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November 22, 2022

 mins to read

Product Owner vs Product Manager vs Project Manager: Who Do You Need to Build a SaaS Product?

Whenever people start learning about different roles in the product team, a question comes inevitably:

Is product owner same as project manager?

or

Is product owner higher than project manager?

You wouldn’t ask whether product designers and sales managers are the same person, but with a product owner (PO) and project manager (PM), the situation is more confusing. So, why is there such a mess?

Product owners only exist in the Scrum framework. At the same time, companies working with Scrum also can have product managers and some of them may have project managers as well (though project managers are avoided in canonic Scrum teams). All of it creates the need for articles like this one.

When I started getting familiar with Agile and Scrum, I wondered why there was a need to invent a new job, product owner, when a product manager job already existed? I bet I was not the only one asking myself that.

Product Owner vs Product Manager vs Project Manager

Why do they invent a new role instead of using the existing one?

You may think that it was just a way of separating from previously existing management systems to mark the revolutionary framework. This explanation makes sense. What many people don’t know, however, is that when Scrum was invented, product owners didn’t exist. Product managers were supposed to change their work habits to adjust to the new system.

This role of product owner was introduced later, and one of the reasons for that was the need to differentiate their role in Scrum from other frameworks. Mind that product managers back then were different from what they are now. That is why it makes sense to talk about the differences between the two roles: it was intentional.

Key differences between product manager, product owner, and project manager

Product Owner vs Product Manager vs Project Manager

Product managers and project managers have different scopes. Project manager’s goal is to execute a project from A to Z. Project does not equal product. In software development, a project can be about localization, or adapting the product for a new client, as it happens in complex B2B products. It includes managing stakeholders, teams, budgeting, planning, and reporting.

Shortly, the role of project manager can be described as “getting things done”, or “organizing the team so that it gets things done, meets the deadline and KPIs”.

Product managers are responsible for the product as a whole, from the ideation to the launch and afterward. They have to go beyond the product team, talk to all the internal and external stakeholders, and know well the market and the customers. 

Product manager role is not to just organize the work of the product team to make it most efficient — they have to make sure that what they are creating is the right product.

Product owner's role can be quite different from one company to another. In some cases, product owner has more strategic tasks, and thus gets closer to the product manager. In other companies, they act only on a tactical level, setting tasks and controlling the development process.

Product owners often continue their career path as product managers, and project managers can switch to PO or PM at some point, too.

Does product manowner exist?

Product Owner vs Product Manager vs Project Manager

Product manowner is not an official job term (yet). This funny word was invented by Rebecca Calogeris, vice president of marketing at Pragmatic institute, when discussing product owners and product managers in the podcast.

It all comes to a question, can these two roles be combined into one? There are different opinions on that. Here is what her interlocutor, Kirsten Butzow, a Pragmatic Marketing instructor says:

If we have the product manager also acting as the product owner and they’re spending their time deep in the engineering organization, who is actually out there in the marketplace getting the fuel source to drive that Agile organization and create velocity and building the right product instead of just making the product fast?

Kirsten says that companies get to understand the importance of having both product manager and product owner more and more. Working together, they can get the best result.

On the other hand, Marty Cagan, the author of the book "Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love", says that in product companies, a product manager has to be the product owner, as PO responsibilities are a small sub-set of PM responsibilities.

Product Owner vs Product Manager responsibilities

According to Cagan, having both roles on the team would only lead to confusion. Roman Pichler, product management consultant, agrees with that and suggests having junior/senior positions instead. At the same time, other experts think that having senior and junior product owners violates the principles of Scrum… 

Well, this is just a sign that the roles are flexible, and there are many contrasting opinions. This article is just highlighting some of the key differences, but don’t be surprised if you see a contradicting opinion elsewhere (or even in this blog).

In the end, all we care about is that each one knows their job and manages to collaborate all together for the sake of the product. If you are struggling with defining the best work model, you may find our article "Product Management Organization Structure: Which One to Choose?" quite helpful.

Product Owner Product Manager Project Manager collaboration structure

Project manager responsibilities

  • Planning (timeline, budget, KPIs, and so on). The key to successful and timely project completion is the right plan. The most hard-working team will fail if the plan is not viable.
  • Leading and team coordination. When the plan is ready, they have to make sure that team is following the schedule and the deadlines are met.
  • Handling documentation. Project manager has to deal with various documents, from budgets to reports.
  • Problem-solving. However vague it may sound, this is exactly what project managers dedicate most of their time to: solve problems, including the ones that other team members face.

Product manager responsibilities

  • Defining product roadmap and vision and coordinating the work of the team in accordance with it.
  • Analyzing market and business to align product strategy with the market needs
  • Conducting testing to monitor product performance and define changes that have to be made.
  • Communicating with customers and stakeholders and ensuring that their interests are reflected in the product.

Product owner responsibilities

As previously said, the level of responsibilities of the product owner is more tactical than strategical. Here are the main ones:

  • Managing the backlog: tracking tasks performance, helping the team to follow the rules of Scrum.
  • Defining user stories, based on product vision and overall strategy. User story is a product feature as seen by the user, and it is used to guide the development team.
  • Prioritizing tasks in the backlog in order to deliver the product fast and efficiently. 
  • Connecting the team and the stakeholders, syncing with marketing, sales, and other teams to help product team stay on track with the rest of the company.

This is a general overview of an imaginary product owner. In reality, they often have to take on tasks that go beyond a perfect Agile framework. To give a more tangible image of the role, we plan to publish an interview with a product owner and ask what their day looks like.

Skills

Now that we've had a closer look at the responsibilities of each, we can say that all these roles are essentially managerial. So, does it mean that the same candidate can fit in any role? 

Well, yes and no. A talented person can fit in any role. However, each needs a different skill set.

Product manager has the widest range of competencies. They have to speak the same language with sales, marketing, designers, and developers. Product manager skills include market and user research, data analysis, and strong communication and writing skills. To learn more about PM superpowers, read our article on what makes a good product manager.

There is a common misbelief that it is essential for a product manager to have tech background. However, real PMs prove it wrong. In the article how to become a product manager, we looked through some of the most common non-tech backgrounds: marketing, design, project management, journalism, and even teaching, to prove we're right.

Project manager needs advanced knowledge of management tools, budgeting, planning, and excellent time management. However, the most important things come with experience. Project Management Professional (PMP) certification requires about 35 hours of training and at least 36 months of leading projects in the field. There is no doubt that project manager skills will be of great help for product owners and product managers as well.

Product owner skills are similar to the previously mentioned. You don't need a Ph.D. in product ownership, but you do need a good knowledge of Scrum (at least 16 hours), Agile certification (about a week-long course) and project management training are also a plus.

Salaries

According to Payscale, the average salaries of product owners and project managers in IT are very close: $89,966 and $88,899. Product managers have higher average salaries: $100,733.

Product Owner vs Product Manager vs Project Manager salary

IT project managers have the lowest entry-level salaries, $65,000, and reach the median after the 5th year of working experience.

project manager salary

Fun fact: according to Payscale, product owners have almost perfect gender balance, whilst both product managers and project managers have more men than women (both around 54% vs 45%).

Short Q&A

Can these three roles work together without having overlap in responsibilities?

Yes. When everybody understands their role clearly, their collaboration will benefit the product.

Can you have just one person instead of the three?

If you don’t see the need for hiring three persons, you don’t have to. Just define the list of tasks and responsibilities that are essential for the product and see if one person would be capable of doing all of that.

Which role is essential for an emerging SaaS team?

If you can’t afford to have extra people on the team, start with a product manager. PM is that universal soldier that is a team-forming role.

Can product manager cover design tasks, as well?

No. If you’re looking for a good product designer, text us.

Masha Panchenko

Author

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