How to Become a Product Owner: Career Path
mins to read
So, you laid eyes on a Product Owner career path. Good choice!
Creating products that people love is one of the most rewarding activities out there, especially given the fact that the market for a PO (Product Owner) is on fire — you can find thousands of job offers on Linkedin.
If that isn't convincing enough, here’s some research from the World Economic Forum that ranks Product Owner #1 in their list of product development jobs of tomorrow.
But beware — while PO is a new, multifaceted role, companies don’t have a shared understanding yet of what product owners’ responsibilities are. Therefore, you can meet radically different expectations among different businesses.
We at Eleken UI/UX agency have worked with dozens of successful Product Owners, so in this article, we would like to present you the possible Product Owner career progression. But before we jump into details, let’s get a solid understanding of the PO job and the role it plays in product management.
What are the Product Owner responsibilities?
- Defining and communicating the product’s goal;
- Defining and communicating product backlog items;
- Prioritizing backlog items;
- Ensuring that the backlog is clear and understandable.
Later companies started to adapt Product Owner into a job title that often came into conflict with the position of a Product Manager (PM).
In a perfect world, a Product Manager deals with the WHY of the product. PM is involved with the strategic vision, works closely with stakeholders, users’ needs and product’s value.
And in the same perfect world, a Product Owner is responsible for the HOW of the product. It’s a more tactical role, that takes care of the technical delivery side. A PO engages with a PM to understand the software development needs and specify them into epics and user stories, write JIRA tickets, manage backlogs and prioritize the tasks for designers and developers.
But in our imperfect world…
In reality, the PO and PM titles are often synonymous. Someone in the Product Owner role could still be the manager for the overall product, especially if the company doesn’t have both of those positions.
No two organizations are the same. So before applying for a job, it’s useful to look at Product Owner position description, or even find somebody from a product team to talk to and figure out how everything works in this particular business.
What is the typical career path of a Product Owner?
The Product Owner position requires a wide range of skills. A candidate needs to understand both the business point of view and the technical side. So a PO’s background can be either technical or non-technical, with some skills missing in both cases.
Below, we’ll consider six skills you need to collect into a Gauntlet of Product Creation and how to do it with different professional backgrounds.
Stone of Mind: the ability to communicate with the dev team
That’s a stone people with a technical background usually have by default — someone who has actually written code can understand the capabilities and limitations of a product team like few non-technical people ever will.
That’s why so often Product Owners are former developers.
The ability to communicate with the development team to help them shape their work is one of the cornerstones of the PO position, so when having a non-technical background you need at least a basic understanding of what developers do, what languages, frameworks and technologies they deal with.
Some bigger companies have a position of Business Analyst or Business Systems Analyst that can backup a PO with a technical side of things. But the smaller the startup is, the more hats you are expected to wear.
There are still POs that can do their job having no clue about engineering, but your tech team will definitely appreciate your attempts to understand how the product you manage is built. And you’ll add a stone of Mind into your gauntlet.
Stone of Power: authority
It’s useful for a leadership position to gain enough clout in your team so that you can be trusted with authority over what the team is working on. That’s easier to do if you got a PO position as a result of a lateral move in your company. Things are getting more complicated as you become a PO with minor experience in a new corporation.
Most people feel unconfident as they are starting in a leadership position. Confidence is the key. It's literally even more important than your competence. But don’t get too bold, competence is still crucial, so let’s move to the point of PO knowledge improvement.
Stone of Reality: certification for Product Owner
Yes, certification training is not as important as real-world experience. And yes, it’s possible to land a job without any PO courses.
But if you are not familiar with the fundamental Scrum ideology and frameworks, a Certified Scrum Product Owner class is a good place to start. Moreover, certification is one of the keywords recruiters are googling, so it may be worth your time to go after one or two.
CSPO and PSPO are two globally accepted Product Owner certifications that help validate the holder’s knowledge and skills in the Scrum framework.
- PSPO stands for Professional Scrum Product Owner, it’s a course by Scrum.org. PSPO has an exam but there is no maintenance fee.
- CSPO stands for Certified Scrum Product Owner. It’s a program offered by the Scrum Alliance that doesn’t have an exam, but has a yearly maintenance fee.
According to several Product Owners’ comments we found on Reddit, CSPO more often appears as a requirement in job offers.
Stone of Space: domain expertise
This means that if your team is working on a CRM app you should either have sales experience yourself or understand deeply what salespeople go through in their job. Such expertise you can expect more of business and marketing people rather than of tech guys.
That’s how non-technical people usually land their first PO job — they get internally promoted thanks to their stellar domain knowledge. The challenging part is that if you try to switch to another company where you don’t know the business inside and out, you’ll lose your competitive edge.
Domain expertise is something technical people rarely have at their disposal, but can definitely develop. Start by getting to know your customers. Take them out for lunch or drinks, figure out their values and pain points. Get along with your colleagues at the forefront — support officers, salespeople, UX designers.
Right. Don't forget to get along with the UX design team.
Stone of Soul: understanding UX
We call it a stone of soul, because a UX designer is a PO’s soulmate. UX designers and product owners have multiple tasks that overlap, like benchmarking, user interviews and product testing.
Both Product Owner and UX designer participate in Scrum routines like daily standups, sprints and reviews. They both collaborate with developers and keep an eye on implementation.
Those similarities can be a ground for fruitful collaboration. But they can also become a source of conflict and lost opportunities. A common mistake that the PO makes is ignoring designers by making their own discovery, research and planning just to notify a designer a few days before the sprint.
Don’t be like that. For your common good and the good of a product, involve your designers into the working process from the very beginning. In case you want to dig deeper into the topic, we have an article on the collaboration between designers and product owners.
Stone of Time: foresee and avoid feature-mania
Customers choose apps for the value they provide. The value is realized through the features that apps offer, so it’s tempting for a product owner to conclude that more features = more value.
As product designers, we want to warn you that this way you risk ending up as a feature creep. The thing is, adding more and more features eventually turns an app into an unusable mess that blocks for users any value of any stellar features that hide in the app’s depths.
A PO should be able to preserve a delicate balance between featurism and usability. That means, prioritizing crucial features and saying no to features that are just nice to have.
A word about Product Owner career growth
Product ownership is a meaningful, valuable job. You’ll never have a boring day in your professional life — there is always something to learn and always something to solve.
It’s a leadership role, so even entry-level Product Owners earn sizable salaries. According to PayScale, an entry-level Product Owner with less than one year of experience can expect to earn around $70.000. A mid-career PO with five+ years of experience can get up to $100.000.
In conclusion, we have to say that a Product Owner position is considered to be a good entry point into the product management world.
Breaking into a PM career is close to impossible since 100% of job offers require prior PM experience. No one wants to put their product’s vision and strategy into the hands of a person that knows those words only from textbooks.
Starting with a PO role sounds more doable. Here you have ownership over the specifications of a feature, but not necessarily strategic decision-making power. Good enough to gain some experience and shift into a Senior Product Owner or a PM role later.
We at Eleken have recently investigated product managers’ career tracks, and the most common transition points turned out to be project management and product ownership.