People don’t often consider the placement of a product owner (PO) within a company and how it intersects with technology. As a CTO (among other things) with over 20 years’ experience in tech businesses, I have seen the PO role slotted into a number of structures; this includes a product manager reporting directly to a CEO/MD, a CTO or a marketing director, or in small businesses, the CEO taking direct ownership. It therefore pays to draw attention to the positioning of your PO because the impact on tech businesses (under 5 years old and with under 500 employees) can be far-reaching.
Where should a product owner sit?
The role has different elements to it: on the one hand, the PO will specify what the product should do and he/she will work with designers, developers etc to deliver this. In this case, there is a solid argument for the PO to sit within a technology team. On the other hand, when a PO is responsible for product/market fit, understanding the customer needs and pricing, it makes more sense for them to work under the commercial arm of a business.
Pros and Cons of the PO sitting within Marketing
Marketing departments are charged with positioning the company and understanding the product / market fit. In some organisations this can mean that, that department has the right understanding of what the product needs to do to meet the customers needs. Having the PO sit in a marketing department can mean they have a closer and stronger relationship with the customer, leading to a product which is more closely aligned with the customers requirements.
Of course this can also be achieved with a PO sitting under the technology function, but will require close integration with the marketing department.
The downside of this arrangement is that the product manager may be too distant from the team who are charged with delivering the product - the technology team. It may also lead to friction between a technology team who are more concerned about the functionality than the customer experience and a marketing team wishing to attain customer and product alignment.
Given the importance of the responsibilities of a PO, you can understand why, in smaller businesses and early stage start-ups, the CEO/MD/founder takes on the role of the product owner. Because no one else knows the business better. While this may be the obvious choice, it’s not always the right one — the CEO won’t necessarily have the skill set or experience needed to properly execute the role. Plus, they have limited time and cannot invest in it completely. Similarly, a marketing team will have a good understanding of the customer, but not the inner workings of the product.
The emerging trend of the adoption of agile principles into software development also aligns the PO function closely with this development side of the business. From experience, the most successful companies have already seamlessly integrated the two.
What type of person is needed?
A good PO is worth their weight in gold and needs to:
- Be able to write user stories (features) for the development team in a way that they can understand, but that will also clearly articulate the features; and
- Have a solid grasp on the customer feedback loop and create sustainable processes for to ensure it remains workable.
This can however, all be rather time-consuming which is why in small teams, where the CEO needs to be involved, the CTO also should be. A good CTO will be commercially aware and business savvy, therefore the business would benefit from the role being split between them. So, if the CTO isn’t partially taking on the role themselves, the PO function should sit under them.
Where possible, the optimal setup for the PO functionality is either an individual taking on the role or the responsibility falling to a whole department. They can then report to the CEO or CTO. The former does however, require a great working relationship and no politicking between the PO and CTO roles. Given the potential separating of departments, in a larger organisation, it is best to have a commercially and product aware CTO. This way, he / she is able to own both the technology and the product, with a product team reporting to them which in turn, will ensure the greatest opportunity of integration between the two functions.
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