Agile product development is a philosophy that’s applied to software and product development. Scrum is its most used and popular framework. The product owner is the most important individual in the scrum framework. He/she is responsible for maximizing product value by defining product goals, product roadmap, and managing backlog.
One of the main tasks that a product owner has to perform is backlog management. A product owner is an expert and experienced in the product being developed but there are times when things get too technical and the product owner needs the technical assistance for ordering, creating, and communicating backlog items.
This technical need has introduced a new role called technical product owner. Being an optional and need-based role, a technical product owner works with the product owner and assists in managing technical aspects of the product development.
So, what exactly a technical product owner does and how the role fits into the scrum team?
Let’s figure it out.
What is a Technical Product Owner?
The technical product owner manages the technical aspects of the product development. Not all product owners are technically sound and don’t have the necessary technical skills because a product owner is responsible for backlog management and maximizing product value. It isn’t necessary to have technical skills. A product owner needs a technical resource to deal with technicalities of the development process.
A technical product owner manages technical aspects of the development process. From this perspective, a technical product owner owns a component or a feature of a product – and not the entire product. A component/feature owner owns one or more components or features of the product and is responsible for maximizing its value:
Since feature and component owners work closely with development teams, they're usually more technical than the product owner.
There could be one or more technical product owners that work closely with the product owner and the development team. He/she acts as the bridge between the development team and product owner.
Robert Galen explains how they felt the need to create a new role while working on a client project. It was a large-scale infrastructural project with technical requirements and the product owner had no experience of managing such a project within the scrum.
Therefore, a technical product owner role was created and a development manager was assigned the role. His main role was to assist the product owner (known as functional product owner) and both worked together.
Technical Product Owner Vs. Product Owner
The difference between a technical product owner and a product owner is minimal and the line is very thin. In fact, the scrum team doesn’t have a technical product owner role. Ideally and in most cases, the product owner is the technical product owner who is responsible for maximizing product value that includes both technical and non-technical aspects.
The terms, therefore, are used interchangeably.
For large technical projects, a technical product owner role is created that works with the product owner. Here is an example from Vodafone:
The technical product owner isn't responsible for managing backlog and maximizing product value, rather his/her job is to assist the product owner by acting as a technical resource. For example, a technical product owner might be responsible for the long-term software development planning or he/she must be assigned the task to switch the project to the cloud.
A product owner, on the other hand, is mostly concerned about backlog management. He/she is more focused on setting product goals, strategy, stakeholder management, and other strategic tasks. A product owner might not be well-equipped with one or more technical aspects of the development process and that’s where a technical product owner is needed.
In most projects, the product owner is the technical product owner. Both the roles merge and there isn’t any need for a technical resource. Large companies that have complex processes and products often create a technical product owner role.
What Does a Technical Product Owner Do?
Unlike a scrum product owner who wears numerous hats, a technical product owner doesn’t wear multiple hats. His/her role is clearly defined and is purely technical. If there isn’t much technical work to do, a technical product owner might not be needed at all.
Here is a list of the tasks that a technical product owner performs:
1. Technical Resource
A technical product owner acts as the technical resource for the agile product owner and the scrum team members. A product owner might not always be technically knowledgeable in all the development aspects. For example, infrastructure improvements-related stories or technical user stories that are hard to understand by the product owner.
In such a situation, a product owner needs technical resource who will do three things:
- Understand customer needs
- Decode the technical requirements and add them to the backlog via the product owner
- Ensure stories are incorporated as expected.
The technical product owner, according to Steve Vaughn, carries technical knowledge into strategic conversations about the product. All products need long-term planning and mapping that requires a complete understanding of the technical aspects and capabilities. Having someone on board to take correct technical decisions proves to be very helpful.
In the absence of a technical product owner, someone from the development team must be involved in the decision, planning, and product mapping (as a technical resource) that will negatively impact daily scrum and short-term deliverables of the development team. If you engage a development resource (an experienced and the main individual) in planning, it will negatively impact the current sprint.
A technical product owner saves the day as he/she acts as an individual who isn’t involved in scrum sprint rather works with the product owner and assists in technical planning.
2. Technical Advisor
A technical product owner acts as a technical advisor to the product owner and stakeholders including the client, product manager, C suite, scrum master, development team, and internal departments (e.g. marketing, sales, customer support, etc.).
Importantly, a technical product owner works side-by-side with the product owner but is more into the technical discussion:
Some of the key tasks a technical product owner performs as a technical advisor include:
- Assist and advise the product owner on key technical decisions
- Involve in sprint planning and clear all technical confusions
- Making sprint more efficient by identifying what goes in and what doesn’t
- Help product owner define, manage, and accept technical stories
- Assisting in stories related to technical debt.
The technical product owner isn’t always directly involved in planning, rather his/her role is to assist the product owner as maximizing product value is the responsibility of the product owner – and not that of a technical advisor.
However, complex technical products (e.g. architectural stories or a large-scale technical product) require more engagement from the technical product owner and he/she might have to assist and help understand the technical ins and outs to all the stakeholders.
3. Customer-Technology Bridge
Not all clients are technically knowledgeable. In fact, most of them aren’t. They simply want things done – and that’s all.
There has to be someone (other than the product owner who is more of a customer advocate) who will interact with the customer, understand their needs, explain technical acronyms to customers, give realistic estimates, make the client understand what’s doable and what isn’t, and maintain technical transparency.
The three empirical scrum pillars need to be maintained technically by the technical product owner:
Both inspection and adaptation require in-depth technical knowledge.
A technical product owner, therefore, acts as the customer-development team bridge. Regular inspection of the sprint, inspecting if everything is going as expected, taking corrective actions to avoid deviations, and communicating the same to the customer in an understandable way.
A technical product owner acts as a bridge that connects the customer and the agile team. He/she works both ways.
4. Product Owner and Scrum Team Connection
Just like a smooth and transparent connection between a customer and scrum team is necessary for agile development, a sound connection between the product owner and team members is equally important.
The product owner is responsible for product backlog management that includes:
- Defining and communicating product goal
- Ordering, creating, and communicating product backlog items
- Making backlog transparent, understood, and visible.
According to Scrum Guides:
“The product owner may do the above work or may delegate the responsibility to others. Regardless, the product owner remains accountable.”
Any or all technical items in the product backlog are ordered, created, and communicated by the technical product owner to keep it transparent, visible, and understood. The agile team will fail to deliver on time if the product owner fails to create and communicate backlog items due to a lack of technical knowledge.
To maintain a transparent and visible connection between the product owner and the agile development team, everything must be crystal clear. For highly technical products or in cases where the product owner isn’t familiar with technical acronyms, a technical product owner becomes necessary.
5. System Maintenance and Backend Infrastructure Management
This is a technical task that requires in-depth technical knowledge, and this is best performed by a technical product owner. It involves tasks like architecture especially with large products where multiple scrum teams are working simultaneously.
Robert Galen shares how a technical product owner managed to work successfully with 10 different scrum teams by consolidating their technical work intentions and developed a single technical backlog for all teams. It included items from software architecture, test architecture, and UX design.
The backlog items were arranged systematically in a technical flow and were prioritized. This is a classical example of how a technical product owner fits in and gets the job done technically irrespective of a single or multiple scrum team(s).
Technical Product Owner Roles and Responsibilities
The technical product owner isn't a defined role according to scrum or agile development approaches. It is a role that is developed as the need for one emerges. It is a need-based role with no clear job description or responsibilities. In fact, responsibilities are defined when the role is created.
According to Scrum Guides, the scrum team has three members:
- Product owner
- Scrum master
The responsibilities of all three members are well-defined. The technical product owner is essentially a member of the development team who works as a technical resource with the product owner so his/her responsibilities overlap and vary depending on the role.
Here is an example of a technical product owner job description:
The requirements are simple and straightforward and look like the technical product owner will be working as both functional and technical product owner. However, it is explicitly mentioned that the technical product owner must have a technical background.
is another example where it is explicitly stated that the technical product owner will be working with the product owner:
Here is another example where the technical product owner role is merged with a business analyst:
These examples show how the role and responsibilities vary from organization to organization and project to project. Not all scrum teams have a technical product owner and the role is entirely need-based so the responsibilities are quite variable.
In all cases, the technical product owner is a purely technical role and is always responsible for doing something that the existing product owner can’t do. The need for technical assistance emerges when the product owner is having some difficulty in maximizing product value and managing product backlog efficiently. If things keep working normally, the team doesn’t need a technical product owner.