So You Want To Be A Product Owner?
Lessons learned from landing my first job as a Product Owner
It took me 4 years to get my first job as a Product Owner (PO) at a Dutch start-up called Bynder. I was their third PO hire. Landing this job required a lot of persistence and dedication. How do you get hired as a Product Owner without relevant experience?
I hope by sharing my story it will be easier for others to get hired as a PO.
How Did I Know I Wanted To Become A Product Owner?
6 years ago I was working as a Marketing Manager for a start-up. I was closely involved with the development of a sophisticated online health check. After working directly with a development team on a product I was hooked. I knew this was what I wanted to do: I wanted to build cool things.
My manager wanted to promote me to be their first PO, as he saw I had a knack for product development when I was closely involved with rebuilding their whole platform.
Unfortunately my employer went through difficult financial times. So I did not become a PO after all. I was very disappointed and decided to focus my energy to get hired somewhere else as a PO.
Lesson 1: Try To Get Promoted Internally
The best way to get hired as a PO is to get promoted internally. I missed the boat, but I still feel this would have been the easiest way to start my career in PO. My path was much harder, but I learned valuable skills along the way I would have not learned otherwise.
When you start as a PO at your current company, they trust you and your capabilities. You will have more time to get up and running. Usually you will have a lot of valuable domain knowledge, which new PO hires may not have. This will grant you some more patience, plus they will spend more time mentoring you on the PO role as they realize you still need to learn a lot.
The alternative to getting promoted internally, is applying without prior experience. That can be quite difficult.
Applying As A Product Owner Without Experience
I was not very appealing as an applicant for Product Owner jobs. I had no background in IT and knew very little about developing software. My Masters in Life Sciences did not add a lot of value either, other than indicate that I had a reasonable degree of persistence and intelligence.
Back in 2010, there were very few entry-level PO jobs, so every vacancy asked for experience. The job market was flooded with applicants more experienced than me. Foolishly, I still decided to apply to PO positions and surprise: I did not get invited anywhere.
Plan A was not working and I needed a plan B. My plan B was to get a job that would act as a stepping stone to get the job I wanted. So what kind of job should I apply for?
Lesson 2: Pick A Stepping Stone
Based on my limited experience of working with developers, I realised my technical understanding was quite poor. When I asked our developers how difficult it was to build something, it would feel like I was listening to the Swedish chef:”BORK BORK BORK”. I heard complete gibberish.
Improving my technical understanding felt like a good place to start. My reasoning was: if you can’t communicate well with developers, how can you work together to build awesome things?
I decided to become a Software Tester. Software testers were very scarce and it was a job you could get into without previous experience. I read a lot about software testing and wrote a decent motivation letter why I would be suited for such a role. I got hired in a couple of weeks and was elated!
Gaining Technical Understanding As A Software Tester
Working as a Software Tester made me understand software development really well. You basically get paid to prevent mistakes and discover all that went wrong during the development process. I became an expert at noticing and preventing failure. I became proficient at making sure we build the thing right.
As much as I enjoyed discovering as many bugs as possible and improving the development process, I knew I wanted more. I wanted to help build the right thing.
I was working with PO’s who struggled in their job. PO’s who were unable to write clear User Stories. PO’s incapable of speaking on the same level with developers, as they also suffered from the Swedish Chef syndrome. PO’s who pitched solutions, instead of sharing the problem with developers.
By now my technical understanding was pretty decent and I had a solid understanding what developers needed to do their job well. I wanted to be more involved in what happens before the development team starts working on something.
Lesson 3: Pick Another Stepping Stone If Necessary
I talked to my manager and convinced him to make me a Business Analyst. My pitch was that we could deliver a lot more customer value if we had someone to help write User Stories who actually understood software development and what developers need to do their job well. I received a promotion to Business Analyst.
Doing the Business Analyst role gave me the confidence and credibility to do the PO role well. I was involved with most aspects of the PO role and now had relevant experience to apply as a PO.
So I applied for around 30 PO vacancies and I still was not getting invited anywhere. I was baffled. I had relevant experience and I had applied to so many jobs that my motivation letter and resume reached a level I was inadequate to improve any further. I was stuck and did not know what to do better.
Lesson 4: Getting Hired Is All About Trust
The only conclusion I was able to draw that they did not have enough trust that I would be able to do the job. The leap of faith they would need to make was too big. So I thought long and hard about how I could make this leap of faith smaller.
I decided to obtain a Product Owner certification. My assumption was companies would place a lot of value on a certification and it would lend me sufficient credibility. I would not only have the experience, but also a certification to prove I possess enough knowledge.
I obtained the PO certification. I changed a single line on my resume and suddenly I got invited to around 70% of all interviews I applied to. Below my name I added ‘Certified Product Owner’ and made sure the first thing recruiters would see was my certification. I suddenly also got approached by recruiters who wanted to place me at companies. I still had exactly the same experience as before, but my credibility had increased significantly so they placed a higher value on my experience.
With the certification and relevant experience I got the job I wanted within 2 months. If you want to obtain a certification, I have also written a guide that can help you prepare and decide which Product Owner certification to go for.
Landing Your First Product Owner Job Is Hard
It took me 4 years to get my first job as a PO, while I always knew this was what I wanted to do. Maybe I could have taken some more shortcuts, but I was not even aware the role of Business Analyst existed when I applied as a Software Tester.
I really knew almost nothing about software development and had very little technical understanding when I first applied as a Product Owner. When I applied I absolutely knew I was ready as I could be to perform the role without doing it before. If I had gotten the role earlier, maybe it would have been a much tougher ride. So try to make the leap when you feel confident enough you are not setting yourself up for failure.