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Last updated on 9/10/20

Compare product manager and product owner

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Remember, we discussed the definition of a product manager as "someone who helps teams to ship products that customers love, as well as helps the business to achieve its strategic objectives."

One of the most common questions asked today in the product space is, "What is the difference between a product manager and a product owner?"

In short, there isn't one. 😮

Before I can clarify why this is, I need to explain the principle of project management and define one particular project management approach: SCRUM.  It will then be clear why product owners and product managers are essentially the same, and why we call the product manager a "product owner" in a specific circumstance.

Project management and SCRUM

Project management is defined as the process in which someone determines the duration of a project, how many people are needed to complete the project, and which parts of the project are dependent upon certain other parts.

There are many methodologies for project management, for example:

  • Waterfall

  • XP

  • SCRUM

  • Kanban

SCRUM is a project management framework that divides big projects into a number of small pieces called sprints (normally, a sprint is 1 - 3 weeks long). Taking this approach means that every few weeks (when a sprint ends), the team will reflect on what worked well, demonstrate their work to others in the team, and release some of the completed features. If there is any feedback from customers or co-workers, they will incorporate those suggestions into the next sprint.

The difference between product manager and product owner

There are three types of members in the SCRUM team, and these are referred to as the "roles" of the team members. There is the SCRUM Master who organizes the team, the SCRUM team member (typically engineers and designers), and a Product Owner.  "Product Owner" is a term that is used in SCRUM to describe the product manager role. If you are a product manager and are familiar with the duties of how the product management responsibilities are conducted in a SCRUM environment, then you can fulfill the Product Owner role!

Three Roles of SCRUM
Three Roles of SCRUM

It is therefore reasonable to assume that many of the roles that ask for a Product Owner will expect you to be able to work within a team that uses SCRUM as their project management framework. If you complete the full Product Manager path here on OpenClassrooms, you will learn all about SCRUM, as well as the responsibilities of the product owner within the SCRUM environment. 

Common Usage

The fact that two labels exist for the same role causes a lot of confusion. It is logical that a job posting for a Product Owner would want the candidate to be familiar with SCRUM. But apart from that, both titles essentially mean the same thing.

However, in the real world, you will find all sorts of misuses of these labels, such as:

  • Companies who don't use SCRUM, yet still call their product person a "product owner."

  • Companies who use SCRUM but call their product person a "product manager." (less common)

  • Companies who have both product owners and product managers -- each one handling different facets of the general "product" role -- and ask the product manager to handle the research/marketing details (this is an unconventional use of the job titles. Don't do this!)

  • Forums where people debate and point out the differences in the roles (mainly because, as above, their company uses the terms in a confusing way).

What this means for you

  1. You should understand that people use these terms interchangeably. One company may state that they need a product manager, while another company may state that they need a product owner. Be aware that they may both be looking for someone to do the same exact job.

  2. You should also understand that when a product manager works in a SCRUM environment -- a role which is justifiably called a "product owner" -- they will have to know how SCRUM works and what responsibilities they will have.

  3. You should be able to explain if someone asks you what the difference is between a product manager and a product owner (basically none, but the SCRUM teams have a product owner role)

  4. If you do the full Product Manager path on Open Classrooms, you'll be able to apply for any job using either the product manager or the product owner job title.

  5. Think of these two job titles as labels. What you actually do when working on your product is far more important than any label that your job title has.

  6. The best way to avoid confusing labels within your company is to call it either a product manager role or a product owner role and be consistent with the terminology.

Additional Reading

Roman Pichler on the terminology of  Product Owner and Product Manager

Example of certificate of achievement
Example of certificate of achievement