Seeking advice

Last post 03:52 am January 3, 2015
by Guy Dennis
9 replies
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12:19 pm December 22, 2014

Dear all,

Let me apologise up front if anyone feels this post isn't welcome. I know that forums like this contain communities, and I hope this post isn't intrusive. Please ignore if you feel that way.

I'm thinking long and hard about changing careers, and am looking for some advice.

A friend sent me a link to a page describing the role of Product Owner in Scrum. I read it, and I can find no better words than to say it warmed my heart.

It seemed to capture the aptitudes I have, and in a role where they are helpful and facilitate the success of a team - something I really enjoy. I also really enjoyed reading up on Scrum, and its sense of purpose. It seemed so different, in a good way, from some recent jobs I've done.

But here's where it gets tricky, and where I'm looking for advice. I would need to create a viable plan to get me from where I am now to that kind of role, and I'm not sure how I'd do it - or if it would even be possible. Below are a few thoughts, and I'd welcome any candid opinions.

- I don't have a technical background, and am 38 years old. I did philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford, which I know has some kudos in some areas and takes hard work, but this will surely cut little mustard in the software industry. I worked as a journalist successfully, ending up as a senior business journalist on a serious UK national newspaper, and then worked in public relations, where I particularly enjoyed crisis work and strategy. My Myers Briggs is ENTJ (though I'm mature enough to understand weaknesses, both in such classifications, and the ENTJ character type). But I'd basically be starting from scratch, and be relatively old. Is it possible?

- If it is possible, how would I do it? Presumably, I'd need to start in another role first, perhaps as a tester or similar? And perhaps take a course? I'm guessing that the traits that make for a great Product Owner, aren't necessarily the same as those that make a great programmer, so I'm curious about the best pathway.

- If I did aim for it, how many years might it take to get to a decent Product Owner role?

- Could I plan to do some part-time PR consulting to keep money coming in, or do the PR for a software company, but take the training and experience as part of the package somehow, or is that unrealistic. Might it be better to simply stop everything for a year and focus entirely on retraining?

- Suppose it would take me five years to get there. Do you have any sense of what wages might be like in the meantime and at destination?

- Is there a danger of the role being obsolete or low-paid by the time I get to it? When I went into journalism, I rose fast, working all hours in a highly competitive area, but was doing so in an industry about to be completely disrupted - and I don't want to make that mistake again (the disrupted bit; I always work very hard).

As I say, I'd welcome any thoughts. I can imagine that bad Product Owners create absolute nightmares. I also wonder if this post might sound a bit like saying "Hi, I'd like to be a CEO", in that the Product Owner role might have a degree of seniority attached. Don't be deceived: I ask humbly, and quite expect to be told that I'd have to grind it out from the bottom up, or would be foolish to try.

04:43 pm December 22, 2014

Welcome to the community!

Being a great product owner isnt so much about knowing scrum or software. It's about knowing the product and being able to communicate a vision for a product. It's about gathering data from users, the market, the business, and various other sources to guide decisions on product design that maximizes value to the company.

06:01 pm December 22, 2014

Thanks for this. I think these are among the things that appeal about the role - being able to interrogate a business case, understand it, see its potential, and then communicate that in a way that allows other, technical people to better do their jobs. And also to be able to explain things that puts them in context - sets out the vision and the big picture, and relates the detail to that.

So I guess you're saying, perhaps, that the route to that role isn't to come up through being a member of a Scrum team, but rather to come in from a discipline that provides market and product knowledge?

03:31 am December 23, 2014

> I particularly enjoyed crisis work and strategy

If that's what you like then that's where you should begin. Look for roles that demand these skills and seek out agile teams from there. If you demonstrate a willingness to help teams respond to change, and don't just pass the buck to them, then I imagine you will soon become a popular choice for PO.

05:16 am December 23, 2014

Thanks both, I really appreciate your thoughts. This is helping me think about strengths, use that as a starting point - as you say, Ian.

What struck me about the role I mention is that it's all about facilitating the success of other people, and not just doing so but being seen to do so. And it's a role where communication and being able to understand at speed are critical.

I need to find a way to spot some stepping stones. They're underwater at the moment.

05:48 am December 23, 2014

As regards your experiences with crisis management and strategy, here are some things to reflect upon which may help you to reframe your CV:

- Stakeholder management
- Root cause analysis
- Risk based prioritization and triage
- Collaboration, and an agreed understanding of what it means and takes for work to be completed
- Importance of timely inspection and adaptation at the point where work is done
- Actioning of lessons learned
- Having too much work languishing in progress, the importance of evidencing success through delivery
- Waste, and the associated risk to delivery
- Establishment of trust and tolerances within which teams may operate

10:06 am December 27, 2014

I've done some thinking, and have a specific question. My experience is in communications, and I have a strong background in that. For example, I twice edited Shell's 198-page financial Annual Report, have ghostwritten for CEOs, and worked as a business journalist on The Sunday Telegraph.

Are there likely to be any gifted companies or individuals that, for all their technical brilliance, would value help in communications, especially to non-technical business audiences? Or in helping the client business to better articulate what it actually wants?

It strikes me that ability in this respect could be helpful to a team or a client, and so provide an entry point. Or if nothing else, a means of gaining some useful work experience.

One of the things I loved when reading about Scrum was its recognition that clients often don't know what they do want, until they see the first iteration and it isn't exactly what they want. This, in a way, is a form of practical communication. It's smart.

06:24 am January 2, 2015

Guy, feel free to write me a personal message I will be more than happy to give you some tips.
Find me on LinkedIn Roman Shtekelman

08:57 am January 2, 2015

Hi Guy,

here's my opinion, based on my experiences with my first job (PO-like in some areas) after my diploma in math (no, I haven't needed any explicit study contents yet).

- yes, it is definitely possible. Every Product owner has to learn about his product before really fulfilling his role. A master's degree in computer science doesn't prepare you for creating a Product Backlog much less prioritizing it. And most Product Owners who change the company will have to work their way into the new product.

- how to do it depends on the concrete situation. If I were you, I'd just apply for Product Owner jobs - and see what it gets you. While you might be a good tester for one company, another company could want you for customer relations - and some other could just take you as Product Owner trainee.You can openly address your "weak spots" and the company can develop strategies to compensate them - either in a beforehand call or maybe in the job interview itself. Courage!
Oh, and there never is a "best pathway". There are many paths you can go. Take one step on the path that smells best for you. And after this first step, inspect what happened. Then adapt... Sounds familiar? :-)
Oh, and one other thing: of course, a course or some self study in Scrum or in the subject of the product can be helpful, too...

- how long it will take you depends strongly on the concrete product, I think. It's easier to become a "Tetris" Product Owner from scratch than a "finance and accounting software" Product Owner...

- wages surely depend on country and industry branch. But you'll surely be able to find a salary comparison in the internet? Straight off, I don't know British homepages for that, but it shouldn't be that hard to find some.

- The tasks of a Product Owner are there, no matter if the process is called Scrum or Waterfall (or else). So, even if Scrum becomes outdated, your gained skills would still be necessary for the (software) industry. So I don't see a big danger in getting obsolete as a Product Owner.

- In my experience, nearly all companies have come to value skilled communicators. Just try and submit your application to some company!!

I hope this helps a little.

03:52 am January 3, 2015

Thanks for all the advice above, and Roman I will drop you a line.

Since starting this thread, I've also been in contact with a friend who worked in senior IT roles, who's also been very helpful. I should have some work experience fairly soon, I'm doing some comms work for a small IT recruitment firm to provide a bit of industry understanding, and next to me are a stack of ITIL 3 and Prince 2 manuals for some introductory reading.

I get the sense that energy, determination, self-starting and learning on the job are valued, which is good for me. Hopefully a little work experience, where I can demonstrate determination and an enjoyment of teamwork will get the ball rolling a little, and provide some perspective. I will report back!