What Happens When the CEO is the Product Owner and Part-Time Developer on the ‘The Team?’

I recently visited with a client where the CEO and founder
of the company is also an active part-time developer on the Dev Team.  This provides an interesting dynamic that has some advantages but also some genuine risk.

This company is not a startup, has been around for several years and is successful.  They are highly customer focused.  The CEO brings to the table a deep understanding of the business and was heavily involved with the design and development of the fundamental technology underlying the company’s product.   This base architecture is rooted in early 2000s Microsoft technology — hence, very much a client-server architecture.

The CEO as a Product Owner for this company makes sense on two levels.  First, he has a solid understanding of the business goals and the market served, and brings a sense of customer urgency to backlog management. Having the CEO as a part-time developer can also help keep teams aligned with the business goals and customer goals.

The risks of such a scenario where the CEO straddles the Product Owner role and membership on ‘the team’ are several; it requires great attention to which hat that he/she is wearing when trying to pull this off.

Some of the issues that are encountered at this company (but
not all the time) are:

  1. Left unchecked, this arrangement can put the ‘No’ in Innovation. As technology moves more and more to a cloud/services orientation, the opportunity to stay current can get challenged because the comfort zone of the CEO is rooted in what is still pretty mainstream but quickly becoming legacy technology (at least as front-end technology rather than being hidden behind a Web services interface).
  2. This model can cause the backlog to be too volatile because of a reactionary response to customer complaints.  This makes it more difficult for a team to be
    predictable without having to increase the buffer sizes in their workflows.  This of course increases work in process (WIP) which, as we know from Little’s Law, reduces throughput and tends to have a negative effect on quality.
  3. The part-time, come-and-go participation of the CEO as a developer on the team can become a frustration/impediment to the team’s ability to flow.
  4. Having the dual-hat arrangement also can cause more prescriptive stories with respect to how.  The Product Owner role normally handles providing the who, what and the why of stories, and the team owns the how. This is an elegant division of responsibility that provides clarity to the team on their purpose, yet enables innovation in crafting of solutions.  Blurring this relationship can also put innovation at risk.

If you find yourself and your team in a similar situation, remember to re-enforce the fundamentals with respect to roles in the process.  Also, keep an eye on those
forces that can negatively affect innovation and team morale.  This is best done by having an open and ongoing conversation with the team.  As a leader in an agile organization, this is a must.  If you’re a developer at heart, it’s easy to lose sight of when you have switched hats.  Let those whom you serve as a leader help to keep you honest to the roles.

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