JournalSep 2014

Please don’t let your CEO be the product owner

Building great products can be really tough–it’s a constant challenge to find better ways to do it, and to make sure that the whole team is working together to hit the same goal.

At Hanno, we don’t necessarily run our projects with a full-strength agile process, especially since some of our projects are intense, 2 week engagements. But one agile concept that we always insist on, no matter how long the project is, is a single person who is the designated “product owner” on the client’s end.

So what is the product owner responsible for?

Wikipedia has a decent definition:

  • The Product Owner represents the stakeholders and is the voice of the customer. He or she is accountable for ensuring that the team delivers value to the business.
  • The Product Owner writes (or has the team that writes) user stories, ranks and prioritizes them, and adds them to the product backlog.
  • They negotiate priorities, scope, funding, and schedule.
  • Collaborate with the team to ensure effective implementation of requirements.

Sounds like a good fit for the CEO, right?

One thing that we’ve found to be common in startup teams which aren’t as experienced with agile, is for the company’s CEO to volunteer/fill the gap as the product owner.

After all, the CEO is the person responsible for setting the company’s direction, managing priorities, and making sure the company is successful. And in a tech startup, you’ll often be building a single product–you might even say that in many cases, the startup is the product.

So by implication, it seems like the CEO might be a good person to be the product owner. They certainly tick all of those boxes.

But we’re missing one very important attribute, which Mountain Goat helpfully point out…

“The Scrum product owner needs to be available to his or her team. The best product owners show commitment by doing whatever is necessary to build the best product possible—and that means being actively engaged with their teams.”

And here’s where the problem lies. A CEO is probably the one person in a startup (or in any company) who we can’t expect to be constantly available. I know from my own perspective in running this sort of role at Hanno, that as much as I’d desperately love to be the product owner on some of our projects, I am just not reliable enough.

As the CEO, you are inherently unreliable

There’s nothing wrong with this, unless you fail to acknowledge it. I’m constantly being pulled in different directions by urgent tasks that pop up. One day, it might be that our lovely bank decides to put a block on all of our credit cards, and refuses to speak to anyone but a director. Another, it might be that a team member has some personal issues and needs me to help them solve it. Another still, I’ll be negotiating legal contracts with clients and lawyers.

For startups raising funding, this sort of thing is even worse. Your CEO is going to be in and out of meetings and presentations, constantly thinking about ways to secure that funding. As Paul Graham says, fundraising is a huge distraction.

It’s not hard to see why a CEO might struggle to be always available to their team as a product owner, when their priorities inevitably need to lie elsewhere. Delegate that responsibility, and make sure there’s someone on your side who is capable of being a good product owner. Your product, your team, and your users, will all be grateful.

Posted by
Jon Lay

Jon is a Partner at Hanno. He wears many hats, but his primary focus is on leading our engineering and technical operations.