. But not everyone has the talent or ability.
But for those with the talents and skills as well as the willingness, it is definitely worth encouraging.