Understanding the Relationship Between the Product Owner, Solution Architect and Cloud Development-Deployment Teams

By John Conley

As organizations launch digital transformation projects using Agile and DevOps techniques, it’s easy for them to overlook the dynamic of the teams they assemble to make the transformation a reality. The transformation team needs a technical vision as well as a business vision. Without the clarity provided by the vision, the team can break down into a basket case of ineffective sprints and unproductive relationships. The Product Owner role helps drive that vision into a set of strategic initiatives that then are vetted and technically prioritized, with the help of the Solution Architect, into sprints. Of all the relationships on a given team, the most misunderstood perhaps is that of the Product Owner and the Solution Architect.
One of the reasons for this misunderstanding is that underestimate the complexity of a project. With smaller organizations, this may or may not be a big deal. But for larger corporations, especially those that are publicly traded, this is often inexcusable.
Within any organization, there are two figurative sandboxes that employees work in:
• The Business sandbox and
• The Technology sandbox
In the Business sandbox, employees carry out tasks that directly align with the organization’s marketing and business support operations. In the technology sandbox, employees are tasked with ensuring that the best and most updated technology is being used to support the Business sandbox. In a digital transformation, technology is no longer an afterthought, or “those IT nerds over there,” but an essential engine that drives the business forward. For every IT project, the leading voice of the business sandbox is the Product Owner (PO).
For the Technology sandbox, the Solution Architect (SA) is the main voice. The Product Owner, as the voice of the customer, internal employee, and executive stakeholder, has the responsibility to manage a Product Backlog of requests for new features to existing solution, brand new solutions, and bug/defect requests. Since the Product Owner is generally nontechnical (which is usually a good thing), the Enterprise Architecture team assigns a Solution Architect to that PO. The SA and PO meet regularly (usually weekly or biweekly) to go over the Product Backlog (PB) to vet each Product Backlog Item (PBI).
Depending on how large the PB is, the meeting can be either quick or tedious. The latter is especially true for larger organizations who are introducing the concept of a PB for the first time. Vetting a the PBIs in a backlog is a multistep process:

• PO Guesstimate
• SA Guesstimate
• PBI Priority Ranking
• Executive Budget Approval
• EA Backlog

PO Guesstimate
The PO t-shirt sizes (e.g., Small, Medium, Large) the business importance/impact of each PBI based on business strategies and capabilities being addressed. No technical input involved. Sometimes, the PO will recognize that a new PBI was already implemented in part or in full by another solution already in production, or is just a matter of training. In this case, the PBI can be marked “Resolved” or “Closed.” There will be times when the PO needs further clarification on the business rationale for a PBI from executive stakeholders. These can be marked as “Pending further business review” or something similar. These items should be time tracked so that they don’t age too long in the product backlog.
SA Guesstimate
After gaining business insight into the PBI, the SA t-shirt sizes the effort to analyze and implement technologically. No business input involved. The most popular t-shirt sizes used are Small, Medium and Large. Some teams use X Large for really big epics, but that’s up to you what works. Sometimes, the SA will recognize that a new PBI was already implemented in part or in full by another solution already in production, or is just a matter of training. In this case, the PBI can be marked “Resolved” or “Closed.” There are also times the SA may need a second pair of technical eyes to vet a PBI, so these should be marked “Needing further technical review.”

PBI Priority Ranking
If a PBI survives 1 and 2, then the business and technical rankings together should guide the PO and SA to prioritize the PBI relative to the others. Ranking PBIs is mostly subjective, but a good rule of thumb is to give weight to those items that are quick wins or have been heavily requested among users and executive stakeholders for some time.

Executive Budget Approval
Once the PBIs are prioritized, the PO gets budgetary approval of the top 10 (or whatever the threshold is) from executive stakeholders. Once a PBI is approved, the PO marks the PBI as “Ready for Implementation” or whatever status is agreed upon.

EA Backlog
There are different schools of thought regarding how to the technology team proceeds after a PBI has been approved. The Scaled Agile Framework offers some good ideas around value trains and solutions trains that have helped many organizations. Plain old Scrum, Agile and DevOps have good ideas here. Choose the approach that works for you. Here, I am focusing mostly on the pure process itself without getting bogged down in methodology wars. Once a PBI is approved, some technology leaders directly assign them to a sprint backlog. That might work for smaller organizations, but for larger ones, there is a need for a technology “brain trust” to determine the next step before it goes to any particular team’s sprint backlog. This is where Enterprise Architecture (EA) comes into play.
Often, SAs are under the direction of an EA Brain Trust who assigns them to one or more IT projects. So it would make since that there needs to be an EA Backlog the mediates between the PO’s Product Backlog and each team’s Sprint Backlog. This becomes especially true for organizations going through a digital transformation that involves implementing cloud computing. In the cloud, there are three layers that a PBI can intersect with:
• Software (SaaS)
• Platform (PaaS)
• Infrastructure (IaaS)
Each of these tiers would have a corresponding technology team of technical development and deployment specialists to implement the incoming PBI within the organizations IT environment. With the typical sprint backlog setup, the default assumption is that the incoming PBI is focused on developing software. But what if it only involves standing up a SQL database or a Linux or Windows Server VM? The determination about what kind of team to engage for the solution needs to be at the EA level. This technology brain trust, the EA Team, should have leaders from each area to help engage the right team. The PBI would then be routed to that respective team’s Sprint Backlog to work. The EA team would also do a more technical score of each incoming PBI to determine if an SA is needed to guide the sprint team. A good starting point for a scoring system is 1 to 50, where anything 26 or higher means the PBI is strategically important enough to warrant assigning an SA to the team. Less strategic PBIs can usually be handled by sprint teams with just a normal tech lead or dev lead. If an SA is needed, the SA would then work with the team to do normal sprint planning and backlog refinement activities. The SA creates necessary design docs that are within the guidelines of the master EA doc.

Considerations for Consulting Engagements
The same principles apply to a consulting practice engaging a prospective customer after making the initial sales pitch. After a consulting sales pitch, there has to be a customer assessment phase to determine the level of effort both parties can expect before a full engagement commitment is made. Both roles, PO and SA, are needed at a minimum to determine the effort. During the assessment, the PO and SA develop and manage a backlog of items the customer would need to address before committing to a digital transformation initiative. Depending on the size and complexity of the organization, this can take anywhere from a week or two, to several weeks or longer. The less mature the organization is technologically, the longer this assessment phase will take. It’s similar to when you hire house cleaning service. If it’s your first time, and your house is big, it will take longer than a similar house that already has regular house cleaning.

Wrapping Up
Hopefully this white paper helped in understanding the important relationship between a Product Owner and a Solution Architect. The former is business oriented and is the voice of the customer, employee user and executive stakeholder. The latter is technically oriented, and is the voice of the technology teams and the mediator between the functional requirements (usually user stories and other PBIs) and the nonfunctional requirements that the technology teams implement to satisfy the business. The EA team helps determine how to map incoming PBIs to the right technology teams, and will assign an SA if the PBI is architecturally and strategically significant.

About the Author
John Conley is a Dallas, TX, based Digital Solution Architect and Cloud Engineer Consultant. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming eBook “2020 Business Guide to Digital Transformation Governance.” Feel free to reach out to him if you have any questions or need consulting for your enterprise engagements.
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