Product Owner vs Project Managers

12 March 2023 ยท 34,659 views ยท Updated 22 July 2023

During my career as a software developer, Iโ€™ve met many different managers. Some were the kind of โ€œI tell โ€” you doโ€, others more open and โ€œshow me whatโ€™s possibleโ€ kind, which is most of the time the best kind of a manager you can have.

The only issue is that when a product is being developed โ€” be it as a startup or in a venture studio โ€” two types of people are necessary: the ones who have the vision and the ones who take care of the execution. But whoโ€™s leading the project?

This article wonโ€™t be interesting to senior managers who already have their career paths set, but very useful for people who are figuring stuff out and touching the waters of product development.

Also while writing this article and doing research, I've found many contradictory articles, so this can be considered another one of my subjective opinions.

The differences

Project Managers thrive in pre-planned, strictly organized systems where everything goes according to some specific guidelines, and the measurement of work can be calculated as a line on a monthly report.

Product Owners work best in constantly changing environments. They build the vision, the roadmap, and the prioritization. They can already see and touch the product in their mind. Project Managers build the execution of this vision.

The difference grows the larger the company. In a startup environment, you can and should be both at the same time. But if youโ€™re part of a big organization, the executive part of the project should be separate from the vision part.

Before we dive in into each role, I must say there are quite a lot of things each of those roles does. The Manager does not only nag the developers, โ€œhow fast can you build itโ€, and the Owner does not only sit the whole day envisioning the success of the product. There are a lot of steps in-between that eventually lead the product to success, so there is no need to think one is better than the other. These roles are just different.

Let's look at the difference between these roles and start with the definitions.

PRODUCT OWNER

The main concern of a product owner is the product itself. They own it. They want it to succeed. This is a person who makes it happen on all fronts. They talk with everyone โ€” marketing, support, development, flower people, promotion agency, plumber guy, etc. They can be compared to a miniature CEO inside a company. Their only task is to make the product cool for users and profitable in the end.

Source: Dilbert

As CEO of startups fail, so do product owners fail. The idea showed promise but did not realize the potential, then you pivot. You have to be prepared to do constant research, come up with new features/improvements/ways-out-of-death-valley, analyze changes in business metrics, and defend your ideas to everyone.

A Product Owner is responsible for defining and prioritizing the features and requirements of a product. They work closely with all the teams to ensure that the product meets the needs of the target audience and is a financial success. To be effective, a Product Owner should have a clear vision for the product and be able to communicate it effectively to both the development team and business stakeholders. Also, bonus points if they are technically savvy as they need to understand the technical capabilities and limitations of the product.

๐Ÿ’ก The main KPIs the Product Owner follows are the Number of Users, Revenue per User, Revenue Growth, and Churn.

PROJECT MANAGER

This is the right-hand man of the Product Owner, theyโ€™re an equal tandem, and both cannot survive without the other unless they also do their work, which sometimes does happen in a small company.

Source: Dilbert

You can view the project manager as a bridge between the vision and the execution. They are a translator from the language of ideas to the language of understandable tasks with adequate deadlines for the other. From the chaos of unconnected ideas, the project manager creates a clear action plan, oversees the quality of work, controls the project budget, and minimizes risks.

A Project Manager is responsible for the overall delivery of a project and creating accountability in others. Together with the product owner, they are responsible for managing expectations and ensuring that the project is completed on time and within budget. To be effective, a Project Manager should be organized, detail-oriented, and excellent at software-developer-speak and also conflict resolution.

Yes, Communication in a project is not a clichรฉ from a resume but a reality. The manager interacts closely with the team, discusses challenges and opportunities to improve the project processes, and communicates ideas with the product owner. A typical working day consists almost entirely of meetings and reporting, so you need to love communicating and have emotional intelligence.

๐Ÿ’ก Their main KPIs are meeting the deadline, staying within budget, and keeping on course with the goals. Their main objective is to keep everyone on the development team accountable.

At a glance

Here are the key points that differentiate Product Owners and Project Managers:

Focus: Product Owners focus on defining and prioritizing the features and requirements of a product, while Project Managers focus on planning, executing, and delivering a project.

Responsibilities: Product Owners are responsible for the vision and direction of a product, while Project Managers are responsible for the overall delivery of a project.

Stakeholders: Product Owners work closely with all the stakeholders, even the ones you forget, while Project Managers act as the primary point of contact for the development team and are responsible for managing expectations.

Skills: Product Owners should be technically savvy and have a clear vision for the product, while Project Managers should lean more towards management savviness โ€” organized, detail-oriented, and love reports.

Scope: Product Owners focus on the long-term success of a product, while Project Managers focus on each successful delivery of an increment.

Salaries: Salaries are the same, no worries.

Which one suits you better?

No idea. But are you more interested in launching products, improving them, collecting feedback, and communicating with customers forever, or more tactical activities, keeping track of budgets, allocating tasks, making plans, and managing chaos?

Do you like to deal with short 2-3 month cycles at a time or deal with multi-year issues?

Still undecided? There are two ways to figure this out:

  1. Join a startup, try out a few hats, and see what feels better. Timeframe 1-2 years.
  2. Apply to some bigger companies where the roles are clearly defined. First, go for the Product Owner role, suffer a few years, then either switch to a different department or a different company and do Project Management, suffer a few years, and then decide which suits you. Timeframe 4-5 years.

I hope this helped to clear things up for you.


Other Newsletter Issues:

  • Jen

    Vision without execution is just hallucination, right? POs and PMs need each other. It’s important to remember that titles are just that – titles. The real essence of these roles lies in their ability to collaborate. So, whether you’re dreaming up the next big thing or making sure it actually gets done, let’s try to focus on what really matters: building cool stuff that works. am i right?

  • Nora Iversen

    Choosing between being a Product Owner and a Project Manager hinges on your preference for shaping vision versus executing plans. Both roles are pivotal in crafting impactful tech solutions, yet they cater to distinct aspects of product development and management.

  • Ivy O.

    Collaboration between Product Owners and Project Managers is essential for a successful project. While the Product Owner focuses on the vision and user experience, the Project Manager ensures timely and within budget delivery. Balancing creativity and execution is key to bringing a product to life.

  • Ava

    Switching between roles as a Product Owner and Project Manager gives you a unique perspective on product development. Initially, I thought focusing on one would be enough, but the dynamic nature of tech projects demands versatility and adaptability. Understanding both positions helps you appreciate the nuances of each role and fosters better communication and collaboration within teams. In startups, wearing multiple hats isn’t just beneficial; it’s often necessary to push boundaries and innovate. My advice? Learn as much as you can about both roles, regardless of where you currently fit in. This understanding can dramatically improve your approach to problem-solving and project execution.

  • K

    Sounds wrong. Product owner should lead planning too.

    1. Vadim Kravcenko

      It’s a valid point that the Product Owner should be involved in planning, as they are integral in defining the product vision and roadmap. But it’s not black and white. While the PO focuses on ‘WHAT’ needs to be built, aligning the product with market needs and user feedback, the Project Manager (PM) often takes the lead in ‘HOW’ to execute these plans. This includes resource allocation, timeline management, and coordinating the day-to-day tasks. Which basically means, the PO sets the destination, and the PM maps out the journey โ€” both are needed for the planning.

  • Greg

    “But if youโ€™re part of a big organization, the executive part of the project should be separate from the vision part.”
    Really? Why?
    “Their main objective is to keep everyone on the development team accountable.”
    Yes!
    Just let your self think:
    https://bitslap.it/blog/posts/playground-it.html

    1. Vadim Kravcenko

      Great link, thanks for sharing!

  • Joe

    Way to include racist comics in your spiel.

    1. Vadim Kravcenko

      Where is the racism in those comics?

    2. R N

      There isn’t any. Scott Adams has been accused. I watch his “Coffee With Scott Adams” to get the full perspective. His motivation is to prompt the discussion. He knew the price he would have to pay and was willing to pay it.

    3. R N

      There are always at least two sides to every conflict. Makes sure you examine more than one.

      Before you vilify someone based on MSM propaganda, you should seek to understand the accused’s position within the proper context.

      That is wisdom.

  • Vitalie

    Project Manager and Product Owner roles are not alternative roles and are complementary like developers and testers.You can have both on one team.

    1. Eredio

      Some companies dont have testers…

    2. Vadim Kravcenko

      I think that’s exactly what I said โ€” those roles do different things, and are responsible for different outcomes. At big companies, they these roles are separate. In smaller startups though, not everything is as perfect as that, and people wear many hats โ€” including being a PO/PM at the same time.