How to Be a Great Software Project Manager or Product Owner for Scrum
I think of scrum and agile as always a work in progress.
That’s because different teams can practice it to different levels of strictness. That’s ok. The naysayers to scrum or agile will call it a top-heavy process, where a “Certified Scrum Master” dictates strict processes.
Sometimes I hear of teams rejecting the ideas of agile wholesale on these grounds (“we don’t need it” / “it doesn’t work for us”). “Agile” is a buzzword, which fundamentally once meant “changing as you go” but now seems less and less relevant, at least to me, since so many people use that word so poorly.
“Scrum” is a funny word. It comes from a sports play in England—you see Rugby played to this day across parks in England.
I’m not sure what it is about this particular word, or this particular software development practice —or the lineage between the two, but “scrum” as a practice, is the practice that resonates most with me in my years as a developer, and it is the one that I’ve seen worked the best on the teams I’ve been on and run.
I’m all in support of most of core concepts of “agile,” but I think the word has been watered-down. As many of my peers in the industry have pointed out to me, lots of people think they are practicing “agile development” when in fact they are still plagued by all the same mismanagement pitfalls of other options (that is, “waterfall”).
“Scrum” is a software development practice that has a lineage to some of the best minds in software development and is a set of practices that work. While “agile” has more of a value system involved in it, scrum is a little more focused on the nuts and bolts of the SDLC (“software development lifecycle”).
Scrum, also, is not a buzzword.
Sure, the heart of it is to work in short iterations, but I want to list out a few key elements, for Product managers, which often get easily missed. This post is aimed at Product managers (or “Product Owner” in scrum’s more formal terminology.)
If I could highlight one thesis, it would be this: Scrum is about optimizing the operational efficiency of your team. If you don’t get that, or you aren’t getting that from your practice of Scrum, you aren’t doing it right.
Here the three most significant anti-patterns, or problems, I see on software development teams. These are like red flags you aren’t practicing scrum.
1. Single queued developers. (DON’T) Developers should focus on one story at a time. Period. If you are queuing up a single developer you are doing it wrong. Each dev should finish their assignment and then come back to the team and take the next highest-priority item off the list. Ok, so I know lots of teams and devs work with a ‘back burner’ story in case you get ‘blocked’ on your first story. I get it, and I concede for your team this may not be an absolute. Nonetheless, what this principle gets at is efficiency mechanics, and the blocker for the dev on the first story represents a cog in your wheel. (This is where the Kanban principle of pulling the ‘STOP’ chain on the assembly line comes in.)
2. Unclear definition of done (DOD). (BAD!) Ok, so I didn’t make up “definition of done,” but I like to emphasize it. Traditionally, “definition of done” means the definition by which the team considers the story done. On teams I’ve been on and managed the concept of “definition of done” expands to each step of the SDLC (software development lifecycle), in this order:
Design/Wireframe or Spec
QA or UAT (user acceptance)
Delivery to production
This is a specific order. I didn’t make it up. I did combine some steps so your team’s process might look a little different. But the concept is the same: You work on each little piece until you’re done, and then your start again. Wash-rinse-repeat, as they say.
However your team does it is fine: Scrum is not about rigid dictation of process. Scrum is about the concept that each player will hold themselves accountable (or be held accountable) to getting the ball (the story, in software development) to the next step. That’s why DOD (“definition of done”) can and should happen at each and every step. The business owner or CEO signs off on the concept; marketing and design sign off on Design; you (the product manager) sign off Wireframe or Spec (with the developers involvement to make sure they can actually build what you want them to build). The developer writes the code, and the QA person confirms the feature works and you confirm it is acceptable to the customer, client, or will work for the end user. Finally, it is deployed to production. Get it? That’s the SDLC. That’s the whole thing. (Agile/scrum secret: scrum looks just like waterfall but you do this whole 5-step process in short, quick, iterations. More on that in another blog post)
Too much formal process? Ok, fine. Then invent an informal process. You can change the rules of scrum! That’s fine. Nobody every said scrum dictated a formal process and whoever said that shouldn’t be speaking about it. But, please, understand this process works for a reason. If you’re going to make your process more informal, know why the five steps are important and make sure your informal process at each of the steps actually works.
Get everyone to agree to this, including the stakeholder, the designers and of course the developers. Sometimes a designer or a stakeholder might say “nothing’s ever done” or “everything is a moving target.” Maybe it feels that way to you on your team. I can sympathize. But if the stakeholder or designer doesn’t want a clear “sign-off” or “thump-up” or “it’s ready now” step then that’s a sign they haven’t bought into the very heart of scrum. Go back to the beginning and start again.
(It’s rare that you have to deal with a developer not wanting a clear definition of done— good devs I’ve worked with are goal and completion-oriented by our nature. Sometimes jr. developers can drag their feet, let projects slip, and not finish things. As the PO, disciplining this kind of developer isn’t your responsibility, but be on the lookout for it and understand the DOD applies all across the whole pipeline, at each and every step. That’s why the two steps—both of which really you can and should be involved with—are so important.)
“Definition of done” (DOD) is such an important thing to scrum. Really, I didn’t make it up. Look it up; it’s a thing. Lack of discipline around “done” is the single most significant team anti-pattern I see.
3. Developers complain about lack of prioritization (BAD!) Ok, so this is a very common thing on many software teams. You have lots and lots of ideas and stories. New ones come up all the time. You have meetings or stand-up and developers say, “I’m looking at list of unprioritized stories.” If developers say this in your meetings, especially if they say it a lot, you’re doing something wrong.
It is the Product owner/manager’s job to represent the business’s interests, or the customer’s interest, in prioritizing the worklog, or in formal scrum known as “backlog.” This is really, really important. Yes, developers do lots of things related to prioritization of code and code debt that you (the product manager) may not understand. And yes, sometimes developers can be welcoming to prioritization (or, as is often the case, re-prioritization), and other times, developers can be very unwelcoming of re-prioritization. That’s software development. If you want to work with the best dev teams, these are the kinds of nuances you need to navigate as a successful Product manager.
Some other tips
Six more tips for Product managers. Keep in mind these are written from a developer to a Product manager, so take with a grain of salt. These are opinionated and based on my several years of working on scrum teams.
4. Don’t skip user stories. This one seems obvious but I’m amazed how many Product people are so quick to skip formal User Stories. They’re so easy! I’m pretty formal about them, preferring the exact style:
As a ___
When I ___
I should ___
There are a few variations on this style and any of them is OK.
Learn how to write User Stories and use them. In strict scrum, you have only 1 user story per ticket or “story.” This often doesn’t work. If you have a ‘ticket’ or ‘story’ system. I’ll give you permission now: It’s ok to have more than one User story in a single ticket.
When I write them, I just string them together, right after the other, sometimes lettering or numbering them.
As a User,
When I type the right username & password,
And click “Login”,
I should be successfully logged in
As a User,
When I type the wrong username & password,
And click “Login”,
I should see a message telling me my username & password are incorrect
That’s fine! So there’s a little repetition. For QA people, repetition is A-OK. By writing the stories upfront you are setting up the QA step for success (more on that later).
Don’t skip the user stories. Write them, get stakeholder buy-in on them, and believe in them.
(The most common pattern is “As a ___, I want to ___, so that I can ___”. Notice here it’s just like the one I use above except for the “I want to” / “so that I can” part. I have nothing against this pattern but I find it to be one step removed from product specifications—almost as though this pattern is written from the perspective of a business owner rather than the technical product owner, but in many ways and on many teams this is a distinction without a difference so I typically don’t dwell on it. Either “When I ___” or “I want to ___” is ok, the former is slightly more product-centric and the latter slightly more business-objective centric; both are preferable to no stories at all or stories written with implicit assumptions that aren’t clearly written out.)
Forcing yourself (the product owner) to go through this discipline forces you to methodically put yourself in the end user (or customer’s) perspective, and it forces out all of the little extra edge cases which need to be explicitly dealt with by the programmers. This kind of explicitness is nearly universally welcomed by developers, and more work up-front in this area typically makes the development faster and more efficient.
5. Don’t skip wireframes. It’s amazing to me how many Product people try to just have ‘meetings’ with developers. I know some people are better verbal communicators, but your job as Product owner is to document, document, document those meetings.
Like User Stories, wireframes drive the conversation about the software — which is most of the work! It’s the thing you didn’t think of when you just had the verbal conversation that you did think of when you put pen to paper (literally or metaphorically).
It’s that thing that your boss or other colleague thinks of after you show them the wireframe. You didn’t think of it before because some people are visual thinkers, and the feedback loop of translating the verbal conversation to the wireframe is itself the process of refining and improving the requirements themselves.
By getting all those little tidbits out up-front, you are reducing waste in the development process and speeding up the developers.
6. Do QA yourself. The best product people do QA themselves, even if there’s a separate “QA specialist” on the team. Yes, Product & QA are distinct skillsets. Yes, on some small teams, they are the same person. Don’t be one of those Product people who eschews doing QA yourself. If you’re not the best at it, learn to get better at it and QA the projects you are managing. It’ll be better for the team and it’ll make you a better Product manager.
7. Get stakeholder (or ‘exec’, as is commonly heard in startupland) buy-in early and before the devs write a line of code. Really, don’t skip this step. This is your primary job. If you are going back to the devs for revisions after revision, you aren’t doing your job right.
8. Think like a dev but don’t think like a dev. This one is hard. Know some things about what you think is possible with the technology you have and separate that from the technology you think you could have. Understand there’s a constant pay-it-now-or-pay-it-later tension in software development. Give just enough technical prowess without stepping on developers’ toes.
9. Ask for what you need. Don’t be afraid to ask the devs, but try to do so politely and without making any assumptions you know anything. Just report the facts, ask for what you need, and offer any helpful information.
10. Don’t ever say “but it worked before” or “but it used to work” or anything sounding like that. This is never something a developer wants to hear. If you are in a position of software development management, don’t lean on this trope.
Yes, developers are responsible for regressions that happen on their code deploys, sure. And yes, sometimes, when a developer deploys some code, it introduces a regression. But 95% I hear these words coming from non-technical people it is in fact not related whatsoever to anything any developer did. I also happen to think it is an unfortunate trope used by nontechnical people who fundamentally do not understand a concept we call in software development called software entropy. (Really I’m not making this up!).
If you really think it “used to work” just before a code change, it’s OK to report that in an evidence-based way when you report the bug to the developer. (As in, “Last successful one was at before the deploy may or may not be related.”) That’s totally cool. In fact, developers WANT you give them as much information as possible. Just do it an nice way and evidence-based fashion. Use your words, use your screenshots, and throw in “may or may not be related.” Go ahead, it’ll work like magic. I promise.
(Some really passive-aggressive version I’ve seen of this is to NOT tell the developer the key piece of information the Product manager has related to the regression thinking they will ‘test’ or ‘challenge’ the dev to find the bug. This, too, is not cool.)
As a nontechnical person, let me tell you something that the developers you work with really want to scream at you: You understand a fraction of what’s actually going on under the hood. You already know this. I don’t need to tell you this and the developers don’t need to either.
Leaning on “it used to work” consistently is an accusatory sign of an amateur manager who just doesn’t get it. If you find yourself doing this, put yourself in check and ask if this career is right for you.
Being a great Product manager, like all things in life, takes compassion. As a boss and mentor of mine (Rob Rubin) once told me I think smartly: the Product owner is the most leveraged individual on a Scrum team. That is, if you’re in a company and not on the Product team (like you’re the stakeholder), to get what you want out of the Engineers you should make friends with the Product people. (Thanks Rob!)
You have a great road ahead of you should you heed the discipline’s core principles. Fight them, and you may have a rocky time, especially in the areas of code debt, incorrect estimation process, missed deliverables, and mismatches between what the developers are doing and what the client or company needs.
Wherever you are at today is fine. But think about the discipline’s various approaches and think about how to take each piece of your process once small step in the direction of scrum. You might wavier, you might run into various problems, but each of them can be solved by coming back to the disciplines at each step of the chain, always bringing your team closer and closer to its most efficient state. This is why I think of it as “always a work in progress.” Teams typically don’t get it right on the first try, and have to do it inefficient ways before they can move towards scrum.