Product Owner or Live Customer?

Wooden Doll

Who calls the shots for a given application? Who gets to decide which features go on the roadmap (and when) and which are left by the curb? Is there one universal answer?

Many of my recent posts have dealt in some way with the correlation between organizational structure and application/solution architecture. While this is largely to be expected due to Conway’s Law, as I noted in “Making and Taming Monoliths”, many business processes depend on other business processes. While a given system may track a particular related set of business capabilities, concepts belonging to other capabilities and features related to maintaining them, tend to creep in. This tends to multiply the number of business stakeholders for any given system and that’s before taking into account the various IT groups that will also have an interest in the system.

Scrum has the role of Product Owner, whose job it is to represent the customer. Alan Holub, in a blog post for Dr. Dobb’s, terms this “flawed”, preferring Extreme Programming’s (XP) requirement for an on-site customer. For Holub, introducing an intermediary introduces risk because the product owner is not a true customer:

Agile processes use incremental design, done bit by bit as the product evolves. There is no up-front requirements gathering, but you still need the answers you would have gleaned in that up-front process. The question comes up as you’re working. The customer sitting next to you gives you the answers. Same questions, same answers, different time.

Put simply, agile processes replace up-front interviews with ongoing interviews. Without an on-site customer, there are no interviews, and you end up with no design.

For Holub, the product owner introduces either guesses or delay. Worst of all in his opinion is when the product owner is “…just the mouthpiece of a separate product-development group (or a CEO) who thinks that they know more about what the customer wants than the actual customer…”. For Holub, the cost of hiring an on-site customer is negligible when you factor in the risks and costs of wrong product decisions.

Hiring a customer, however, pretty much presumes an ISV environment. For in-house corporate work, the customer is already on board. However, in both cases, two issues exist: one is that a customer that is the decision-maker risks giving the product a very narrow appeal; the second is that the longer the “customer” is away from being a customer, the currency of their knowledge of the domain diminishes. Put together, you wind up with a product that reflects one person’s outdated opinion of how to solve an issue.

Narrowness of opinion should be sufficient to give pause. As Jim Bird observed in “How Product Ownership works in the Real World”:

There are too many functional and operational and technical details for one person to understand and manage, too many important decisions for one person to make, too many problems to solve, too many questions and loose ends to follow-up on, and not enough time. It requires too many different perspectives: business needs and business risks, technical dependencies and technical risks, user experience, supportability, compliance and security constraints, cost factors. And there are too many stakeholders who need to be consulted and managed, especially in a big, live business-critical system.

As is the case with everything related to software development, there is a balance to be met. Coherence of vision enhances design to a point, but then can lead to a too-insular focus. Mega-monoliths that attempt to deal comprehensively with every aspect of an enterprise, if they ever launch, are unwieldy to maintain. By the same token, business dependencies become system dependencies and cannot be eliminated, only re-arranged (microservices being a classic example – the dependencies are not removed, only their location has changed). The idea that we can have only one voice directing development is, in my opinion, just too simplistic.

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