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Product Owner vs Product Manager

Highlighting the main differences between Product Owners and Product Managers, including skills and key responsibilities

Bindiya Thakkar, Product Owner at Swedbank
Updated: Feb 4, 2022

Key responsibilities | Key skills | My experiences | Product Ops

These two roles may sound similar but they are very different with unique functions.

What does a product owner focus on?

Product Owners are more inwardly focused, working in greater detail with the engineering team than traditionally done in Product Management especially around developing stories and acceptance criteria.

What does a product manager focus on?

Product Managers tend to be more outwardly focused on the business case, portfolio management, full competitive analysis, success/failure analysis, forecasting, and end of life.

Differences between Product Owners and Product Managers

The difference in the role depends a lot on the size and structure of the organization. In a comparatively small organization where a team works on one single product, tries to optimize that product, the role of product owner and product manager can be filled in by one person.

Whereas in a bigger organization where one team is managing multiple products or multiple features of a big product there is a clear requirement of different roles and the different person filling in the shoes of these two roles.

The key factor here is time. If a product owner can handle managing the backlog, prioritizing all the stories, and attending all the scrum events being a customer representative in the development team, optimize the development, and still have some time at hand then they can also fulfil the shoes of a Product Manager for gathering insights, analysing market needs and creating product vision and product roadmap.

I have had both roles in my career. I have worked as both a Product Manager in a start-up which then grew up to be a mid-size corporate, and a Product Owner role in a big organization that has been around for 200 years.

Although the roles and responsibilities may vary from one organization to another there is some basic difference between the core functions of product owner role and product manager.

Product Owner is responsible for Product Development, working closely with the dev team (scrum team) to ensure that the right features/functionality are built in the most efficient ways.

Product Manager is responsible for the overall strategic vision of the product, making sure that the product is going in the right direction according to the market trend and consumer needs.

Key responsibilities for product owners and product managers (Top)

Product Owner respobsibilities:

  • Ensures that the backlog items are clearly prioritized to achieve the product goals
  • Optimizes the output of the scrum team
  • Ensures that the backlog is ready with clear tasks for development
  • Coveys the big product vision into small achievable stories
  • Ensures product quality
  • Demos the product to showcase the development
  • Works closely with the UI / UX designers

Product Manager respobsibilities:

  • Defines product roadmap and vision
  • Identifies the customer and the market needs and trends
  • Ensures budget security for the development of the product
  • Works with the marketing team to best launch the product for maximum effect
  • Manages stakeholders within and outside of the organization

Day to day interactions (Top)

The Product Owner mainly interacts with and focuses on the dev team including scrum master, system testers, programmers, stakeholders for demo and feedback, UX and UI designers.

Whereas, the Product Manager is mainly involved with marketing teams, sales, budgeting, customer care and R&D team depending on the scale of the organization.

Key skills for Product Owners and Product Managers(Top)

There are many common traits that are required by both of these roles like communications skills, empathy, leadership etc. there are few skill sets required specifically for each roles.

To be a product owner you need to be versatile and tactical since you are the one who understands the business and market needs. You are also responsible for creating and prioritizing the product backlog out of the product roadmap to get it ready for development in the most optimized and efficient way.

Whereas product managers are more strategic thinkers building the product vision and creating the roadmap to achieve the product vision. You are responsible for collecting user feedback, gathering the research and analyzing the market trends. Along with prioritizing the features according to market needs and demands.

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My experience working as a Product Manager and Product Owner (Top)

When I worked as Product Manager my days were filled with doing market research, identifying the next feature for our product. Prioritizing which feature should be built first among all the demands from users, stakeholders, market trends etc. Securing and allocating budgets for the prioritized features development. Since the organization was a mid size corporation I even participated in the sprint planning and represented the customer perspective to the development team. The dev ops manager in our team was responsible for efficiency of development and providing the dev team with correct tools and resources needed. My KPI was delivering successful user centric features which increased our NPS value and growth in the number of subscribers to our service.

Whereas in my capacity as a product owner my days are filled with planning, prioritizing backlog in the right order for the development team. Participating in user testing to identify the best user experience design. Coordinating with stakeholders to demo our ongoing development to secure the alignment between development and requirement. To attend all the scrum meetings and facilitate the brainstorming session for our UX/UI designers and engineers to come up with the most efficient, user friendly design for our features. My work is now evaluated based on the number of successful efficient deliveries that contribute to achieving our roadmap goals and milestones in our strategic initiatives.

Product Ops in Big Tech (Top)

In some organizations like Stripe and Uber there is another role combination Product Ops Manager / Program Manager along with Product Manager. Product Ops Manager is slightly a different role than Product Owner since along with supporting the development team with right tools to build, this role is also responsible for helping Product Manager with the right tools to gather data, facilitate user testing and market research. To be a Product Ops Manager one must acquire experience and in depth knowledge of the domain before, so they can provide the required support. Product Ops Manager is the person who makes it easier to build the thing. To do so there is a need for in -depth understanding of the area along with the knowledge of solutions that will help solve the pain or increase the efficiency of work in the area.

In Google, Facebook & Apple the roles are in combination of different levels of Product Manager, Product Solution Specialist and Product Ops Manager/ Program Manager in some departments distinguishing the different functions. The same responsibilities are further divided in more roles since the product area is huge and it is impossible for one role to fulfill all the responsibilities needed for product development.

Starting point as a Product Manager vs. a Product Owner

While starting your career in product management one can start from being an APM (Associate Product Manager) since, this role requires little to no experience in product management as such and gradually progress to being a Product Manager, Senior Product Manager, Product Director. One can jump to the PM role from marketing, data analytics, sales and many more existing functions in the different parts of organization.

Whereas for being a Product Owner there is a requirement of having some experience with the product development process such as software development experience, scrum experience, UX design or any other role in product team since there is a need of some level of detail knowledge in the domain.

Conclusion (Top)

Product management is still an evolving role and craft - which has lots of variations in the wild. The roles are new and the need for various sub-roles (e.g., product owner, product ops, etc.) depends entirely on the size and the structure of the organization.

As we saw, the same functions can confusingly have a variety of titles. And in some cases, the role of a product owner and a product manager can be filled in by one person depending on the organization's needs and gaps that need to be fully filled. The most important thing to remember is to identify what is the need of an organization and which skill sets will fulfil them. Mainly if you want to work with more detailed creation of the product or on a broad level defining the need of the product can help you decide which path you want to take in your product management journey.

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