What Does It Mean to Be a Software Product Owner?

Behind every great product and thriving software team is a great Product Owner, a CEO of the product. This person is responsible to their organization for the delivery and success of the product. Often this means managing budgets, team size, partners, stakeholders, product strategy, and more. And yet, the product is often just a part of the job.

Most software product owners achieve this role by being great at their job. They grew their skills and industry knowledge, led teams, and successfully managed previous initiatives, and now they or the company wants to own their software solution.

So how much time is really required of a product owner and what are they responsible for? From first-time to seasoned software product owners, there are a few key skills to help your teams find success.

Know Your Industry

Product owners bring a wealth of industry expertise by doing the work themselves or deeply understanding the customer. They understand the system they’re working within and can forecast what will happen if they zig instead of zag.

Along with the product vision, this understanding of the industry helps product owners build with the long-term in mind. They know what changes are coming (or could happen) and can prepare to be ready.

Know Your Customers

Software product owners know the value they can bring to the market by deeply understanding their customers’ mindsets and jobs (check out the JTBD framework). This understanding drives scope decisions, not just going after features but what those capabilities enable.

When participating in research, they can hear customer feedback and transform it into a multi-sided win. Knowing the customer will also help position the product in a differentiating way when ready to launch.

Know Your Stakeholders

Stakeholders could be on the project, other department leads, the C-Suite, or the board. Great product owners understand when to engage them to stay aligned on the product vision. They know what their stakeholders care about and if they prefer to receive a lot of data or a brief one-pager update.

Perhaps even more importantly, they’ve got their finger on the organization’s pulse and know where their product fits into the bigger picture. Great product owners are constant advocates for the product and will make the bold decision to pivot if needed.

Keep the Pace

Ambitious product owners stay ahead of the team. Software product owners see what’s coming up and start to get clarity on the unknowns. They collect sample data, assemble business requirements, and identify risks early so they can be tracked and mitigated.

No matter the size of the project, they set ambitious but reasonable timeline goals to keep the team focused and avoid water-treading periods that could diminish the importance of the work or the program at large.

Leverage the Team’s Knowledge

High-trust teams create space for everyone to bring their expertise to bear. For that to happen, the whole team needs to be in alignment on where they’re going (product vision) and what it’s going to take to get there (project charter).

Product owners then lean on the team’s expertise, support them with the resources or process needed to succeed, and hold the team accountable to deliver. Empowered teams can do amazing work in a short amount of time.


Given the above focus areas for product owners, you may be wondering what this looks like day to day. Henrik Kniberg shares this so well in the Agile Product Ownership in a Nutshell video. In addition, here are some common questions we hear from first-time product owners.

How much time is required of me as the Product Owner?
For projects spanning less than six months, two days a week may work. For longer projects, often with bigger teams, product owners will need more time for team collaboration and product management.

Do I need to write user stories?
No, however, you should have a good understanding of what is in the backlog and what will be delivered when the work is complete.

Do I need to review and approve every story?
No. You should, however, attend each demo. It is the product owner’s responsibility to ensure work is delivered to the requirements before it gets into the hands of the customer.

Do I need to work in the backlog?
Yes, mainly to prioritize the work. It can also be beneficial for you to know how to track progress from the backlog, against stories, sprints, epics, and milestones.

Should I get SCRUM or SAFe Certified?
No. If you have a delivery lead (or similar role) on your team, they will manage the agile process. Continue to listen for areas for improvement and be vocal about trying experiments to see if process changes will help the team.

If a product owner had more time and was more engaged in these ways on the project team… great! Too often, product owners are time-constrained and get pulled in many directions. The goal is to stay focused on what matters and do the things only the product owner can do. When done well, the software product owner empowers the team to deliver a quality product, on time, with a world-class experience.


Join the conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *