The story of a product owner (I) — vision

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What is a product owner

You will find lots of definitions on the matter. Go on, give it a search, I’ll wait. Finished? Are you enlightened on what exactly a product owner is or does? Maybe.

I am here to help you out. I am here to give you a simpler answer and to back it up with interviews from product owners in eMAG, the leading e-commerce company in Eastern Europe.

When I was little I was constantly breaking stuff. Well, actually I was taking apart whatever I could get my hands on and putting them back together. I wanted to know how they work. And as I was assembling whatever it was I tore apart, I always thought to myself — I wonder how they came up with it. How did they think of this radio, and why did they put the buttons like that, and why does it have that shape.

They had a vision of a product. That’s the answer. A vision. There was a guy who said, “hey, people are going to love this”. That’s the simplest way to answer the question of what a product owner is — a visionary. However, a simple answer like that has a lot of layers beneath it. That vision has a lot of baggage behind it and it takes a special breed of people who can turn that vision into reality.

To be more clear, that vision has to be backed up by reality. The idea may sound good but build it, put it in the real world and you may find out that not everyone thinks it’s such a great idea. And that’s a product owner’s worst nightmare — building something that nobody will use.

The satisfaction of the job? Having a vision of a product or a feature that will help people and make their life easier, and turn that vision into reality. It’s like an architect that has the vision of a house and he actually gets to see it standing and admire it someday as he walks by it.

A vision backed-up by data, statistics, potential usage, a return of investment. That’s the key to success. That and a few other traits I want you to hear about from actual product owners. And what better way to get insights if not from the actual person doing the job?

To kick off let’s have a talk with Andrei Pirjoleanu — Product Owner at eMAG, in the Internal Applications team.

A few words about you. How long have you been in eMAG and what’s your past experience?

I have been working in eMAG as a Product Owner in the Internal Apps division for almost a year now. I am a programmer by profession, I have a bachelor degree in Mathematics and Computer Science, so my background is a technical one.

I have a professional experience of over 10 years in the web industry, most of them in the e-commerce zone. Before joining eMAG, I have worked as a Software Engineer at 2checkout (formerly Avangate). Half of the time I also had the role of a Scrum Master for a team of 4–6 members. The other half I was assigned the roles of Release Manager and Software Architect.

Before joining the “e-commerce world”, I’ve had several interactions with agencies, freelancing and startups, the most notable one being a collaboration with a friend of mine, building a London-based startup that had received initial funding from Y Combinator. Overall, I can say I have been part of a wide range of experiences and challenges, both business and technical, at different times in a company’s life-cycle.

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What was your most difficult project and which one was the most rewarding?

For me, people have always been an important factor, the main challenge is to keep the enthusiasts around and to prevent detractors from slowing things down, by earning their trust.

I think there are multiple types of difficulties. Some require technical skills, others require people or business skills. It is hard to point out the most difficult project or the one that brought me the most satisfaction. I am a person who likes and appreciates a good challenge and I have almost never refused one, therefore I think that the most difficult project might actually be the one you are working on. If it is not, then something might need a change.

Looking back at my work, if I were to choose a project that had a high impact on my career and my perspective, I would choose the one where I wanted to implement some development and architectural standards in a monolithic application with a very large codebase. It required a high amount of theoretical and practical studies (with examples), business arguments for approval, a step by step implementation strategy for new projects and also programming tactics as examples for the ease of development.

The most difficult part was handling people’s resistance to change. Change management requires training, good communication and a lot of support for everyone involved. It can sometimes become exhausting, but it can also be very rewarding.

I think the key to maintaining a high motivation is the people around you. For me, people have always been an important factor, the main challenge is to keep the enthusiasts around and to prevent detractors from slowing things down, by earning their trust.

How do you see the role of a product owner?

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In my opinion, a Product Owner must be highly motivated to overcome challenges and to fight for his/her beliefs and for his/her vision. This involves a lot of patience, openness to discussions, debates and a quest of finding the appropriate data, adding a tablespoon of good negotiation skills (and of course, diplomacy).

Furthermore, the process of developing your products also requires a high level of responsibility. You will sometimes have to take some risks and make a decision without scientific facts to support you. This might be the main reason a product needs an owner and it can only be learned from experience.

A Product Owner will continuously learn how to do his/her job, adapt to new situations, market requests, the execution team and to many other known or unknown variables.

What is an indispensable quality for this role?

Objectivity — a Product Owner should try to be as objective as possible, to overcome the confirmation bias and to follow not his/her own personal interest, but a joint interest of a group of people, using collaboration and good arguments.

Some words of wisdom for future product owners?

You will be dragged out of your comfort zone, you will have to accept criticism gracefully, you will have to say no to people, you will have to take into account other opinions even if they contradict yours.

If you want to create something (either from the scratch or by improving an existing product) and you believe that you can have a positive impact by having your vision implemented, while taking risks and earning people’s trust, this might be the job for you.

Nevertheless, you will be dragged out of your comfort zone, you will have to accept criticism gracefully, you will have to say no to people, you will have to take into account other opinions even if they contradict yours and most of the time you will have to justify every little bit of it.

You have to be prepared with good arguments, always do your homework before a discussion or a debate. It is also important to control your emotions when interacting with others; remember it is not about you, it is about the product you are building, so don’t take it personally, it’s just business.

Strive for the best effort, not necessarily for perfection. Try to build upon what you already have, with the people around you by teaching/coaching them, not by directing them. The execution team is critical to the product, as their success is your success.

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Last, but not least, know your customers and their needs, never assume things you don’t know or you are not sure of, always collect data and metrics and learn how to prioritise. The features you are not developing could cost you more than the ones that are in development.

Don’t worry if all of these seem laborious. You have a long road ahead, stay sharp and open-minded. Determination is the key to success!