Product owner vs product manager – What’s the difference?

Product owner vs product manager – What’s the difference?

Digitalization has ushered in many new professions and changed many pre-existing ones. This also rings true for product-related jobs: product managers and product owners are multidisciplinary roles that create new products and improve ones that already exist. They do this by acting like a conductor of an orchestra or a link between different areas of a company. But, do you actually know what’s the difference between them?

Responsibilities: from ensuring teams run like clockwork to constantly being on the lookout for improvements

Product managers and product owners share the same field of work: the product. Both roles require a profound knowledge of the business and a high capacity to make the right decisions given that the success of the product they’re working on will depend on these very decisions. However, there are certain responsibilities and skills that set these two roles apart.

Product manager: align solutions with business objectives

The product manager is in charge of improving the company’s existing products – or creating new ones. They need to understand what problems the customers are having when they’re using any product if they are to identify the right solution and ultimately oversee its development and implementation.

  • They are in constant contact with the customers in order to detect ways of improving the product.
  • They track the whole development process regarding solutions and improvements, all the way from designing them to implementing them – and subsequently evaluating them.
  • They communicate with all the links in the chain that are needed to execute those solutions, all the way from the customers to the developers, the designers, the legal team, etc.

Other responsibilities include challenging every decision and identifying the reason for any action undertaken to determine whether a certain decision is the right one before starting it. In the words of Carlos Beneyto, product manager at Creditas, a financial technology company, a product manager’s role is to also “eliminate any uncertainty.” They are responsible for eliminating any problems the customer has without losing sight of the company’s business objectives.

Product owner: the heart of the customer-company-team trinity

The product owner looks after one or several company products. They are in charge of overseeing their ongoing improvements – always ensuring that these are not at odds with the company’s overall vision. Product owners have a more technical background given that they need to understand the language and technical aspects so they can lead their team when tackling the tasks in hand.

  • They listen to the needs expressed by all stakeholders so they can identify solutions.
  • They act as a shield between the rest of the company and their team. They consolidate requests from other departments and protect their team members from any interruptions or abrupt changes while working. The product owner is at the heart of the trinity comprising their team, other executives and the customers.
  • They manage several members from the technical team making sure that any new developments that will improve the product for the customer are implemented, as well as prioritizing tasks.

Depending on the product owner’s skills, and the size and resources of the company, sometimes they have to perform certain tasks that another team member would usually do. This is true of Jaume Serra, product owner at TimingSense. “If a design issue crops up and I can quickly resolve it myself, I open up Photoshop and I spare myself the trouble of annoying the designer,” he says. In larger companies, this approach is less likely. Commenting on his role at the heart of the customer-company-team trinity, Serra says, “You can’t fully satisfy any stakeholder because this often means leaving the other stakeholders unsatisfied, or at least one of them. You have to find a balance.”

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What tribes have them?

The type of companies where we find these roles partly depends on how developed the companies are. Companies often hire people for these roles only when they are of a certain size – not during the initial stages or when turnover is low, which is when they prioritize engineers and sales agents. All this aside, product managers and product owners can be found both in big companies and start-ups – but less so in companies whose product portfolios don’t include at least one completely digital product.

Often, start-ups commit to a product manager only after they’ve reached a certain level, but never in the early days. However, when they do, the product manager becomes a differentiating asset,” explains Beneyto, adding that not all companies need a product manager or a product owner. Although not all start-ups are the same, as might be expected, this changes with companies whose product is at the heart of their business, such as Uber, Wise or Airbnb. According to Beneyto, “If you’ve already identified your business model and you don’t need to stray from it, it makes sense to focus on working with a product owner, but if you have many uncertainties, it can make more sense to work with a product manager as they’ll tackle them while striving to meet the business objectives.”

Similarly, depending on the size of the company, there may be a product manager for each of the products or just one looking after all of them. Likewise, there may be a product owner who works exclusively in the role or they may have to combine the role with other tasks if necessary. In the case of start-ups, companies often understand the need for these positions but don’t have the resources. Therefore, it’s quite common to have one person who performs both roles and is responsible for all product-related issues.

Skills: soft skills to the front

Product manager

A product manager should have multidisciplinary skills given that their responsibilities call for a person who is highly organized and capable of handling multiple requests at the same time. However, they also have to get on well with all the members of the team. This means that they need to have:

  • Excellent organizational skills when processing requests and comments about the product coming in from various fronts.

  • Great communication skills for dealing with other members of the company and responding appropriately and swiftly to their requests and comments.

  • An analytical eye so they can make data-led decisions.

  • Empathy so that they can understand the customer, not just listening to them but also interpreting nonverbal communication so they can perfectly understand their emotional bond with the product.

  • Sufficient expertise in areas such as marketing, business development, programming, design, so they can scrutinize any deadlines being considered.

  • A perfectionist’s nature.

Beneyto cites the following example: “Imagine you’re told that adding a payment button is going to take three months. If you have no idea about web development, you might think this is a long time to just integrate a single button – especially if you’ve got similar ones already. You might think it’s something that’s done in an afternoon. However, if you understand the protocols relating to security, risk prevention and such like, you realize that three months is an acceptable time frame.”

With regards to the customer’s emotional bond with the product, he points out that it’s “crucial for the product manager to get out and physically be with the customer and read their emotions.” Beneyto adds: “A lot of information gets lost when using web forms and such like. It’s also important to know how to say ‘no’ to many requests given that they come from a diverse range of stakeholders and, if you don’t know how to deal with them, you can end up running behind schedule.

Product owner

As we’ve mentioned, a product owner has a more technical background by definition given that they work closely with a development team. However, this doesn’t mean they can lose sight of the company’s vision. These are the skills that are required:

  • Profound understanding of technical language and an ability to estimate the time needed to meet every single request – with a view to prioritizing them.

  • Ability to anticipate what repercussions each launched improvement will have.

  • Leadership to be able to detect how the team is emotionally and act accordingly.

  • An ongoing self-critical and analytical mindset for detecting points that can be improved with the product.

  • An ability to deal with all sorts of customer relations.

This last point was what initially put Serra’s manager off from promoting him to product owner. “He was skeptical given that I had no experience dealing with clients, but when he saw that I got on well with them, he delegated the whole task to me,” he says.

Regarding the need to gauge his team on an emotional level, Serra says that at times you have to “act like a psychologist.” He adds, “If you can see your workers are burnt out. You have to adapt.

Pros and cons

Just like (almost) everything in life, both roles have their advantages and disadvantages. With the help of Beneyto’s and Serra’s expertise, we’ve provided a short round-up in case you’re thinking of pursuing one of these roles:

Product manager

Pros:

  • This post offers a snapshot of the company’s current situation. You get to know the sales, the technology, the business objectives. You acquire a very strategic vision, which can be useful if you’re looking to set up your own business in the future.

  • You nurture a close relationship with the customer – possibly more than any other team member.

  • You work alongside many different people given that the job tracks the whole product cycle. So you make a lot of contacts and gain insights throughout your career.

Cons:

  • Many start-ups don’t consider hiring a product manager until they’ve grown and have a large budget and workforce.

  • When things go well, the thanks often go to the team. However, when things go wrong, the product manager’s name is often the first to be mentioned.

  • It’s difficult to manage relationships with other members of the company: they have to be close but not too close so your authority is diminished.

  • Your boss – in practical terms – is the customer, not the business or the team, and having to lobby on their behalf within the company can take its toll.

Product owner

Pros:

  • You never share the position: the product owner is, by definition, a one-person job, which helps you to make decisions swiftly and prioritize tasks whereby you ultimately have the final say.

  • You can streamline the work by seeing to smaller technical tasks without delaying deadlines or stressing out your team given that you have the necessary expertise.

  • Your role means that you have daily meetings, and this makes for a better and more fluid relationship with the rest of the team.

Cons:

  • In many ways, you have to leave decisions, such as when sprints should take place or how to tackle tasks, up to the development team – even though your natural instincts may be to control those aspects.

  • You act like a “psychologist” (stress on the inverted commas there) for your team.

  • At the beginning of every project, it can be difficult to truly estimate the time that each task will take.

How to choose which role is for you?

Both a product manager and a product owner strive to create the best possible product or to improve the pre-existing ones, but they do so in different ways. If you’re thinking about steering your career towards one of these roles, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How vast is your technical expertise? (Or how vast do you think it could be if you needed to improve it?) If you’re capable of developing and designing software, it may be worth going for the role of product owner. If you have a more superficial knowledge and you’re limited to understanding what’s being explained to you and not working with it, you’re more suited to the role of product manager.

  • Do you want to be at the helm of a small technical team? Or do you want to be dealing with a lot of different people within a company? This can be the key for determining the role you’d perform better and be happier in. If your answer is ‘yes’ to the first question: product owner. If it’s a ‘yes’ to the second: product manager.

  • What’s your relationship like with the customer? If you’re willing for the customer to be your boss and answer to them, and even prioritize them above (nearly) everyone else, opt for product manager. If you don’t want to be so involved with the client on a daily basis, it’s probably better to be a product owner.

Melissa Perri, one of the world’s most highly respected product managers, once said that her job is essentially “the art of solving your customer’s problems to reach your business objectives.” On the other hand, Sarah Petit, product owner at Popcarte, told us, “You must be able to challenge yourself, have a creative side, know how to make decisions and have solid analytical skills.” It’s these two sentences that sum up the purpose and mission of these professions.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

Translated by Jamie Broadway

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Redactor freelance especializado en tecnología y startups

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