What’s the deal w/ Product Owners & Product Managers?

On Twitter, I had created a post where I was describing the difference between a Product Owner (PO) and a Product Manager (PM) in a high-level fashion for a lay audience.

(Background: I currently do both roles at my company)

This received quite a few number of responses where people were mentioning “Product-specific” terms such as roadmaps, backlogs, and so on.

My intention was not to go into depth per each role, because Twitter obviously has a character limit, but to word it in a easy-to-understand way with visual terminology. However, some people took it upon themselves to “mansplain” the difference.

So, I decided to finally take digits to keys and type out, in detail, the deltas between each role if you are interested in pursuing one or the other but do not know where to start. Hopefully this will also assist when looking at job descriptions, because some organizations truly do not know the difference and use both roles interchangeably.

The Product Owner (PO):

Going back to my tweet, think of the Product Owner as someone who is obsessed with the present. 🎁

No, not that kind of present, but “in the now.”

They work very closely with Product Managers to assist in defining the solution. In other words, What is it that we will be building for our customers?

This is where the PO asks the PM many, many questions concerning the new or revamped feature. They will have a pre-planning session to chat about what the MVP looks like (Minimum Viable Product), requirements, wireframes (if applicable), and a rough idea of the timelines.

The PO then takes that information to create Epics and User Stories. User Stories typically follow a pattern such as, “As a user, I want to do this, in order to achieve that.” This isn’t a hard and fast rule, at my company we simply write an “Ask” statement which is followed by Acceptance Criteria. The ACs can also follow a pattern such as a “Given, When, Then” logic. For example, picture the user moving through the platform. The Given can show which page they are currently on, the When can be a mouse click or action, and the Then is what occurs (or what should occur) afterwards.

I won’t go into grave detail, but after all the necessary items are in place, a planning and grooming session occurs with Engineers, Project Managers, and the UX/UI team. At a high-level, they are ensuring there are no missing dependencies and/or limitations to what is being presented. This can look very different at many different organizations, but the goal is to ensure that the designs are in place, the language is complete, and the Engineers are able to move forward.

The Project Manager and PO typically work together to ensure all the necessary stories are in the Backlog, which can then be assigned or picked to the necessary Engineers. This process is on a never-ending repeat during the sprints until all items are complete.

To recap these are the common PO tasks:

  1. Creating Epics and User Stories
  2. Prioritizing the User Stories
  3. Managing the Backlog
  4. Removing any Blockers (if there are no Scrum Masters at your company)

If you are at a smaller company, you may wear many hats such as creating Release Notes, setting up meetings with the internal team, and being tasked with taking notes and performing any action items at the close of the meeting.

The point is that the PO works with an internal team and is focused on the “right now.” Some may argue that the PO is a “role” and not a “title.” However, I have seen companies that do not even use scrum, but still have POs. I’ve also seen where a “Technical Product Manager” is really a PO. I am hopeful the above list may assist in deciphering which position you are truly applying for when you compare it to a traditional Product Manager.

The Product Manager (PM):

The Product Manager is truly focused on the future. 🚀

They want to envision themselves in the shoes of their customers. They do not necessarily want to focus on just solutions, but the problems that are occurring day-to-day and which ones seem to be giving their clients the most frustrations.

They work with both internal and external stakeholders. They have discovery sessions with the customer to gain empathy and understanding. Roadmaps seem to be their second language as they start to uncover what can be built now, in the next few quarters, or even a year from now.

If the company does not have a PO, the PM will then need to ensure those duties mentioned above are complete with regards to the Epic and User Story creation.

The PM is laser-focused on the entire Product Life Cycle and seems to have to communicate with almost every department outside of Product in order to be successful. These departments can include: Sales, Marketing, Customer Success, Legal, Development, QA, Security, and Finance.

To recap these are the common PM tasks:

  1. Product Vision
  2. Product Discovery
  3. Product Roadmaps
  4. Cross-Functional Communication
  5. External / Internal Stakeholder Interaction
  6. Platform Demos to varied Audiences
  7. Go-To-Market Activities

The point is that the PM works with an internal and external team and is focused on the “crystal ball.” They are knowledgeable about all aspects of their customers and want to lessen their pains. Again, I am hopeful that if you were to look at a job description now, you could easily tell if the company truly would like to hire a PO or a PM.

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Originally from Philadelphia, I have a Rocky Balboa mentality. Product Manager & DEI Advocate by day / Community Manager & Graduate student by night.

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Eva Beasley

Eva Beasley

Originally from Philadelphia, I have a Rocky Balboa mentality. Product Manager & DEI Advocate by day / Community Manager & Graduate student by night.

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