From Developer to Product Owner

My journey from developer roles to a Product Owner position

Since I graduated high school, I want to “manage projects”. After many years being a developer, I moved to a Product Owner role. I actually think it’s one of the best changes of my career until now, and I want to share my journey.

EDIT: I wrote this post years ago — I read it again and everything is still valid. In the meantime, I created my own company and an online course to help people transitioning to Product Manager/Product Owner roles. Click here to check it out!

My passion as my studies subject

Photo by Matthew Henry

Like a lot of developers, I am using a computer since my early age. I had fun writing some IRC scripts, then understanding how (solo player) video games hacks were working (What a fun time! We were able to change any value in the game with little software called “trainers”).

In 2007, I needed to choose which graduate studies path I will take. The Internet was everywhere. The possibility to work in a field that I enjoy as a hobby while having a lot of job opportunities was quite enjoyable… so I chose to start studying Computer Sciences.

After 5 years, I got a Master's degree (actually, a french “Engineer” degree) specialized in Computer Sciences. I learned so many things!

From mathematical and research-oriented materials (sorting algorithms, linear algebra… I love you but I don’t really miss you), to more “practical” subjects (C++ programming, virtual world representation…), I got to study and discover a lot of fields.

I also had some courses (more like interventions) about Management, Marketing basis, and Project Management. Finally, I gave some time to my student association as a treasurer. I learned what “managing a budget”, “having to say no to hyper-motivated people” or “facing an authority well higher than me” (my school director, or the University direction) actually mean.

I love being a developer

Photo by Matthew Henry

With my internship over and my degree validated, I was ready to face “real-world problems” and go to work. I started as a developer in a large french Consulting firm (Capgemini). WHAT A SHOCK!

I had to quickly understand the differences between the theory and research-oriented decisions and… well, the reality. The main job and the greater skill of a consulting firm is the ability to manage scopes, to keep the project budget at the green level. And they do it very well!

Some days ago, to get good grades, I needed to choose the best possible technical solution: higher response rate, less memory consumption, lower complexity level… pick the one you want. Now working in a company, I face a new reality: I am here to ensure that the business and user experience are at their best, at the same time. This basically means two things:

  1. Working on a problem that was already solved by a researchers team somewhere else in the world is not “business-oriented”
  2. Spending too much time choosing the best solution instead of applying “a” solution as soon as possible is not “user-oriented” — the user will wait too long instead of getting something.

That was a huge, important, and wonderful lesson for me.

So I was ready for my next move: I moved to a really smaller company. I decided to work in a company with around ten people, and in a team of two: my project manager/back-end developer/technical leader, and me — the Android developer. We built a fleet management solution for companies having remote people (mainly in an industrial maintenance context) and wanting to handle their interventions in other clients' sites with software.

My challenge here was to work with the two previous statements in mind, but with only 2 people, and a full product to build as well. We needed to make constant compromises to get something working as soon as possible. I learned to handle the constant lack of time and resources (money, mentors, time…).

Facing some difficulties to prioritize our subjects, we decided to be helped by an Agile Coach. A new event in my career: I became the company’s Scrum Master. I was able to learn what Agile, Scrum, and scope management were… from the inside. This was my first step in the project and scope management world: to help the whole team and remove impediments correctly, I needed to understand business challenges. So I started to attend the company (and parent company) leaders' meetings.

I learned how business challenges are detected and discussed, and then learned to improve the transparency between business and technical teams. And it was not in the book… it was just in front of me!

At this precise moment, I started to think “What will I do in the next 5 years?”. Will I continue in a highly technically oriented job — as a tech team leader for example — or will I move to a more business-oriented position?

Koolicar, we both want to grow!

Photo by Matt Hickey

For many reasons, my girlfriend and I decided to move to Montréal.

I had the chance to find my dream job, in the city, I was willing to work: I was hired as an Android developer at Koolicar.

At this time, the team was still small. All the foundations were here, however, the company needed to grow fast!

I started all over again: how to grow so fast, with the team we had at this time? Yes… we started by using Scrum! So I became one of the company’s Scrum Masters and started to make the team using this framework day after day.

The main difference was that our team had every required skill to build the whole product, and we had a dedicated Product Owner to take care of the user needs.

My first year and so, besides the Scrum implementation, was fully dedicated to improving our Android app, at the technical level but also adding/improving some highly required features. I had fun times with my Android developer colleague adding a lot of great stuff: tested and approved code architecture, continuous integration, unit tests… Altogether, we get our whole product to a whole new level.

Product Owner, here I come!

Photo by Paul Gilmore on Unsplash

Implementing all the previous technologies in an aggressive growth strategy is a kind of brainteaser: you have a solution that you know being better in the medium term, but you need results in the short term. To be able to do this, I needed to have in mind high-level business needs. I discussed a lot with the Product Owner to find the best time to make technical improvements, not so visible to the user but necessary for our future.

Day after day, I became used to explain why my technical improvements added value for the user… or finding out why it was not the right moment (ok… it was hard and frustrating the first times!). I got better and better at giving good solutions to my Product Owner.

Having some fun while doing this, one day when my Product Owner was overloaded, I offered to act as an “associate Product Owner” for a subject. I wanted to know how it is to fully handle a subject. And I loved it!

Do you remember my question about my next 5 years in a previous paragraph? This experience gave me a clear answer: a business-oriented position will be my next move!

I told that to my manager, expressing clearly that what I would like to do for the future of my career is to go to more Product-oriented responsibilities. We talked about that and tried to find a solution… without a clear opportunity at this exact time.

Eventually, my team grew again. New positions were created, with two of them really interesting for me: two new Product Owners were needed. And my manager remembered me! Benoit de Chateauvieux: I publicly thank you for that!

I immediately applied for it. I had some discussions about my responsibilities and my future job. It was a discussion you normally have when starting a new position.

And that was done! I became the new Product Owner of my own Feature Team!

All the questions I had about my new job

Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

Do you miss being a developer?

This is the question I heard so many times when starting as Product Owner, and still hearing from some developers from time to time. The clear answer is No.

I still have some fun with development, mainly on PoC and side projects, but I do not miss doing it as my job.

I actually realized that my real motivation is to help technology to change something in the world. Doing it by developing an app, or by taking decisions on how to bring value to the users, I think I am actually pursuing the same goal and I am more than happy with that.

How is your life now?

For the developers reading this article, you may be wondering how my day-to-day life is, from a former developer’s point of view. So here is the answer.

I have two big parts in my job:

  1. Gathering and understanding business requirements. I need to hear news from UX strategy team, marketing team, operations team, customer support team, top management, etc… As I am geographically far from my market and my users, these insights are more than useful for me.
  2. Helping the development team to understand the company strategy so that they can work in the same direction. As a former developer, I did not always understand why I was working in a given direction. I work hard every day to limit this kind of situation. I share “work in progress documents”, communicate on which meeting I had and what was told, the current state of the decision process (do all team agree? why?)…

Is it a force or a weakness to be a former developer?

Neither one nor the other. It’s just a part of who I am.

I have a technical background and I am able to have highly technical discussions with developers in my team. Most of the time it’s great and useful, but sometimes I need to step back and let the team decides by itself… even if I have my own idea. It was tough the first time, I needed to unlearn some reflexes.

Do you have some challenges?

Yes! And I want to have some. Maybe that’s the main reason I love this job actually. I am out of my comfort zone: I am not working in the field I studied and I was used to be paid for.

I am working with so many new kinds of people: sales, founders, customer support… I saw these guys at company events or team building moments, but they needed to speak with my former Product Owner to give me some work. Now, I speak with them weekly (or even daily), and so I have to understand a whole new world of needs and constraints. Thanks to them, it was easy and smooth as everybody worked with a lot of kindness.

Do you have ONE piece of advice for a developer wanting to become a Product Owner?

Find a way to get a feature or a small part of your project from the idea to the market. You will be sure that you love doing that by actually trying it, and maybe face challenges that you did not think about before. Then, it’s only a matter of saying and communicating that you want to become a Product Owner and take action for making it real.

It’s difficult to give real examples because it all depends on the context you’re in. Maybe it will not be immediate… but when an opportunity will be in front of you, you will be ready for it.

I love to talk about this subject, so if you want to speak about it, feel free to contact me or to come around and take a coffee :)

About me

Hi, I am Albin Poignot — I started my career as a software developer, became a Product Manager, and founded my own company named Linky Product.

I believe that Product Management practices are the key to product success and that Product Manager is one of the best roles you can have in the high-tech industry. We offer online training and bootcamps, as well as coaching to become a Product Manager; and services to companies who want to create products that are really satisfying their users.

Visit https://www.linkyproduct.com to get more info.

Credits

Romain Bertozzi, François Belle and Valentine Hoyet for proof-reading.

All pictures are from free stock photos.

Co-founder & Product Manager @ Linky Product