Product Owner: Interview with Kayla Wren


Product Owner: Interview with Kayla Wren

My first interview was with Kayla Wren, the Product Owner at LevelTen. Kayla's job is to represent the "voice of the product" and make sure that the needs of the client and end users are heard. In my interview with her we discuss what it takes to be a good Product Owner, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and her favorite podcasts.

Sky: What is Product Owner and what kind of products do you own?

Kayla: I guess the word “product” can be confusing, huh? In my case the products are usually websites but a Product Owner can manage anything from an app, to a section of a website, to a full software application. I typically work with our clients to define business goals, understand their market, research their end-user’s needs, and evaluate their technical requirements. I maintain the product backlog, write and prioritize user stories. Together with the product team, we work to deliver a product that is feasible, usable, and valuable to the end user and to the client.

Sky: What’s the difference between a Product Owner and a Product Manager?

Kayla: One thing you’ll find in the tech space is that job titles don’t always help when trying to understand what someone actually does on a day to day basis. The job of Product Owner or Manager changes depending on the type of company you’re working for, the industry you’re in, and the stage of the product. We started using the term Product Owner at LevelTen when we adopted Scrum as our Project Management methodology. We all went through ScrumMaster/Product Owner training and certification.

Sky: Is that how you became a Product Owner?

Kayla: Well, in a roundabout way, yes. My education and training were in UX, or user experience, and I would still say that’s still the part of product development that I enjoy most - user research, prototyping, testing, gathering feedback, and iterating on the design and functionality. I’ve acquired most of the skills needed for being a Product Owner through years of experience working on, building, and managing product teams.

Sky: What skills do you need to be a Product Owner?

Kayla: The skills that I bring to the table vary from product to product depending on the type of business, the stage of the product, whether it’s a start-up or an established brand. Some clients need help defining the product, doing user and market research, defining the feature set, and setting the vision for the product. Other clients have internal product teams with strong opinions on what should be built and how.

I would say, in general, Product Owners need excellent research and listening skills. They should be good collaborators and facilitators. They should be up to date with trends in technology and have a strong business acumen. They need a love of data and metrics. Creativity and problem solving skills are important. Project Management skills are helpful.

Sky: Do you have to know how to program or code to do your job?

That’s a great question. I would say, no, you don’t have to be a programmer, but it does help to have a solid understanding of the technology you’re using, which in our case is Drupal. It’s difficult to communicate with the team if you don’t understand the language. I can do basic site building and I know enough HTML/CSS to make minor changes through the UI when needed, but I leave the development work to the experts.  

Sky: What is the hardest thing about your job?

Kayla: I think the most challenging part of being a Product Owner in an agency is also the thing that makes it the most exciting -- and that’s the diversity of the products we develop. We’ve worked with non-profits, start-ups, small businesses, and large corporations across many industries, like Healthcare, Financial Services, Real Estate, Law, Education, and the Arts. Each new product is an opportunity to learn a new business, so it's always interesting, but it’s also incredibly challenging because you’re switching gears so frequently. Also with each new client comes a new set of personalities with different agendas and varying degrees of technical skill and web experience, so you’re not only changing products all the time, you’re changing out teams. Did I mention flexibility as an important skill for a Product Owner? If I didn’t, I should have.

Sky: What are some things that most people don't know about your job?

Kayla: I think some people think of this as a tech job but it’s really a people job. I’d say roughly 20% of what I do directly touches technology in some way, but most of my time is spent talking to stakeholders and users, going over options with the team, getting feedback from designers and developers, coordinating and meeting with vendors, writing user stories, and fielding suggestions and issues from clients. We try to make sure product teams have periods of uninterrupted time to work; don’t expect that as a Product Owner.

Sky: What advice would you give to someone considering a career as a Product Owner?

Kayla: I think it’s important to work on a product team first. Most Product Owners or Managers have backgrounds in User Experience, Business, or Technology. Figure out what interests you most - innovation, metrics, community management, social media, online marketing, user experience, design, development, or testing - and get really good at it. Learn how to work on a team and collaborate. Immerse yourself in the process and gain a healthy respect for the skill sets of everyone involved. Also, set aside an hour a day just to read and study what people are doing in your field.

Sky: What books do you recommend to people who are interested in Product Ownership?

Kayla: There are so many great blogs and resources online, but as for books, I would say that if you haven’t read The Design of Everyday Things and Emotional Design by Don Norman, you should. It’s a great place to start, especially if you don’t have a background in user-centered design.

The Four Steps to the Epiphany is essential to understanding the “lean” approach. It’s one of the best business books you can read, with lots of practical advice and good examples. Rapid iteration, customer feedback, testing assumptions are ideas explained in this book.

If you want to learn more about Scrum and Product Ownership, pick up Agile Project Management with Scrum by Ken Schwaber. I also liked Succeeding with Agile and User Stories Applied by Mike Cohn.

Sky: What are you reading right now?

Kayla: Well, I drive back and forth from Dallas to Austin quite a bit so I listen to lots of podcasts and audiobooks. I really like The Web Ahead with Jenn Simmons and I listen to the HBR IdeaCast every week. They aren’t Product specific per se, but they cover a lot of things that fall under that umbrella. I recently started listening to This is Product Management and I really like it. 

For fun, I love listening to all the Gimlet Media and Radiotopia podcasts. I’ve listened to every TAL, Serial, and Moth episode ever produced. Freakonomics, Planet Money, and RadioLab are all essential listening if you want to have conversations with people who don’t work in the web world.

Sky: What did you want to be when you grew up?

Oh, wow. For a while I really wanted to be an Archaeologist or an Eqyptologist. When I was a kid the King Tut exhibit toured the US and I remember being totally obsessed with it. I thought I would travel around digging up artifacts and deciphering hieroglyphics. Or maybe I just saw Raiders of the Lost Ark at an impressionable age.

Sky: What happened?

Kayla: The Internet happened.

Sky: As the intern, I'm required to know this: what is your caffeinated drink of choice?

Kayla: Coffee, milk & sugar before noon, then I switch to Iced Tea. 

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