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Career paths: What’s the difference between a product owner and a product manager?

Published March 6, 2024| minute read

    Two jobs with growing demand in the U.S. are product owner and product manager. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lumps these jobs under the umbrella of computer and information systems managers and expects these jobs to grow 15% between 2022 and 2032.

    These roles are typically found at technology companies or companies with some software product (which, in this day and age, many companies have). While the focus on products may sound broad (as there are many different kinds of products in the world), jobs with these titles tend to focus on software products.

    Another thing to note about the roles of product owner and product manager is that these positions are often confused, as they share some similarities but also have distinct differences.

    Continue reading to learn more about the two roles and what a career in each role might look like.

    What does a product owner do?

    Product owners typically work closely with software development teams to define and prioritize product feature improvements and changes and ensure that the development team works on the most valuable features that align with a product vision and business goals.

    Typical product owner responsibilities

    A product owner’s responsibilities may include:

    Defining the product vision and strategy

    Product owners typically work closely with business stakeholders to understand market needs, customer preferences, and business objectives. From there, product owners articulate a clear product vision and strategy that guides the team in building the right products.

    Managing the product backlog

    Product owners tend to create and maintain the product backlog, a prioritized list of features, enhancements, and fixes to the product or products being worked on. Product owners continuously refine and prioritize the backlog based on feedback, changes in the market, and business priorities.

    Collaborating with the development team

    Product owners typically work closely with a development team, providing requirements for the work being prioritized. Product owners typically offer feedback and make decisions to keep development teams on track.

    Ensuring customer value

    Product owners often advocate for the customer, ensuring the development team delivers features that provide value to the product’s users. They may seek feedback from customers and stakeholders to validate and refine the product’s direction.

    Examples of the work of a product owner

    For those not familiar with the work of a product owner, what they actually do daily isn't always straightforward. Here are some examples.

    • A product owner at a financial services company may manage a team of developers to migrate company data between programs to reduce costs annually. This employee may plan sprints for critical data projects and facilitate daily meetings.
    • A product owner at a travel arrangements company could be responsible for driving and maintaining a product backlog and evaluating the team's delivery to ensure functionality. This role may require the product owner to work with senior management to ensure alignment with business goals and objectives.
    • A product owner at a manufacturing company might manage collaboration across cross-functional teams and engage with stakeholders to understand requirements and business needs. This employee may lead a development team in planning and executing high-priority projects to drive strategy to align with long-term goals.

    What does a project manager do?

    The role of a product manager often encompasses a broader scope that goes beyond just working with a development team and incorporates a more strategic and holistic view of a product. Product managers tend to be responsible for guiding the entire lifecycle of a product.

    Typical project manager responsibilities

    A project manager’s responsibilities may include:

    Defining market and customer needs

    Product managers often conduct extensive market research, gather competitive landscapes to identify opportunities, define product strategies, and prioritize features and enhancements.

    Setting the product strategy and roadmap

    Product managers often create a comprehensive product strategy and a roadmap that aligns with a company’s overall business goals. They focus on the long-term vision and how the product will evolve to sustain and grow its market presence.

    Cross-functional leadership

    Product managers often work closely with various teams, including engineering, design, marketing, and sales, to ensure that the product is developed, positioned, and marketed effectively to meet customer needs and achieve business objectives.

    Product lifecycle management

    Product managers are responsible for managing the entire lifecycle of a product, from conception to launch to subsequent iterations. They analyze metrics, user feedback, and market trends to optimize the product and drive continuous improvement.

    Examples of the work of a product manager

    In the same vein as the role of a product owner, for those not familiar with the work of a product manager, what they actually do on a daily basis isn’t always clear. Here are some examples.

    • A product manager at a technology company may be responsible for defining products for either the customer or for internal use by employees at a company.  
    • A product manager in healthcare may be responsible for figuring out the needs of the members of the population they’re trying to serve to build a product roadmap. This can include hosting focus groups to conduct market research or identifying unsolved problems with a product for a specific population of users.
    • A product manager at an entertainment company may be responsible for planning and defining a go-to-market strategy for a product. This may require working with sales, marketing, and engineering teams.

    What are some differences between a product owner and a product manager?

    While a product owner and product manager often share some common goals, such as driving customer value and product success, there are distinct differences in their primary focus, responsibilities, and the scope of their work.

    Focus

    Product owners tend to focus on managing the product backlog and working closely with a development team to ensure the execution of features that deliver value to the customer. In contrast, the product manager may take a broader view, focusing on market needs, competitive positioning, and the overall strategy and direction of a product.

    Responsibilities

    A product owner’s responsibilities may be more operational and tactical, involving day-to-day activities such as backlog management, carefully defining the work needed for the development team, and team collaboration. A product manager’s responsibilities may be more strategic and encompass cross-functional leadership, market analysis, and long-term product planning.

    Scope

    The product owner’s scope may be confined to the immediate needs of the development team and the product backlog. In contrast, the product manager may have a broader scope that extends to overall product strategy, market positioning, and lifecycle management.

    Final thoughts

    While both product owners and product managers play crucial roles in driving the success of a product, it’s important to understand their distinct responsibilities and areas of focus as you seek and apply for jobs to best look for opportunities that align with your interests and skills.