What is a Product Owner?

Unless you’re a world-class minimalist, chances are you own a couple of products. You probably own the computer or smartphone on which you’re reading this article (or if you don’t, you probably have some explaining to do!). But does simply owning a product make you a “Product Owner” with a capital P and a capital O? 

Since you’re reading this, you probably know the answer to that question. You know that Product Owner is a job title or role within organizations that build software products. But you may be confused as to exactly what is a Product Owner, and how that term differs from the term Product Management. If that’s you, then have no fear. By the end of this article you’ll be able to spot the difference between a Product Owner and a Product Manager at 200 feet of distance even on a cloudy day!

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The Basics: The Definition of a Product Owner versus a Product Manager

Our handy Product Glossary gives the following definitions for each term:

Product Manager: One of the most critical roles in a company. Product Managers are the quarterbacks of a business’ product. They touch on nearly all aspects of development by being the link between departments and phases.

Product Owner: Are you the person who defines your product story? Do you prioritize which tasks for your team to facilitate execution of tasks? If so, then you are probably a Product Owner.

From here, we can see the beginning of the key distinctions emerging. 

Product Managers touch “nearly all aspects” of the product development process. Their role is high level, big picture, 50,000 feet high, strategic.  They obsess about the customer.

The words they use often are “vision,” “goal” and “strategy.” 

Product Owners have a more defined role. In fact, defining things is a huge part of the PO role itself. Product Owners turn user problems into user stories. Based on these user stories, they define tasks for the development team to execute. And they also manage the backlog, and make sure the tasks that are brought forward are the ones that are going to add the most value to the end user. The terms they may use most include “user story,” “backlog,” “value,” and “tasks.”

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The Background: The Origin of the Two Terms

The use of the term Product Management in a sense broadly related to how we understand it today is generally thought to have come about in the 1930s at companies such as Procter & Gamble, Hewlett -Packard and Toyota. The idea was to create a broad role with a wide range of responsibilities that would help the company more quickly and efficiently create products that their customers would fall in love with.

Today, while the term Product Management is largely associated with the Silicon Valley tech world, it is also a role you’ll find at a massive range of companies, from football clubs such as Real Madrid to banks such as N26, and that’s just sticking to recent Product School speakers!

While the term Product Management is a broad and flexible one, Product Owner has more specific and distinct origins, dating back only to the early 2000s.

Silicon Valley

Scrum and The Agile Manifesto

In 2001, software developers Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland published “The Agile Manifesto,” a now famous document that called for a strategic revolution in how software products were built. The manifesto – which you can read free online –  called, among other things, for valuing “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” 

The Agile Manifesto led to the development of the Scrum framework for software development, a so-called “Agile” framework that breaks the software development process down into small teams of 10 or so people who work towards distinct goals in “sprints.” Each of the team members in a Scrum team team has a role, and one of those roles is Product Owner.

To summarize the background: “Product Manager” is a broad term that has been in circulation for almost a century. “Product Owner” arose about 20 years ago when the Scrum framework started getting adopted by software developers. Product Owner is a specific role within the Scrum framework. 

Scrum.org gives their “official” definition of a Product Owner as “Scrum Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product resulting from the work of the Development Team.”

Check out: What Is Agile Development And It Is Here To Stay?

Of Course, The World Isn’t That Straightforward

These days, you are liable to see the term Product Owner used in a much wider variety of contexts than simply in Scrum teams. For some companies, the Product Owner role may be more of a business analyst. For some, it may support the Product Manager role. For others, it may essentially be a Product Manager role, just named slightly differently. In other places it may be more a Project Manager. 

Remember, these terms are flexible and ultimately come down to the meaning ascribed to them within a particular organization. So, if you are tossing up between competing job offers for a Product Manager role and a Product Owner role, don’t rely on the titles alone to tell you what the job is likely to entail. Do your research, ask questions, and make sure you and your potential future employers are speaking the same language.

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