Recruitment: 42 Interview Questions for Scrum Product Owners to Avoid Agile Imposters

TL; DR: 42 Scrum Product Owner Interview Questions That Will Benefit Your Organization

This second post in the Hands-on Agile Fieldnotes series focuses on recruiting the Scrum Product Owner.

Co-written with Andreea tomoiaga, 42 Scrum Product Owner Interview Questions to Avoid Hiring Agile Imposters represents the most important lessons from our combined hands-on experience of over 20 years with Kanban, Scrum, XP and several product discovery frameworks. We have worked as Scrum Product Owners, Scrum Masters, Agile Coaches and Developers in agile teams and organizations of all sizes and levels of maturity.

We have each participated in interviews with dozens of Scrum Product Owner candidates on behalf of our clients or employers. The questions and answers here are what we have learned.

The role of Scrum Product Owner is difficult to understand

Scrum is not a methodology, but a framework. There are no rules that apply to every scenario, just best practices that have already worked in other organizations. As someone hiring for an agile team, you need to figure out for yourself what works for your organization, which is a process, not a destination.

The role of the Scrum Product Owner himself makes the recruiting process difficult to manage. The Scrum Product Owner is the least well-defined role in the Scrum framework and – at the same time – the role with the most facets.

Scrum Product Owners are innovators at heart and therefore creators of value for both their customers and their organizations – if they are fortunate enough to work in an agile manner. This is the most vulnerable Scrum role. Turn a Scrum Product Owner into a monkey (ticket system of your choice), or deprive them of the ability to say “No” (making someone else the keeper of the product backlog), and they quickly become the Achilles heel of any agile organization.

The role of the Scrum Product Owner depends on the size of the organization, the sector in which it operates and the stage of the life cycle of its products. But above all, the overlap with the role of product manager must be taken into account (spoiler: they are not identical).

These 42 interview questions are neither suitable nor intended to transform an inexperienced interviewer into an expert in agile software development. But in the hands of a seasoned practitioner, these questions will provide sufficient support to determine which of the candidates has worked successfully in the agile trenches. Remember: “agile” is a mindset, not a methodology. No checklist will help your recruiting success.

42 Scrum Product Owner Interview Questions to Avoid Hiring Agile Imposters provides contextual information, including tips on appropriate answers and instructions on how best to use these interview questions. The questions are grouped into six series covering the most critical areas of work.

Set 1: The role of a Scrum Product Owner

This first set deals with a candidate’s conceptual understanding of the role of the Product Owner in the Scrum process:

  1. What’s the point of being agile in the first place?
  2. How would you characterize your role as Product Owner? Are you a facilitator, coach, manager, visionary, tactician, coordinator, driver? To what extent is the Product Owner a “product manager”?
  3. When was the last time you said “No” to a stakeholder? How did you approach the situation? Why did you say “No”?
  4. Your product backlog is monitored by a “product committee” which meets regularly to approve new features. Can you act as a credible Product Owner if you don’t control the product backlog?
  5. What titles would you find appropriate on your business card when thinking about your role as a Product Owner?
  6. How do you cooperate with the Scrum team?
  7. Would you mind if your Scrum Master suggests a course of action for product development?

Download PDF

Free 42 Scrum Product Owner Interview Questions to Avoid Hiring Agile Impostors PDF does not just list the questions, but also contains a lot of additional content:

  • General information on why questions are useful in the interview process,
  • A range of appropriate responses to each interview question.

In our experience, two to three questions in each series will provide more than enough ground for an engaging 60 minute product owner interview.

Group 2: Discovery of products and external stakeholders

The questions in this set relate to what is required of the Product Owner for Product Discovery and Product Management:

  1. Do you think Scrum adequately addresses the product discovery process?
  2. How do you learn new ideas and requirements?
  3. How do you include user research in the product discovery process?
  4. How much time do you spend researching users and understanding your customers’ needs?
  5. How would you design a process to manage product ideas from stakeholders – and the organization in general?
  6. At what stage do you involve the Scrum team in the product discovery process?
  7. How do you avoid misallocating resources to features or products that no one is really interested in?

Group 3: Management of internal stakeholders

The questions in this set relate to specific aspects of the relationship between Product Owners and their internal stakeholders:

  1. Your organization recently decided to “go agile” in product development. How do you educate your stakeholders on the implications?
  2. How do you organize a Scrum team’s collaboration with stakeholders – and improve it over time?
  3. How do you communicate with non-cooperative stakeholders?
  4. A new feature is overdue and has been significantly underestimated due to unexpected technical debt. Nonetheless, your most important stakeholder insists on “finishing it” because so much effort has already been invested. How do you deal with this?
  5. How do you deal with pet projects?
  6. The sales department often sells new features to close business without telling you first. How do you deal with this?

Set 4: Planning the product roadmap

The questions in this set address one of the most controversial topics in the profession: “How do you build agile product roadmaps that work?” “

  1. The product vision and strategy are kept confidential in your organization to prevent competitors from stealing ideas. Will this interfere with your work as a Product Owner?
  2. Aren’t product portfolio and roadmap planning anachronisms in an agile organization?
  3. What’s your approach to creating product roadmaps?
  4. How often should product roadmap planning be done?
  5. How do you connect teams to the product vision and show them how their contributions bring that vision to life?
  6. Who should be involved in planning the product roadmap?

Set 5: The Product Backlog and the creation of the User Story

The questions in this set relate to the territory of a Product Owner: the product backlog and the creation of the user story:

  1. What is the idea behind the refinement of the product backlog?
  2. How would you organize the product backlog refinement process?
  3. How many user stories can you work on in parallel while ensuring their continued relevance to customers and the organization?
  4. At what stage do you include other team members in the refinement process?
  5. How do you deal with bugs and technical debt when there are a lot of cool new features competing for resources?
  6. What should a good user story look like? What is its structure?
  7. What are the most common pitfalls of product backlog refinement?
  8. When would you remove a product feature?

Set 6: Sprint planning, reviews and retrospectives

The questions in this last series relate to the Scrum Sprint itself: planning, delivery and closing:

  1. How do you ensure that the Scrum team will work on the most valuable user stories?
  2. Is it necessary for the Product Owner to set the goal of a sprint?
  3. You are pushing for an important user story to be selected for the next sprint. Sadly, final designs are lacking, but the designers promise to deliver no more than two days after the sprint has started. The Scrum Master, however, rejects the story because the ‘Definition of Loan’ has not been reached. What can you do?
  4. Does the Product Owner have to attend the entire sprint planning ceremony?
  5. Your Scrum team regularly estimates user stories at the high end of the possible range. You think they are safe to play, creating buffers for rainy days. How do you approach this?
  6. When do you accept user stories?
  7. Does a Product Owner have a right of veto on the publication of user stories?
  8. During a sprint review, the development team demonstrates new features that you have never seen before. How do you react ?

Conclusion: how to use these 42 interview questions

Scrum has always been a pragmatic business, and to be successful in this business, a candidate must have the passion to get their hands dirty. While the ground rules are trivial, taking a group of individuals with different backgrounds, levels of engagement, and personal agendas to create value by building a great product on an ongoing basis is a complex task. And the larger the organization – the more levels of management there are – the more likely failure, in one of its many forms, is.

These interview questions are neither suitable nor intended to transform an inexperienced interviewer into an expert in agile software development. But in the hands of a seasoned practitioner, these questions will provide sufficient support to determine which of the candidates has worked successfully in the agile trenches. They will also help you decide who is most likely to be an impostor.

You want to avoid inviting impostors for a trial. Look for the pragmatic veteran who has seen both failures and successes with previous projects, and who bears the scars to prove it. Certifications, including CSPO® certification (CSPO stands for “Certified Scrum Product Owner” and is a registered trademark of Scrum Alliance, Inc.), are in no way an indication that you have the “right candidate”.

About Byron G. Fazio

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