There’s a lot of confusion around product management job titles, seniority, and hierarchy. This makes it hard to compare jobs, plan your career, and attract the right talent to your team. A standard is emerging from most successful product teams and organisations that can serve as a template for your own:
Product management career ladder
Associate Product Manager
This is an entry-level position, for someone who is brand new to the role. It also has a specific connotation with an associate product manager (APM) program. This is a common rotational apprenticeship program in larger companies like Google and Facebook. The typical APM is a recent graduate. The aim—similar to most apprenticeships—is to develop these candidates into full-time positions through a combination of training and hands-on involvement with real projects.
The Product Managers are essentially ‘waterfalling’ down the requirements to them and the teams are not allowed to prove if these are the right things to build or not. No one is doing validation work.” —Melissa Perri, Product Manager vs. The feature factory. What’s described above is something many call “the feature.
Junior Product Manager
A junior product manager is also new to the role but doesn’t require as much hands-on training as an associate product manager. They operate independently with a product development team, maybe on a smaller product or area, and under the leadership and mentorship of a more senior product manager. A junior product manager typically has some work experience under their belt already and can come from any background. Engineering, design, or business are the most common backgrounds. Some of the best product managers out there have come from customer support, QA, or business analyst roles.
The Product Owner role is a much younger one, born from the Agile approach. That gives a good Product Owner an advantage in flexible and complex systems. He is used to acting based on changing conditions and current requirements, instead of set goals and long-term plans. Many people tend to use the terms product manager and product owner interchangeably. This could be due to the abundance of startups and small companies, where the product owner role often includes the product manager role. However, if we consider the product owner vs. Product manager narrative, there are some key differences. Product Manager Once the product owner establishes the project's goal, product managers guide the development process from conception to release. Product managers have thorough product expertise and work closely with engineering and design teams.
The most common job title of a product manager can span a wide gamut of experience, responsibility, and skills. Broadly this is someone who operates independently, leads the work of a product development team, and is responsible for a product or customer journey. Because it’s the most common title, it’s important to consider what product they manage. For example, if they’re a product manager for Facebook’s news feed and impact billions of users, they’re probably more senior and experienced than a product manager at a brand new startup.
Senior Product Manager
A senior product manager does the same thing as a product manager but has a senior title either in recognition of their contributions, the relative importance of their product, or reflects the fact that they also spend time mentoring junior product managers. In some organisations, this is a hybrid role. The Senior Product Manager is hands-on with a product and also has some line-management responsibilities.
Product Lead / Lead Product Manager
This is a newer role, and usually a very senior product manager who is responsible for a critical product in the company. This can be equivalent in rank to a Senior Product Manager through to a VP Product. The difference is they are not managing other product managers at all — they are simply exceptional product managers who want to stay hands-on and leave people management to others.
In many ways, this is similar to the Architect track in engineering (in contrast to the CTO track), and something we should encourage more. Just because you’re a great product manager and want to advance in your career, it doesn’t mean you should have to move away from being a hands-on product manager to a leader of other product managers. Some people are just better suited to one path than the other. Recognising who is great at leadership and who is great at building amazing products is equally important and valuable to an organisation.
Product Director / Group Product Manager
A Product Director or Group Product Manager is where the role starts to change. It goes from an individual contributor who owns a product and works hands-on with engineering and design teams, to someone who has stepped back from the day-to-day to focus on leading other product managers and working on alignment. This is where soft skills around people management become a critical part of the job — managing people is even harder than managing products!
VP Product / Head of Product
This is similar to a Director, but common in larger companies with more products and management layers, or as the most senior product person in a startup. This role is all about managing other product managers. Additionally, a VP will usually be responsible for managing a team budget — some organisations even throw in P&L responsibility.
In many startups, this is called a Head of Product but I’m not personally a fan of that title as there’s no way to promote a Head of Product — they’re already the Head!
CPO / Chief Product Officer
A Chief Product Officer is the most senior product person in an organisation. They usually manage more than one team of product managers and represent product in the C-suite or management team. They’re responsible for overall product strategy and alignment within their teams and with other parts of the organisation.
The difference between a VP Product and CPO in smaller companies isn’t huge, and the title is used interchangeably for the most senior product person in the company. But in larger organisations that have both roles, we can again borrow from our engineering friends to clarify the difference. The VP Product is responsible for the team, the processes, and getting things done, while the CPO is responsible for the product vision, product architecture, and overall organisational alignment.
One size does not fit all
Most companies don’t need all these tiers of course, so it’s important to think about how this fits into your organisation. At a startup, you might have a single Product Manager. As you grow, a couple of Product Managers could report to a Head of Product/VP Product. Only as the company grows and the suite of products grows do you need to consider more layers. As with anything else in product, these team structures and tiers should be aligned with customer needs. This way, you can incentivise and organise teams in alignment with your company goals.
Product Owner ≠ Product Manager
Product Owner is a job role that came out of Agile and Scrum, and although many organisations use it as a job title that is interchangeable with Product Manager, it’s not correct. In Scrum, the Product Owner is defined as the person who is responsible for grooming the backlog. While in Agile it’s defined as the representative of the business, and neither entirely describe the full breadth of a Product Manager’s responsibilities.
Product Owner is a role you play in an Agile team, whereas a Product Manager is the job title of someone responsible for a product and its outcome on the customer and the business.
Now a lot of Product Owners out there are great Product Managers, and they should just change their title. But a fair number of Product Owners have simply completed a certified Scrum product owner course and now think they’re equivalent to a Product Manager. Doing so sets them up to fail as they never consider the broader role. So if you’re tasking a Product Owner with the broader product management responsibilities, make sure you provide the training they need to master the full breadth of the role (and then change their title).
Structure = Clarity
Having clear and common structures for product management job titles in our teams will help us all better understand our careers, roles, and teams. This structure should provide the right foundation for you and your teams to ask: Do your team’s titles accurately reflect their jobs? Are they clear enough that applicants looking at your open vacancies know what you’re hiring for and if the job is for them? Or do you need to rethink your structure to maximise clarity?
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Understanding the Product Manager and the Product Owner Role
With the wide scale adoption of Agile methods amongst software development teams, understanding the difference between the Product Manager and the Product Owner role is a frequent discussion topic in our Agile training course. To begin to explain the topic requires some framing.
First, we will look at Product Manager and Product Owner as roles, not titles.
The responsibilities of Product Managers and Product Owners vary widely by title and are often historic artifacts of a company’s heritage. Thus, many Product Owners perform Product Management responsibilities and many Product Managers perform Product Ownership responsibilities. In fact, one can perform both roles simultaneously. We will not even get into Business Analyst and Project Managers whose jobs often overlap as well.
Second, for the purpose of this post, we will define the Product Owner role as described in Scrum and the Scrum Guide.
Product Owner is a defined role in the Scrum framework and has specific responsibilities and authority. The Product Owner is responsible for the success of the product by maximizing the output of the development team.
The Product Owner is the sole person responsible for ordering the product backlog, which includes:
- Clearly expressing the product backlog items
- Ordering the items in the product backlog to best achieve goals and missions
- Optimizing the value of the work the development team performs
- Ensuring that the product backlog is visible, transparent, and clear to all
- Shows what the Scrum Team will work on next
To be a Product Owner, one must fulfill all of the listed responsibilities. The Product Owner may also perform many more responsibilities than listed above, but at a minimum the Product Owner MUST perform those five.
In contrast, a Product Manager may perform any subset of tasks within the discipline of Product Management.
These include business case development; being the expert on the market and the customer; product strategy, roadmap development, and positioning; whole product definition; feature, schedule, and cost tradeoffs; and value delivery through the ecosystem.
There is, however, no single task that defines or is guaranteed to be shared between all Product Managers.
Thus, unlike a Product Owner that needs to perform ALL responsibilities in a narrowly defined list to be performing a Product Owner role, a Product Manager may perform ANY of the responsibilities in a broadly defined list and still be considered a Product Manager.
Comparing the responsibilities, 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.
Likewise, Product Managers tend to be more outwardly focused on the business case, portfolio management, full competitive analysis, win/loss analysis, forecasting, and end of life.
The roles tend to overlap in the areas of visioning and roadmaps, persona development, needs and feature definition, positioning, and defect management.
Because of this, although both the Product Manager and Product Owner are responsible for the business success of the product, the Product Owner’s main “levers” of influence are features and the order in which they are developed. A Product Manager has the additional “business” levers, often considered part of the whole product such as bundling, pricing, training, service levels, and channel offerings.
A final and subtler point is the measure of success.
A Product Owner’s job is to optimize value created by the development team, and to ensure the features of the product meet the customer’s need. Product Managers are responsible for the business case and ensuring that it is realized.
Of the two, Product Managers are more likely to advocate for funding.
Program Manager Vs Product Owner
Their conversation with management is “if you give me this funding, I will deliver you this business result.”
The Product Owner is more likely to be working on an approved project.
Their conversation with management is “If you are going to spend that money, I will ensure you get the most for your engineering dollar.”
In closing, it is important to realize the full spectrum of responsibilities that Product Managers and Product Owners perform are necessary for product success and each must be “owned” by someone who has both the time and skill set to manage them.
Watch this video from our Agile Excellence for Product Managers and Product Owners Online Course.
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Meet the Author
Greg Cohen is a 15-year Product Management veteran with extensive experience and knowledge of Agile development, a Certified Scrum Master, and former President of the Silicon Valley Product Management Association. He has worked and consulted with venture startups and large companies alike, and has trained Product Managers and Product Owners throughout the world on Agile development.
Greg is the author of the 280 Group’s Agile course as well as the best-selling Agile Excellence for Product Managers book.
Senior Principal Consultant and Trainer