I have seen a scrum team trying to hire a product owner. They advertise for scrum skills, and experience.

Does it make sense to hire a product owner from outside the company?

If I do what skills should they have?

  • Do you mean like a consultant, or a contractor? Or just a general new hire? – Erik Aug 8 at 19:03
  • I have seen an advert for a product-owner role. It is 100% focused on Scrum skills, no mention of the product, or what the company does. I then noticed that there are many jobs advertised for a product-owner, though I did not read any of these. – ctrl-alt-delor Aug 9 at 8:53
  • As strange as that may seem, in my experience, getting a person well trained in Scrum ways and the PO role is harder than getting somebody with knowledge on the subject matter, because the subject matter for most companies is trivial (most people sell stuff or services, that's not rocket science really) but apparently reading and understanding a 100 page book on Scrum is way out of peoples personal comfort zones if they are not developers. – nvoigt Aug 9 at 10:41
  • @nvoigt that looks like an answer, a short answer, but an answer. (it seems about the right size for what you have to say) – ctrl-alt-delor Aug 9 at 11:32
  • @nvoigt a 100 page book? They should read the 15 page Scrum guide instead. But even that seems to be lost on a lot of people who claim to be using it. – Erik Aug 10 at 5:32

TL;DR: Probably not, unless they bring some key expertise you did not already have in your company.


It depends, most product owners I have seen on teams are what I would call a proxy product owner. Translating business needs into stories and helping stakeholder prioritise between them. Shielding the team while understanding what technical debt means, and gathering enough business knowledge to fulfil the daily needs of the Scrum team. Still I would prefer someone from inside the company even for this role, because they bring domain knowledge and maybe can grow into a real product owner.

An entrepreneurial product owner. Someone who owns the product. Someone who sets strategy and vision. This probably isn't someone which you can hire into the company. Unless this person brings in expert domain knowledge which you need for the product otherwise not yet found in your company.

It also depends on your scale. You might have an Chief Product Owner and a couple of area product owners. They should own their area or they are also just proxies.

So for proxy and area product owners you could hire a quick learner with experience in being the Scrum product owner for a single Scrum team. This could get them onto speed quickly. This might make sense if you have a lot of teams, lets say three or more.

If you are looking for someone to grow your business and OWN the product I couldn't careless about their current Scrum skills, those we can teach. Business sense, expert domain knowledge and a good feeling for long term strategy in your industry is a bit harder to train.

Definite NO if it is your first product owner, unless they bring something really special beside the Scrum skills: a sales network, in-depth industry knowledge, funding, etc...

I have seen Waterfall-Agile companies in Germany hiring product owners to split ideas into long lists of Epics and Stories. These are more business requirements analysts. Sort of proxy product owner but worse.

So it depends on the type of product owner your looking for, but for a true product owner as Scrum intended it. No, it does not make sense.

  • How would a first Scrum team ever form, if the PO as intended has to have experience as a PO in that field already? Isn't that like a chicken and egg problem? – nvoigt Aug 9 at 10:35
  • @nvoigt No not experience as a Scrum PO. Like I said, you can train people to get Scrum PO skills easily. Bringing in someone with just PO Scrum skills, but no industry knowledge makes no sense. Trust me, I have seen companies do this. Hire PO's because they know how to make stories... – Niels van Reijmersdal Aug 9 at 10:41
  • The first Scrum team would form with some developers, a business person and a Scrum Master that trains them. This business person does not need to be a trained PO from the start. – Niels van Reijmersdal Aug 9 at 10:45
  • I guess we probably have different experiences. I would prefer someone who wants to be a PO and needs to gain industry experience over someone who knows the industry but actually had another job. Some of the worst POs I've met were people "gently nudged" into that role by their company shifting to agile. Ex-Project Managers, Ex business analysts. If someone wants to be a PM, in my experience it's better they go and be a great PM elsehwere instead of being a lousy PO with business experience. Sure you can be lucky and get a great Ex-something PO, but you could as well get lucky hiring outside. – nvoigt Aug 9 at 10:53
  • I get your view, and if you drop roles like PM, BA. Hell no I would want them to become PO's. I was thinking more about ex operational people or start-up founders, people who have done some actual work. People who are creative and do not pursue a career in management. The visionary talents of your company. I have worked mainly with 50-100 people companies, maybe for an enterprise hiring from the outside with some experience would make sense. But enterprises are very un-Agile anyways, so why bother :) – Niels van Reijmersdal Aug 9 at 11:01

Summary

Does it make sense to hire a product owner from outside the company? If I do what skills should they have?

Maybe. A better question is whether someone from inside the company or outside the company will have a better vision for a given product. I've personally been successful as an outside Product Owner, and have seen inside Product Owners both succeed and fail. So the answer is, as usual, "it depends."

Analysis

The Scrum Guide describes the Product Owner role as follows:

The Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product resulting from work of the Development Team. How this is done may vary widely across organizations, Scrum Teams, and individuals.

The Product Owner is the sole person responsible for managing the Product Backlog. Product Backlog management includes:

  • Clearly expressing Product Backlog items;
  • Ordering the items in the Product Backlog to best achieve goals and missions;
  • Optimizing the value of the work the Development Team performs;
  • Ensuring that the Product Backlog is visible, transparent, and clear to all, and shows what the Scrum Team will work on next; and,
  • Ensuring the Development Team understands items in the Product Backlog to the level needed.

Pragmatically speaking, in order to manage the Product Backlog and optimize value, a Product Owner needs:

  • a strong and well-communicated vision for the product; and
  • sufficient knowledge of the product, its features, and its value proposition to be able to prioritize features and define iterative goals for the Scrum Team.

In practice, this means that the best Product Owners have experience in the product's domain, and the ideal Product Owner also has experience with the company, its stakeholders, and its customers.

None of these things are, strictly speaking, upfront requirements for someone assigned to the role. A Product Owner can grow into the role, and can gain the essential knowledge over the lifecycle of the project. However, a person lacking these things is likely to start out as a proxy Product Owner, rather than the real decision-maker for the project. This is contrary to the spirit of Scrum, which says:

The Product Owner is one person, not a committee. The Product Owner may represent the desires of a committee in the Product Backlog, but those wanting to change a Product Backlog item’s priority must address the Product Owner.

In some respects, the Product Owner defines the product. So having a Product Owner without sufficient vision or knowledge to drive the project is unlikely to succeed in the role. Furthermore, a project that lacks a strong Product Owner role is unlikely to function smoothly, or to deliver peak value.

While all this may point to the notion that a Product Owner should come from inside a company, that's not necessarily true. Sometimes, an outside perspective from someone who has deep knowledge of a market or experience delivering similar products can be exceptionally valuable.

Scrum is a team sport, and it's hard to succeed when if the team is short a strong player in a key role. In the end, "inside" or "outside" are less important than ensuring that the person filling the role is the right person with the right mix of knowledge and skills, as well as being the right fit for the company and the Scrum Team.

TL;DR: Sure, where else would you hire one?


Does it make sense to hire a product owner from outside the company?

Sure, why not. You hire all your other staff from outside the company, product owners don't grow on magical trees in the basement. It's a job just like Scrum Master or Member of the Development Team. You need one, you hire one.

If I do what skills should they have?

They should know Scrum (obviously) and have experience in their subject. You would not hire just any developer to develop your product either. If for example a medical company hires, I would expect to see optional medical requirements, a manufacturer for embedded car parts may want to have experience in that part. But in the end, that goes for all roles. Every product owner is building a product for others, the customers. Understanding what the customer wants is a key part and the PO needs to stay on top of that and put that into new user stories all the time. Assuming the PO could come with that knowledge already existent is dangerous. Sure, people with experience have a head start, but learning and adapting is a key part of their job, so each potential PO should be able to start from zero.

  • +1 "learning and adapting is a key part of their job, so each potential PO should be able to start from zero". I really like that thought. – Niels van Reijmersdal Aug 9 at 11:11

Todd A. Jacobs and Niels van Reijmersdal have provided truly excellent answers to a good question.

Here's my twist:

If I had to choose between

a) an experienced PO from another industry

b) a subject matter expert with not the slightest idea about product ownership

which would I choose?

I don't think a) is necessarily the wrong choice. An experienced PO who is prepared to switch domains will already know that they will need to get up to speed very quickly facing as they are a very steep learning curve. I have worked with one person who did this very successfully, the rest failed fast.

So my choice would be b) but only on condition they are fully committed to learning product ownership, which can be considered a sub-domain in its own right. I think there are products that require domain knowledge that cannot be learned on the job as a PO. For example a product used by surgeons needs a product owner who is a surgeon (or equivalent domain expert, assuming that is possible) and there is no fast track to becoming a surgeon (we hope!). But can you find a surgeon who is interested the world of Scrum and Agile?

My 'test' is conference season. There is an upcoming conference for surgeons: can your 'career-PO' appreciate what the speakers are saying enough to impact their decisions about the product? There is a scheduling clash between the premier conference for surgeons and the best Agile conference of the season: will your 'surgeon-PO' choose the Agile conference to support their learning?

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