From time to time I come across software platform team – also called infrastructure teams. Such teams provide software which is used by other teams rather than end customers as such they are one step, or even more, removed from customers.
Now I will admit part of me doesn’t want these teams to exist at all but let’s save that conversation for another day. I acknowledge that in creating these teams organisations act with the best intentions and there is a logic to the creation of such teams.
It is what happens with the Product Owners that concerns me today.
Frequently these teams struggle with product owners.
Sometimes the teams don’t have product owners at all: after all these teams don’t have normal customers, they exist to do work which will enhance the common elements and therefore benefit other teams who will benefit customers. So, the thinking goes, coders should just do what they think is right because they know the technology best.
Sometimes an architect is given the power of product ownership: again the thinking is that as the team is delivering technology to technologists someone who understand the technology is the best person to decide what will add value.
And sometimes a product owner exists but they are a developer, they may even still have development responsibilities and have to split their time between the two roles. Such people obtain their role not because of their marketing skills, their knowledge of customers or because they are good at analysing user needs. Again it is assumed that they will know what is needed because they know the technology.
In my book all three positions are wrong, very wrong.
A platform team absolutely needs a customer focused product owner. A product owner who can appreciate the team have two tiers of customers. First other technology teams, and then beyond them actual paying customers. This means understanding the benefit to be delivered is more difficult, it should not be the case of ducking the issue, it should be a case of working harder.
If the platform team are to deliver product enhancements that allow other teams to deliver benefit to customers then it is not a case of “doing what the technology needs.” It is, more than ever, a case of doing things that will deliver customer benefit.
Therefore, platform teams need the strongest and best product owners who have the keenest sense of customer understanding and the best stakeholder management skills because understanding and prioritising the work of the platform team is a) more difficult and b) more important.
A platform team that is not delivering what other teams need does more damage to more teams and customers – in terms of benefit not delivered – than a regular team that just delivers to customers. Sure the PO will need to understand the technology and the platform but that is always the case.
So, to summarise and to be as clear as possible: Platform teams need the best Product Owners you have available; making a technical team member, one without marketing and/or product ownership experience, the product owner is a mistake.