It is not uncommon to have two professions with similar job titles be confused: UX designers vs. product designers, psychiatrists vs. psychologists, project manager vs. program manager, and the list goes on. However, one of these has intrigued me for quite some time now: the product owner vs. product manager dilemma. I decided to dig deeper into these two distinct but interrelated careers, and this is what I learned.
I started my research by looking at how academics and industry experts defined both job titles.
- Product Manager: “Individual focused on the long-term vision for the product, on observing trends in the marketplace, on identifying new potential outcomes or themes to be supported by the product, and on ensuring the product meets the needs of the value stream(s) the product is involved with.” (PMI)
- Product Owner: “Individual responsible for maximizing the value of the product resulting from the work of the Development Team.” Additionally, their duties include clearly expressing Product Backlog items and optimizing the value of the work the Development Team performs. (Scrum)
Initially, I concluded that the main difference between both roles is that a product manager is more strategic while a product owner is more tactical. While the responsibilities of a product owner mostly include defining and prioritizing the requirements for a product, a product manager will perform a broader internal and external analysis to find how the product fits in the company’s strategic goals and competitive landscape in the long term. It is also worth noting that the product owner term originates from the SCRUM framework part of the Agile methodology as opposed to a product manager who can operate in any project management structure.
The theory was a good first step to conduct my research, but I wanted to know if the job titles were used interchangeably or if they had distinct characteristics in practice.
The next logical step in my research was to see how different the job postings were for each role.
The following is a product manager position at Snap Inc. (the corporation behind Snapchat) advertised on LinkedIn. The primary responsibilities outlined in the posting are that the successful candidate will collaborate with various stakeholders from engineers to designers to build products that are forward-looking and that bring high value to the organization. The main knowledge that the applicant should have are quantitative skills, strategic decision-making, the ability to work independently, and strong communication skills.
Here is a product owner posting from TouchBistro (a medium-size technology company focusing on POS systems) also advertised on LinkedIn. The main responsibilities for this job are to collaborate with various stakeholders to manage a product backlog comprised of requirements that align with the vision you defined for the product. The principal knowledge expected from candidates is analytical, problem-solving, communication, and leadership skills. It is also worth noting that they require the candidate to hold a Certified SCRUM Product Owner (CSPO) certification.
Comparing the two
Overall, both job descriptions outline very similar responsibilities for both roles. The essence of it is that you will need to work closely with other stakeholders to bring to life a product that you envisioned yourself and that aligns with the company’s strategic goals. However, the wording of the Product Owner posting suggested that the role is more technical, whereas the one for a Product Manager is more creative, although that might be due to the needs of both companies. In terms of the knowledge and assets that they must have, they were almost identical in both cases. The only real variance is that the Product Owner posting asked for certification and emphasized more the fact that you would be working in a SCRUM environment.
To conclude, my findings on the Product Owner vs. Product Manager confusion align between the theory and the practice. While a Product Owner is a more tactical individual that focuses on the details and technical requirements of the product, a Product Manager is a more strategic person that requires creativity and external analysis. A Product Owner is also a role ingrained in the SCRUM methodology, while a Product Manager can operate in any project management methodology.
Still, none of this matters. The name you give to a position is superficial. We’ve seen firms give ludicrous titles to their employees like Ios Ninja and Java Jedi. What really matters is the role this individual will have and the value they’ll bring to their organization and, while there are some differences between both, most of their responsibilities and assets overlap. So let’s stop focusing on what to call our employees, and start focusing on how we can enable them to have the largest impact.