What is the Difference between a Product Owner and Product Manager?

What is the Difference between a Product Owner and Product Manager?

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In an industry known for its flagrant use of buzzwords, is there any term more ubiquitous and perhaps meaningless than ‘product’ in the world of tech?

This confusion understandably extends to those who find the word ‘product’ in their job titles. The two most common (and confusing) are Product Owner and Product Manager.

These titles backed up one nonspecific word with another, and that creates an issue. Does ‘owner’ mean you have the rights to the product? Does ‘manager’ mean you book the product’s next world tour? Or decide which configuration is most likely to score against your product’s opponent?

The confusion isn’t helped by the fact that the terms often seem interchangeable within the industry, with a product manager at one company asked to do what might be expected of a product owner at another.

As Roman Pichler points out, much of the confusion rests in the fact that the Product Owner role originated in the scrum methodology, and was defined simply as ‘maximising the value of the product created.’ That’s an eerily similar job description to that of a Product Manager.

In an effort to clear these ever so muddied waters, we spoke to two experts with these exact titles. David Burson, the Senior Product Manager at Canva, and Imran Chowdhury, both a Product Manager and a Product Owner at Deputy. They both work in two of Australia’s fastest growing, product-based tech companies and might able to shine some light on the topic.

The difficulty with definitive definitions

That Dr. Seuss inspired subheading isn’t intended to make light of the fact that clear definitions, even to people who work in these roles, can be difficult to nail down.

“This is one of the things that makes the Product Manager hiring landscape so challenging at the moment,” says Burson. “The role of a Product Manager means something completely different from one company to the next.”

Product Director Eoin Redmond suggests that POs are more responsible for the dev side and have more of a short-term focus, while PMs are tasked with vision and road mapping and are left with a longer-term focus. But you’ll note that the comments section of the article is riddled with people saying ‘our company defines these roles in exactly the opposite way.’

Fun, right?

With a finger in each pie himself, Chowdhury’s view aligns itself with the Redmond position.

“Typically Product Managers look after the vision and roadmap [of a product] and determine which feature should be shipped next. They have a lens on the customer, the team and the business.

“Product Owners sit with the development team to ensure successful delivery of a particular
feature. They have more of a technical focus. The role involves being the decision maker on the functionality of features, writing user stories, managing the backlog, determining the sprints and iterations, and shipping within timeframes.”

Burson sees the confusion more in the sense of ownership and a misunderstanding of the role of a traditional manager highlighting: “The Product Manager role implies that it comes with a sense of implied authority, when in fact you have zero. In most companies, PMs have no direct reports and generally are often not even the most knowledgeable in the room on any given topic.

What Does Each Role Look Like Day-To-Day?

Working with the personal experiences of Chowdhury and Burson, we asked what’s involved in a normal day for a PM or PO.

“At Deputy,” says Chowdhury, “my role is a fusion of a PM and PO responsibilities. Essentially I look after the roadmap, but I’m also responsible for the delivery of its features. This involves sitting closely with Design, Development and Quality Assurance to ensure everyone is clear on the scope, and that we hit the set timeframe for delivery.”

Chowdhury’s daily responsibilities are thus many and varied, and include:

  • Running the scrum
  • Tracking the status of each feature release
  • Clearing roadblocks for the engineering team
  • Making decisions on functionality
  • Prioritising tickets or backlogging them for later sprints
  • Reading and sorting through customer feature requests
  • Understanding how the product can help internal teams win deals (Sales) or solve customer problems (CX)
  • Scanning competitor websites, blogs & marketing collateral to keep a pulse on what’s happening in the landscape.

As a Senior Product Manager, Burson has a slightly more focused set of responsibilities but offers up an idea of what those new to the job can expect to be faced with on a daily basis.

“First and foremost the PM should be focusing efforts on ensuring the product team is equipped for success,” he says. Over and above that, Burson believes that time should be spent in equal parts on:

  • Talking to and understanding the user
  • Interpreting and analysing product data
  • Communicating closely with leadership and the rest of the business to ensure that the most important business problems are being solved.
  • Finding time in all of that to explore new opportunities and validate promising ideas.

In short, the ‘management’ aspects of both the Product Owner and Product Manager roles are somewhat similar. The key stand out differences being the management mindset is more concentrated short-term development for the Product Owners and around big-picture concerns for the Product Manager.  

The Traits of Great PMs and POs

Armed with a loose definition of both roles and what is expected of those who fill them, what characteristics must a successful Product Owner and Product Manager possess if they’re hoping to achieve long-lasting success?

Desirable Product Manager traits, points out Burson, can be just as difficult to define as the role itself.

“The ability to synthesise the sometimes competing wishes and opinions of both leadership and incredibly smart peers into a solution that everyone can rally behind is an incredibly intangible thing, yet without [that talent], being a PM is almost impossible.

“Being a strong all-rounder is very important. When you spend your days bouncing from discussion to discussion with engineers, designers, marketers and business leadership, you have to be able to communicate with each of these peers fluently, allowing both of you to agree on an outcome and move forward.”

“As a PM, you live and die, not by your ability to dictate but your ability to facilitate & communicate,” he states.

Chowdhury dot points a few desirable traits, saying that a good PO:

  • Can make decisions and doesn’t sit on the fence.
  • Demonstrates that decisions are also not made in a vacuum; that there are stakeholders in mind.
  • Has empathy for customers.
  • Doesn’t laugh at feature requests nor get too excited by them.
  • Can determine how to build a request with the highest penetration of users in mind, rather than a single customer.
  • Has a genuine passion for tech.
  • Is charismatic enough to motivate tech teams to perform to their full potential, but without being a slave driver.
  • Has a can-do, positive attitude.
  • Demonstrates that they are willing to get their hands dirty; will do whatever it takes to empower the team and enable it to perform.

While Burson and Chowdhury have extensive experience in the field, such are the vagaries of PM and PO roles from company to company that the only way to really succeed is by learning the particulars of each business’s definition, and by gaining real-world experience.

Until such time as hard and fast definitions of each role are agreed upon within the industry, professionals must remain flexible, adaptable, and resilient to survive. And in reality, that’s not such a bad thing at all.

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