The Pen Problem: The PO and Quality

An opinion that (possibly) cost me a job

Ross Stiven
Practical Agile
4 min readMar 19, 2022


Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

I worked with an engineer that wouldn’t let anyone borrow his pen, not because he was fussy or rude, but because it was an extremely expensive, precision made fountain pen, and over time the shape of the nib changed based on the users writing style. Letting other people use the pen would ruin it.

As a habitual user, chewer, and loser of cheap biros, I found the whole thing a little mystifying, but if I owned a very expensive pen then I know I wouldn’t loan it to someone who was going to chew it and then leave it on the 1027 to Paddington. Anyway, good times.

The Pen Problem

I thought about the very expensive pen after an interview I had last year. I can’t remember how it came up, but one of the interviewers said something like “the Product Owner says they need a pen, and then a week or a month later, the development team gives them something they can write with. The PO doesn’t need to know how the pen is made”. I was asked for my opinion of this, and thus began the tangent that (possibly) cost me the job¹.

The interviewer’s perspective

It’s been a few months, so my quote is obviously not a hundred per cent accurate, but I’m not turning my interviewer into a straw man either, the essence of their position was:

  • The Product Owner’s sole responsibility is to state the requirement
  • The development team are the sole custodians of how the product is made, and therefore dictate quality.

So in the pen example, the Product Owner says they need a pen to write with, and the development team decide if that pen is custom made from one piece of titanium at great time and expense, or if it’s a half chewed piece of plastic one of them found on the train that morning. Either way the Product Owner ends up with something they can write with, and everyone should be happy. Right?


I’ve got two main objections to this, one that I did raise in the interview and one that I didn’t.

The one I didn’t raise is that the Product Owner shouldn’t be asking for a pen, because that’s a solution, not an outcome. The Product Owner should explain the outcome they want to achieve to the development team, maybe a pencil would be better, or a piece of chalk, if the PO wants to write on a blackboard then a pen won’t be much use. Just saying “I need a pen” leaves out valuable contextual information that might lead to a better solution.

The one I did raise, that (possibly) cost me the job, was that the PO does have a role to play in quality discussions. In theory at least, the longer you have to deliver something, the higher the quality should be². As the Product Owner, if I don’t need the pen for six months, and it’s my one and only priority, then the development team can really go to town. They can try different designs, materials and manufacturing techniques, and put their back into delivering the best pen in the history of the world. However, if I need the pen tomorrow that simply won’t do.

The PO’s role in quality discussions is to specify the timeliness of a requirement. If I need a pen tomorrow then waiting six months for the best pen ever isn’t an option, I’d be better off with the cheap, half chewed, biro that the team discovered on a train (even if the teeth marks are a little off putting). In an absolute sense the chewed biro is obviously of lower quality than the best pen ever, but crucially the biro is the only option that can be delivered in the required time frame.

The point (or nib)

The job of the development team isn’t to deliver a product of the absolute highest quality. The job of the development team is to deliver the best quality product they can that:

  • meets the needs of the user
  • can be delivered in the required time frame

Both of these things are stipulated by the Product Owner, and both of these things set parameters for the quality of the product required. Is the Product Owner the only arbiter of quality? Absolutely not. Does the Product Owner have a role in those discussions? They absolutely do.

¹I didn’t want it anyway, those grapes were definitely sour

² How this pans out in reality is obviously a whole other discussion.