When it comes to your career path as a Product Owner, it is important to distinguish between the title you have in your organization and the accountability you have taken on in your Scrum team.
A soccer player will play more than one role—and wear more than one hat—over the course of his or her career, and so will the Product Owner. You need to think strategically about your career and your role within your organization, just as you need to approach your daily work on the Scrum team tactically.
Unlike development or testing, there is no clear path of advancement for a product person. So much so that, if two Product Owners start on the same day at the same organization, their roles may be drastically different after three to five years.
Remember that, at the end of the day, your career path depends as much on your choices as it does on the organization, the trends in the industry, and the state of the economy. When making plans, consider what factors you can control, what factors you can influence, and what factors you need to adjust to.
The Product Person’s Typical Career Path
The typical career path of a product person, which, as we already established, can vary greatly depending on the industry and organization, is as follows:
- Junior Product Owner;
- Product Owner;
- Senior Product Owner;
- Portfolio Owner;
- Director of Product;
- Chief Product Officer.
Let’s see how you yourself could walk this path over the years—and what particular challenges you are likely to face along the way.
Junior Product Owner
As Junior Product Owner, you will likely be accountable for a product that isn’t critical to the business. One way to think about this type of products is as your organization’s “side projects.” They are staffed with small teams, and their success or failure isn’t necessarily impactful to the organization as a whole.
At this level, your personal development goal is to learn: learn to keep a backlog and prioritize between A and B. Learn to serve the company, to be part of the Scrum Team, and to step in the shoes of the stakeholders. Learn the organization, the industry, the customers, the business needs.
Junior Product Owner is a role you take at the very beginning of your product career. Depending on the organization and the situation, it can take anywhere from 1 to 3 years for you to grow into the role of Product Owner.
As Product Owner, you will likely take accountability over an existing product from someone else, or become accountable for a new product that’s considered, in one way or another, important to the organization.
At this level, your personal development goal is to establish your credibility. If you’re taking over a failing product, to turn the ship around. If you’re building a new product, to inspect, to adapt, and to pivot until you find the drivers of value.
If you get into product ownership right out of college, Product Owner is a role you would take in your early 30s. Once you do, it can take anywhere from 2 to 5 years for you to gain the experience necessary to be promoted to Senior Product Owner.
Senior Product Owner
As Senior Product Owner, you will likely be accountable for the business-critical products in your organization. These are the products that have a direct or measurable impact on the bottom line and/or relationships with key customers.
At this level, you personal development goal is to keep the success story growing. You’ve been trusted with a product where both success and failure are highly impactful. This will require you to make priority calls that yield good outcomes, and remain graceful under fire when they don’t pan out.
Assuming you entered product management in your late 20s, it wouldn’t be atypical to move up to Product Owner, and then Senior Product Owner, in your mid-30s. From that moment on, it can take anywhere from 3-5 to 7-10 years to move up to portfolio owner.
As Portfolio Owner, you will likely be responsible for a group of products in your organization. Typically, you will own the budget for the Scrum Teams that develop these products and/or lead the team of Product Owners accountable for each.
At this level, you personal development goal is to become a good allocator of capital (“capital” stands for time, talent, and money). Dilemmas and trade-offs about what not to do will keep being elevated to you. Your team will expect you to make the right decision, and so will your boss. Balancing between what must be done and what should or could be done will be key to your success.
Portfolio Owner is a managerial role that most people take on after about a decade in product ownership, often in their late 30s or early 40s. After that, it can take 3-5 to 7-10 years to advance to Director of Product Management. To reiterate, exactly how fast you advance will depend on multiple factors.
Director of Product
As Director of Product, you are likely to lead the direction of the products, the budgets for their buildout, and/or the team of Product Owner that’s accountable for that buildout, within your organization.
At this level, your personal development goal will be to drive the delivery of business outcomes at scale, typically over the course of 1-3 years. To get there, you will need to build a tight-knit, self-sufficient team that’s capable of tackling strategic challenges and putting out the biggest of fires. Coaching, teaching, and delegation will be the most used tools in your arsenal.
Director of Product is a senior management position. Superstars reach this position after 10-15 years of product ownership. Late bloomers, or those who changed careers, may take 15-20 years. Once you make it, it can take 3-5 to 7-10 years to move up from Director of Product to Chief Product Officer.
Chief Product Officer
Few organizations have the role of Chief Product Officer on their organizational chart, and even fewer Product Owners climb high enough up the corporate ladder to play that role. If you find yourself in an organization where this is the case, then Chief Product Officer may just be the ultimate career aspiration for you.
This is the product role with the most at stake and, potentially, the greatest impact. Your personal development goal will be to translate the company’s vision and mission statement into a clear and actionable strategy for the product organization that you lead.
What’s the next step, then?
This is an executive position that requires the highest level of seniority. By the time you become Chief Product Officer, you are likely be in your late 40s or early 50s.
A few are fortunate enough to have the prospect to become Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Chief Operations Officer (COO), or Chief Information Officer (CIO). Some are appointed to the board of directors. Others may want to stick around and retire. And then, there are those who start executive coaching or managerial consulting practices.