I have been working as a software engineer for ten years. I managed to work in different companies: product-based and outsource, large and small. For the last three years, I have also been a manager — I manage a team of developers and help them develop and hire new people.
I’ve noticed that developers often think of their job as “writing code”, “adding features”, or even “closing tasks in Jira”. I used to think the same way. Today, I will explain why this approach limits growth and, more importantly, happiness.
So what does “ownership” mean? In my opinion, every developer should remember that he is a part of:
- a business,
- a product.
Accordingly, the developer’s task is to help the business grow and improve the product. It implies that the developer must:
- know the product and its subject area;
- know the product’s users;
- understand how the business works;
- understand product metrics;
- know the direction the product and business are taking;
- understand what other departments in the company are doing.
Collectively, this is called product thinking. Together with personal interest, proactivity, and most importantly, responsibility for successes and failures, it makes up the concept of “ownership” of the product.
This approach requires significant personal effort. Why would a business go for it, and why would you?
Benefits for the business
A company benefits from having product-minded developers in many ways. I’ll name the main ones.
Getting Things Done
If a developer considers his only task to be writing code, he abandons the task as soon as it leaves his area of responsibility. Then tasks often return from testing because the developer did not really check the result. Then the branch with the code freezes and does not get in production. People forget to roll out the experiments or to turn on feature toggles.
Such problems can and should be fixed by changing processes, but when the developer owns the product, he doesn’t consider the task completed until it is in production. Therefore, he checks everything carefully, ensures it’s in production, and checks if everything is set up, configured, and rolled out.
Choosing the right software architecture
A developer that knows the domain, the product, and its users can make better design decisions by predicting possible future changes and the consequences of his choices.
Higher Efficiency and Creativity
Employees work better this way, an explanation later in the article.
This is the most crucial point. A developer who feels like he owns the product does not wait for instructions but is proactive. They warn about risks in advance, correct mistakes, and come up with suggestions.
To summarize: the company gets a more efficient and responsible employee, whose decisions turn out to be correct more often. Isn’t it amazing?
What’s in it for you?
You will be more valuable to the business
I described above why you become more valuable to the company. Good employers notice this — you get more freedom, more opportunities, and in the end — more money and stocks.
The most successful developers who grow in this direction eventually move to a stage where a hypothetical James Brown no longer gets invited to the position of a developer. He is invited to the role of James Brown! The company hires him as a person who makes business better no matter what he’s doing.
You will work in the best companies
The skill of product ownership will force you to choose those jobs where you can apply it. In such companies, you will get more freedom, grow much faster, and develop different abilities, and great like-minded specialists will surround you. The last point is essential and often underestimated — our environment shapes us. You become more active and professional in the company of enthusiastic, energetic, professional people.
Let’s talk about happiness
The last advantage I’ll talk about is, in my opinion, the most important. So I will pay a little more attention to it.
Why do we even live? Many generations of philosophers have been trying to answer this question, so that I will leave the task to them. Instead, I propose to think about how we live.
Look, there are 24 hours in a day, of which 8 (ideally) we sleep. There are 16 hours left, of which work takes up half. If we take into account our other activities: commuting, shopping, working out, meeting with friends, etc., it turns out that we spend more time at work than with our family. As a rule, we treat a spouse’s choice very responsibly: we don’t get married just like that. We live together to be happy. Why do we talk so little about happiness at work if we spend so much time there? Why do we stay for years in dull jobs, doing uninspiring things?
Can’t we make it better?
I think we can, and the key is in owning the product. There are several points from which you can see the connection between happiness and owning your product.
Ownership and Alienation
The reflections on alienation first appeared in the works of John Locke, then developed and became a full-fledged theory in Hegel’s and Feuerbach’s works. Marx, on the other hand, transferred this problem from a religious perspective into a common one. I will not bother you with a lengthy analysis of these philosophers’ thoughts and will give you the main ideas relevant to today’s article.
Marx wrote extensively about alienation — the separation of the worker from the results of his labor and the very process of production. A person works but does not feel any connection to the final product: every day he screws the same bolt on the conveyor and doesn’t feel that he is creating something big, because his part is so small and monotonous. The worker doesn’t see the point in the work — all his activities come down to just turning one bolt. Moreover, the worker doesn’t use the product he creates because he can’t afford it.
The economic part of the problem affects us to a lesser extent: today we earn quite a lot compared to a worker in a factory (albeit less than a factory owner). But the psychological part is very relevant: developers often lose the meaningof their work. Their actions at work seem meaningless to them, they feel unnecessary, and they live an unhappy life. If your job is to complete a flow of tasks in Jira, if you don’t know why you perform this or that task, if every new day at work is the same as the previous one, are you that different from the factory worker?
Developing a sense of product ownership will allow you to cope with the psychological part of alienation from your work. Choosing a company that offers equity will also help with the socioeconomic one.
The value of your product
We have an interesting cognitive bias in our heads called the IKEA effect. The fact is that we value things much more if we had a hand in creating them. People are willing to pay more for a cupboard they build themselves, and cake mix sales go up if you have to add a real egg yourself.
The feeling of belonging and ownership of the product will make you appreciate it more, be proud of it, and therefore feel the importance and see the meaning of your work.
Motivation and types of people
Modern business often relies on carrots and sticks, although research shows these methods are unsuitable for creative work. People who feel competent, autonomous, and connected to each other work much more efficiently. They are also happier.
At the same time, there are differences between people; what Daniel Pink called Type X and Type I. Type X are people for whom extrinsic motivation is paramount: how much money they will earn and what rewards they will receive. People of Type I are primarily interested in internal motivation — satisfaction from work done. It doesn’t mean that Type I works “for food”, it means that after the basic needs are covered, money and fame cease to be their primary incentive.
Type X is predisposed to “type A behavior” — the desire to achieve constantly and a tendency to compete. Type I tends to “type B behavior” — a calm and deliberate life.
Where am I going with this? Research shows that both types of people perform equally well. But people with Type A behavior are more stressed, more often unhappy, and they’re also much more likely to die from heart disease:
No significant differences were found between Type A and B agents and three measures of sales performance and one measure of general job satisfaction. Type A behavior among the sample was associated with measures of stress and number of health complaints.
— Matteson M. Matteson, Michael T., John M. Ivancevich, and Samuel V. Smith. “Relation of Type A behavior to performance and satisfaction among sales personnel.” Journal of Vocational Behavior 25.2 (1984): 203–214.
Results revealed that JAS-defined Type A’s and Type B’s did not differ in their attributions for success, but Type A’s made more internal attributions for failure than did Type Bs. This attributional difference was due to the Type A’s tendency to attribute failure to a lack of ability.
— Musante, Linda, James M. MacDougall, and Theodore M. Dembroski. “The Type A behavior pattern and attributions for success and failure.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 10.4 (1984): 544–553.
Product ownership will allow you to:
- feel more competent because you not only know how to write code but also understand why to write it;
- get more autonomy because you are less tied to the person who sets your tasks. You will make many more decisions on your own if you understand what you’re doing and why;
- strengthen communication with other people because now the rest of the employees around you — sales, marketing, product managers, and support team are no longer strange people who ask for odd things. Now you know why they want the changes and speak the same language as them.
A sense of competence, greater autonomy, and a better understanding of the other people in the company will change your motivation and behavior towards Types I and B, respectively, and thus make your life calmer and happier. And at the same time, maybe save you from an early death.
What is the result? Focusing on product ownership will make you a more valuable professional and, most importantly, a happier person.
The manager should think about building a culture in the team that will not interfere with product ownership, or, even better, helps the team develop this feeling in themselves. So your developers will work better. And die less often :)
I will also note that when you own the product literally (by owning equity), it is much easier to feel involved. So, it would be best if you choose companies that are partially or wholly owned by employees. If you have founded your own company, consider sharing a part of it with the team: research and practice show that this path leads to success.
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