Deciding on whether to hire a product manager or a product owner rests on a business’ understanding of both roles and what each player brings to the team. It also depends on the business’ wage budget.
But besides a Scrum team and slightly differing remunerations, what else differentiates a product manager from a product owner?
Who are product managers and product owners anyway? In this article, I will draw from my years of industry experience to tell you all you need to know about these roles and how you, too, can carve out a career in either niche.
Who is a Product Manager?
A product manager wears many user-centric hats. They hold the vision about a product and oversee the deployment of resources towards executing that vision.
While the role of a product manager is mainly dependent on the size of the company and what stage of development the product has reached, there are underlying roles every product manager must play. These include:
Setting up the vision and the strategy for the product
Overseeing market and user research
Identifying and prioritising opportunities
Engaging in internal and external correspondence with stakeholders
Ben Aston, an online media entrepreneur and founder of Black + White Zebra, put it succinctly when he said, “[Product managers] work with the project manager along with other team members to get to a successful product launch.”
Who is a Product Owner?
On the surface, the title “product owner” might appear to be the exclusive preserve of the product’s founder.
This misconception has led many people to believe that a product founder is higher up the hierarchy than the product manager. They couldn’t be farther from the truth.
In reality, a product owner complements the product manager in companies where the services of both professionals are needed.
This is especially found in companies where the Agile methodology is employed during the product development life cycle. In fact, the name “product owner” comes from Scrum, a framework for building and sustaining complex products.
A product owner does not even need a product manager in some instances. Because the product owner role is Scrum-specific, the product owner relies on and works most closely with a small team called the Scrum team.
This includes the developers, the scrum master, and of course, the product owner.
The product owner performs the following essential roles:
Maps out a sustainable success plan
Takes ownership of the team’s backlog and work fulfilment
Gets involved in daily team activities, roles, and responsibilities
Product Manager vs Product Owner
The expectations of a product manager can be differentiated against those of a product owner on three broad metrics: the scope of their involvement, the artefacts involved in the development process, and the ceremonies or functions that are performed by either of these professionals.
The scope of a product manager’s involvement in developing a product revolves around the Who, the What, and the Why of a product.
Depending on the size of the product, a product manager’s role may either be broad or narrow.
Either way, the product manager is the face of the product development team. They are the main point of correspondence with the user and stakeholders.
They also define what the product’s success looks like and determine its marketing efforts.
The scope of the product owner’s role is in overseeing day-to-day operations. They serve in a capacity that focuses on the How of the product, as opposed to the Who, What, and Why the underscores the product manager’s role.
The product owner is very user-centric, collating users’ stories and formulating practical plans to meet user needs.
Being a member of the Scrum team, the product owner must be adept at implementing the agile methodology in executing the product plan.
They also remain in close communication with the rest of the scrum team, encouraging creativity and risk-taking.
Artefacts are items that spring into existence due to the product development process. They include things like the product roadmap, the product and sprint backlogs, etc.
Both the product manager and the product owner are responsible for artefacts, but each professional’s artefacts differ.
The product manager is responsible for product artefacts like the product roadmap, the product vision card, and the product requirement document.
The product roadmap sets the tone for the product’s vision and creates a clear pathway for the rest of the team to align with the product’s vision.
The product owner is responsible for developing and managing artefacts like the sprint backlog and the product backlog.
The product backlog is a high-priority list drawn out of the product roadmap containing tasks for the development team.
The purpose of keeping a well-organised product backlog is to aid the team in working together more efficiently.
Ceremonies are team activities engaged at different stages of the product development process. Product managers lead the team during ceremonies like product discovery.
They also oversee product management discussions and brainstorming sessions for developing product strategy ideas.
The product owner is heavily involved in many daily ceremonies throughout the course of the product development life cycle.
This makes a product owner’s involvement in product ceremonies more frequent and more active than that of a product manager.
Some of these ceremonies include sprint planning and sprint review, and backlog grooming.
Product Manager vs Product Owner Skill Set
The skills required to become a product manager as opposed to a product owner are only marginally different.
This is why many companies, especially smaller ones with a limited scope and budget, would often hire one individual to fill both the role of a product manager and a product owner.
A product owner needs to be an excellent listener and communicator. This owes to the fact that product owners must remain in constant correspondence with the team of developers, designers, and quality assurance staff.
A product manager needs excellent business management and development skills. As Douglas L. Ringer, a senior product manager at TopTal put it, “A product owner will help you build a new product, but if you’re focused on building a business around that product, you need a product manager.”
Product Manager vs Product Owner Salary
According to Glassdoor, an American website for job seekers and recruiters, the average annual salary of a product owner is $115,289. For product managers, the average annual income is about $117,375.
Given that the average income in the United States is about $47,000 per year, according to Zippia, these figures are quite outstanding.
My Experience as a Product Manager and a Product Owner
In my first couple of months as a product manager, I did not fully understand my role in the team and ended up working both as a product manager and as a product owner.
I was an active freelancer at the time, and it wasn’t until a few months after I began working as a product manager that I realised that my employers may not even have needed a product manager after all.
In retrospect, I understand now that many employers themselves do not know exactly what they need. Many end up hiring a product manager when what they need is a product owner and vice versa.
While the occurrence of these conflated hirings is less prominent today, when I first started out seven years ago, it was a far too common issue.
This is due, in part, to the fact that the role of the product owner only started getting defined within the last few years.
Also, founders have only just begun to fully grasp the importance of what I call a “fine differentiation of roles” for their companies.
This is, essentially, the creation of specialised teams to support professionals in roles where responsibilities might overlap, such as in the product manager and product owner roles.
At the time, even as a product manager, I would constantly find myself working closely with the engineering team, working on the product backlog, and working on the features of the products—tasks that mainly should have been the product owner’s job.
Nonetheless, these earlier experiences helped me build a robust portfolio as a product manager and product owner.
How To Know If You Need a Product Manager or a Product Owner
To help companies and hiring managers understand what professionals to hire during product development, it is imperative to do some introspection.
The first point of introspection is understanding your desired results for your product. Douglas Ringer’s words ring true here when he talked about hiring a product manager when the goal is building a business around your product.
After thinking critically about your product outcomes, the next step is to evaluate the status quo. Who is currently doing what at the company?
What’s your decision-making process like? What are the challenges the key players in the company are facing? The answers to these questions will determine if you need a product manager or a product owner.
Lastly, what stage of the product development life cycle is your company currently in? Thinking about this is important because, depending on how far along your product is, you may only need a product manager or a product owner, but not both.
The process of deciding who to hire between a product manager and a product owner may be daunting. In fact, I’d say it’s more philosophical than many hiring managers may realise.
Considerations need to be made about the product’s vision, the business’s values, and what is best for the end-user.
At a Glance: Product Manager vs Product Owner
Having gone through the details about the product owner and product manager job description, the table below gives a brief overview of the differentiating factors between these two professionals:
Product managers and product owners are like different sides of the same coin.
The debate about whether a product manager can double as a product owner will probably go on for a long time because of the similarities inherent in both roles.
Nonetheless, it is crucial to understand and appreciate the distinct features of both positions.
My notable experiences both as a product manager and a product owner have exposed me to many industry intricacies about both roles.
One of such notable periods in my career was my time at Fybrr, where I doubled as a product manager and a product owner.
I was responsible for ideation, prototyping, process documentation and the end-to-end development lifecycle.
This, and other similar experiences, have helped me develop a firm understanding of both jobs. So whether you intend to go into the industry to work as a professional products person or to hire professional products people, understanding the points of convergence and divergence between both roles is crucial in making the best decisions possible.
Featured Image: Jide Williams, a Tech Professional with a Product Development Background