How product owners and CTOs should work together

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Today I’m going to answer a question from Lucie, the product manager of a data-science startup. Her question is: How should product owners work with CTOs?

Today I’m going to answer a question from Lucie, the product manager of a data-science startup. Her question is…

How should product owners work with CTOs?

And more specifically, who is in charge of: building the roadmap, estimating workloads per feature and prioritizing?

Before answering this question, let’s add a bit of context.

Lucie acts as her startup's product owner. A CTO has recently been added into the mix, and she's been struggling to figure out who is in charge of what.

To answer her questions, let’s define each one's purpose.

Product owner vs CTO responsibilities

  • Studies the customer (with the marketing team) vs Organizes development
  • Defines the version’s focus vs Manages the technical team
  • Lists functional constraints vs Lists technical constraints
  • Prioritizes vs Helps prioritize
  • Roughly estimates each feature’s workload vs Checks estimations and corrects them
  • Considered as the technical team’s client vs Considered as the internal service provider
  • Analyzes metrics and KPIs vs Provides analytics and compiled KPIs
  • Defines customer experience and write functional specification vs Defines IT architecture and write technical specifications

They both have a common goal: to benefit the customer and the company as much as possible.

The product owner represents the customer's voice and the company's strategy, while the CTO keeps the development profitable.

So while the product owner studies the customer with the marketing team, the CTO organizes development. While the product owner defines the version’s focus, the CTO manages the technical team. While the product owner lists functional constraints, the CTO lists technical constraints. While the product owner prioritizes, the CTO helps prioritize.

While the product owner roughly estimates each feature's workload, the CTO checks estimations and corrects them. While the product owner is considered as the technical team's client, the CTO is considered as the internal service provider.

While the product owner analyzes metrics and KPIs, the CTO provides analytics and compile KPIs. While the product owner defines customer experience and writes functional specifications, the CTO defines IT architecture and writes technical specifications.

So in any organization, the product owner and the chief technical officer work hand in hand together for the top management. They help shape the strategy by providing insight on what customers want and what’s possible to do. Then the management defines the company’s strategy and the product owner prioritizes the development accordingly.

In an Agile development team, these two key players will at the very least plan and review sprints together.


So in conclusion and to answer Lucie’s question, the chief technical officer and the product owner or product manager are key in any software development organization, especially in a startup. They are both building a bridge from the company strategy and the customers' needs, to the development team.

An easy way to remember the distinction is: everything related to what we should develop is up to the product owner, and how we develop it is up to the chief technical officer.

Product owner = What; CTO = How

In small organizations like startups, you don't really need two different people. Just make sure that these roles are properly fulfilled before even starting development.

Now if like Lucie, you have a specific question for your project, just go ahead and ask on

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