7 Product Management Job Titles (and What They Really Do)
February 21, 2018

7 Product Management Job Titles (and What They Really Do)

by Brian de Haaff

There are some Inuit dialects that have dozens of words for “snow.” The dialect spoken in Canada’s Nunavik region, for example, has at least 53 words to distinguish between wet snow and crystalline powder. Interesting, right? Even though I really like being in the mountains, you might be wondering why I am writing about snow.

Well, it occurred to me that product management has its own version of this. Different job titles for what, on the surface, appear to be the same thing — but that actually have important distinctions.

Now, I am a big fan of flattening organizations and avoiding reading too much into a name. But I do believe titles have meaning — assuming the organization is clear on roles and responsibilities.

Teams need to understand who does what and how the various work fits together. This becomes even more important as companies grow.

Of course, every organization is free to define a position however they see fit. But in the spirit of clarity, our team has written several posts over the last few years explaining the various product management roles. And we have even compared the various types of roles to each other. For example, we wrote about the product manager versus the scrum master.

We drew on our own experiences and those of our customers — Aha! was built by and for product managers. People tell us that these are informative and they are popular on our blog. No surprise. Folks like definitions.

So, we figured we could make it even easier by collecting them in one post — your guide to product management job titles.

These are a few of the most commonly used product management job titles, presented in alphabetical order:

This might be the job title most commonly confused with the product manager role. There are two main differences, however. While the product manager tends to look outward to the market and customers to determine what direction the product should head, the business analyst is an inward-facing role, examining internal processes, practices, and systems to determine how to best build and support that product. In this way, it is more like a product owner.

The other big difference lies in defining the requirements. As I’ve mentioned, the product manager owns the “why” and “what” of the product. The business analyst is more responsible for the technical specifications that will deliver on those questions. In this, they work closely with engineering on the “how” of what gets built.

The chief product officer (CPO) is responsible for everything related to product. This role typically includes all strategic planning, innovation, and the long-term roadmap across the product portfolio. They typically work on the product strategy in conjunction with the CEO, CTO, executive leadership team, and sometimes even board members.

The CPO is also focused on setting product management best practices for internal teams. Attracting, building, and retaining high-performing product management team members and recruiting new talent is critical in order to launch new products and initiatives. Many CPOs manage the product marketing function within the organization as well.

At larger companies with many product managers spread across various products, the director of product management typically manages people and a collection of products. (The same responsibilities might also be performed by someone with the title of “product line manager.”)

Simply put, this person has broader responsibilities for a portfolio of offerings and the people who manage them. As part of this, the director of product may also work on special organizational development and training projects for the product team and represent the product group internally and externally. This person often fills in for the VP of products when needed.

The product manager The product manager is tasked with defining the product roadmap and is likely involved in setting the long-term product strategy. This role requires a cross-functional perspective and high-level oversight of enhancements to existing products and launches of new ones. The best product managers take a goal-first approach, creating product initiatives that support the company’s goals. The day-to-day work involves defining the “why,” “what,” and “when” so that the product team can deliver a Complete Product Experience (CPE).

The product manager’s responsibilities range far and wide depending on the size and complexity of the company. Generally, it involves leading the product planning process and working closely with the product development team — collecting ideas, defining features, planning releases, and prioritizing all of the above. This work also includes go-to-market activity and organizational training to help make sure everybody is marching in lockstep towards the same vision.

At smaller companies, the product manager is often responsible for representing the customer internally and externally. At larger companies with agile teams, it is not uncommon to split those duties out — with the product manager taking on the external focus while the product owner represents the customer and their requirements internally.

This means answering the development team’s customer-oriented questions and writing detailed user stories that capture what a user does, needs to do, or wishes to do. In this way, the product owner helps define the product’s functionality and features and works on a day-to-day basis with the engineering team. And in agile environments that use scrum, the product owner typically attends daily standups.

The technical product manager focuses on the core specifications and technology decisions, with a greater emphasis on product capabilities rather than overall product strategy. The technical product manager usually has deep technical expertise and often has a computer science or engineering degree.

The role tends to be more internally focused than externally focused. The work includes writing user stories and product requirements, as well as keeping a sharp eye on competitors and the market to spot technology trends and new solutions.

While the product manager role involves a lot of roadmap planning and some strategy, the VP of product role takes that up a notch with broader decision-making authority over the product management function and the portfolio of offerings. The VP of product’s sphere of influence often extends further into the organization. In technology companies, the product strategy is often inseparable from the business strategy. And VPs of product typically act as spokespeople for a company as they are the most senior-level executives with deep customer, market, and product expertise.

On the hiring front, this role identifies the resources and skills that will be added to fill the department’s needs. This person gives structure to and supports the product team. But details and execution are left to the product manager and other trusted team members.

What product management titles does your company use?

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Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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