How to excel as an agile product owner

To ensure the success of an Agile project, a development team must be able to rely on a product owner (more commonly known as the “PO”) who’s smart, well-informed and excited about the project. To better understand the challenges that a PO faces every day, I talked to Mohamed, who was the product owner as part of an important mandate we realized with a Quebec company that offers healthcare services.

The goal of this project, whose initial phase lasted 7 months, was to modernize and replace a key management system (clients, agendas, goods and services) at the heart of the company’s operations. This application, critical for the organization, is used by many different types of users, including specialists, healthcare professionals, administrative assistants and much more.

In the context of an Agile project, the PO is the team member responsible for articulating the vision for the product as well as its success conditions. He (or she) has to:

• Start an Agile project with the development team;
• Establish needs by creating User Stories;
• List priorities in the backlog;
• Communicate regularly and efficiently with the team;
• And much more.

The PO’s decisions have a tremendous impact on the final product. I asked Mohamed to tell me about his vision of the role of a PO as well as some of the challenges he faced while working on this project with Askida.

Here’s a condensed version of our chat, edited for clarity.

To get us started, could you tell me a little about your career so far? How did end up working as a Product Owner on this project?

I started in sales and customer service. As time went by, I ended up working in customer support for my current employer. When we decided to modernize our central management application, I was the person internally with the best skillset and knowledge to guide this project to success. I had already worked as a sort of “mini-PO” on a different, less complex project, so I felt confident that I’d be able to do a good job in this role. At the same time, I had never worked with Agile methods, so there was a definitely a learning curve for me. Luckily, the Scrum Master on Askida’s side was there to help me get up to speed.

What do you think “a good PO” is?

I would say it’s someone who possesses good business skills, an excellent comprehension of the reality of end users, a creative mind that can come up with smart solutions to different problems and some technical skills to support the team and understand the issues and limitations well.

Do you remember how the project began? How did you end up choosing Askida to handle development?

After we decided to modernize our central management application, we did a call for proposals and we hired a technical consultant to help us validate some of the complex technological aspects of the project. Askida’s proposal stood out. We liked the team’s experience, professionalism and transparency, and Askida’s proposal also went farther than others we received, by including, for example, realistic mockups of various screens. There was also Askida’s focus on software quality. Software bugs can be very costly for us, so the promise of superior software quality was appealing. At the level of infrastructure, coaching and technology, Askida had everything we were looking for.

As a product owner, what did your day-to-day responsibilities look like? What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during development?

It varies a lot, but in general, I had to identify and document the different functionalities of the application, evaluate proposals from the development team to ensure that they would fulfill our user’s needs and set the priorities in the backlog. One big advantage of an Agile project, of course, is the time it takes for modifications to be made. If there’s a problem, changes can be made in three weeks, rather than three years.

As far as challenges go, again, there was quite a bit of variety, but I would say that the four biggest challenges for me were:

• The speed at which decisions had to be made. Sometimes, I had to give the team very precise answers. If I delayed giving them these answers they needed, or if I gave them the wrong answers, this created problems that slowed down development.

• Making sure the functionalities that had been documented would satisfy the needs of real users. For example, a clinic in Baie-Comeau could be the only one in the entire network who uses a specific functionality, but this functionality is very important for it, even if it seems useless to everyone else. In other words, I had to make sure that I understood the reality of all the different types of users that interact with our application.

• Improve the application technologically without compromising the heart of a functionality. In modernizing the system, we were moving to a new programming language (Java), which allowed for new behaviors to be implemented. Again, the important thing to keep in mind here was the reality of our end users and how they view and interact with our application.

• Don’t go over budget! Always a challenge.

In the end, one of the most important things I learned working on this project is to never be 100% certain of anything. Even if a functionality has been implemented according to the documentation, it does mean that my job is done.

To finish, is there anything else you would like to mention?

I’d like to say that I am very proud of the work we accomplished with Askida. The team was exceptional and Askida clearly delivered on their initial promise, which was that we would get superior software quality. The individuals who worked on this project were all passionate about what they do and they didn’t hesitate to invest time and energy to make sure that this application was as good as it could be.

The new application even has new functionalities that are very valuable for our organization. For example, the old system didn’t have a centralized database. To transfer a patient’s file from one clinic to another, our staff had to fax a copy of the file to the new clinic, which then had to be re-entered into our system. This was obviously very inefficient. With the new system, which has a centralized database, a clinic in Montreal can electronically transfer a user’s file to a clinic in Quebec, which ensured that all the notes and the full patient history are preserved. This is very useful for our staff as well as our users.

Thank you so much for your time, Mohamed!

Image Team Askida

Team Askida

L'équipe d'Askida / Team Askida