Demystifying Product Manager job titles
Product Management is quickly becoming one of the "hottest" and most desirable tech roles. As a relatively "new" function, there is a lot of ambiguity around what a Product Manager does. This is further exacerbated by the various kinds of Product Manager "job titles" out there and also by the fact that every business treats product management very differently.
In this article I attempt to demystify what the various product manager job titles are, what they are responsible for (roughly) in most organisations and additionally.
Types of product roles
Broadly, product management is a strategic role. Yet product managers on a daily basis do a lot of tactical things such as working with engineers on product specifications, conducting user interviews or market research. They also work on grooming the product backlog and planning sprints with the engineering team. Despite all that, the best value product managers can add is by ensuring the business and all stakeholders remain aligned to the product strategy. This alignment is critical because it ensures that the most important product initiatives have buy in and appropriate resourcing and support from the executive team.
In mature organisations that have an established product management function, product roles will often be further categorised, broadly as:
Executive product leadership
Executive product leaders are focused on the company's strategy and how it translates into product strategy. These leaders normally manage the business's entire product portfolio as a whole and are often responsible for P&L and revenue facing KPIs. Common titles at the executive leadership level are Chief Product Officer, VP of Product, Director of Product Management and Head of Product.
Product manager people leaders
This is the middle management layer where seasoned product managers manage groups of individual contributors of varying experience and responsibility. These product managers usually own a specific piece of the product strategy, build the product management processes and usually have some responsibility over KPIs. Common titles at this level are Head of Product, Group Product Manager and Lead Product Manager.
Individual contributor product managers
Product Manager being the most common job title at this level, they are responsible for the day-to-day parts of product management along with bearing a degree of strategic responsibility, usually in the form of a product roadmap. Normally, individual contributor product managers are not responsible for the product strategy or developing the product management processes in the business unless it is a very small business or they are the sole/first product hire.
Product Management vs Product Development
Product Management is part of a bigger picture, which is Product Development. To develop a product, various kinds of skills are needed from research, design to engineering and quality assurance. Product development is the full cycle of taking a product or product feature to market. Product management is responsible for deciding "what problem we are solving" and "when". Product development is responsible for the "how" part (i.e. how the problem will be solved).
In many businesses product development and product management is one and the same. Additionally it is now becoming commonplace to bundle development and engineering into one product and technology function. The "Chief Product and Technology Officer" role was created for the purpose of making it one streamlined, closely aligned process. The reality is, product, design and engineering are inseparable.
List of Product Manager job titles
So lets recap, there are broadly 3 kinds of product management roles:
- Executive product leadership
- Product manager people leaders
- Individual contributor product managers
Now we'll dive into what are the job titles within each of these 3 kinds of roles.
Job titles of executive product leaders
This is the hierarchical order of these job titles.
Chief Product Officer (CPO)
The CPO is the head honcho of the product team. This executive is responsible for shaping the overall product or portfolio strategy and the product organisation. The CPO works very closely with the CEO, other executive leaders and quite often the Board of Directors to ensure the product team is capable of delivering on the product strategy.
The CPO is responsible for:
- Setting the product or portfolio strategy, i.e. what the products are and what does the portfolio look like. How will they be monetised, etc
- Setting the overarching goals for all the product teams in the business
- Building the product organisation and related functions
- Commercial performance of the entire product line's P&L (or at least a set of KPIs below revenue)
The CPO will often manage other related functions
- UX and Design
VP of Product
In some organisations the VP of Product is often the supreme head of the product team. The role in the absence of a CPO, reports into the head of the business (CEO or Managing Director etc). CPO and VP of Product are often used interchangeably, however, the C-suite implies a higher level of responsibility across the business.
If the VP is a "true" VP in an organisation with a CPO the role will usually be responsible for:
- Responsible for strategy over often a group of products or the entire product line for a business unit.
- Managing the overarching goals for the product team
- Building the product team
- Commercial performance of the product's in the VP's portfolio (revenue or a set of KPIs attached to revenue)
Director of Product Management
Ideally the Director of Product reports into the VP of Product and is part of the senior leadership team of a business. In some matrix organisations, the Director of Product can be a dotted line to a GM or Managing Director while reporting officially into the VP of Product for the overall business.
In an organisation where the role reports into the VP of Product, the responsibilities normally are:
- Responsible for strategy and delivery for one large product
- Managing the operational budget for the product team, e.g. headcount costs, software and licensing fees
- Organisational design of the product team and related processes
- Commercial responsibility for the product
- Owns the overall product roadmap
Head of Product
The Head of Product title is often used interchangeably with Director of Product however, normally reports into a Director of Product. The Head of Product normally owns a very large function or feature in a bigger product. For instance in a two sided marketplace, its not uncommon to have a head of product for each side of the marketplace, e.g. head of product for supply, and head of product for demand (the two types of users in a marketplace).
A head of product is responsible for
- The strategy and delivery of a full product or large feature
- Day to day management of the product team
- Owns the roadmap of the product or feature
- KPI level responsibility, e.g. Daily Active Users, Conversion Rate, Cancellations and NPS
Job titles of product manager people leaders
This middle management layer for product is often tasked with leading product squads that focus on a specific user journey (e.g. user onboarding), or a set of features (e.g messaging, news feed etc). The remit will once again vary depending on the size of business. In smaller businesses where the product team is 5 people or less, this layer doesn't make much sense and a flatter structure is actually better, i.e where individual contributor product managers report directly into the executive layer.
Group Product Manager / Product Director
Group Product Manager or Product Director is a product leader who is responsible for leading a team of other product managers in a particular product. GPMs are also responsible for product strategy for a specific product or a set of products while leading and overseeing their product managers.
Lead Product Manager
Lead Product Managers lead and shape an entire product or product feature (depending on the size of the business). Often they manage or lead other product managers that are responsible of developing the product. They develop the product roadmap whilst working alongside the product leader they normally report into.
Job titles of individual contributor product managers
Principal Product Manager
The principle product manager is the highest level of individual contributor product managers. They have achieved the goal of being the master of their craft. In some ways, the Principle PM is similar to a 'distinguished engineer', where they choose to focus on their craft vs leading other product managers. Principle PMs:
- Often manage the most complex parts of a product
- Understand everything about the commercial model
- Deeply understand the landscape of the industry
Senior Product Manager
A Senior Product Manager typically has around 5 - 7 years of experience, although it is not uncommon to see senior product managers with less than 5 years of experience. This is because title bloat is a general problem in the tech industry (especially startups that offer inflated titles to attract talent). Senior product managers should:
- Have a strong vision
- Demonstrate the ability build and drive the execution of a product roadmap
- Coach other product managers where necessary
Growth Product Manager
The Growth PM is a flavour of product manager that focuses on growth initiatives like conversion rate optimisation or generally growing a funnel in parts of the product.
Quite often this role sits in a "growth team" consisting of a marketing person (such as a general coordinator or performance marketer), a data analyst, a designer and some engineers. The mix of the team may vary depending on the kind of optimisation they're doing.
Growth PMs are number and data driven where they focus their efforts on finding the next uptick in growth. Generally their roadmaps are more fluid as their focus is more on planned experimentation. Growth PMs often:
- Have a marketing or conversion rate optimisation background
- Have a good understanding of UX
- Have a growth mindset
- Natural people leaders and can motivate a team well. This is especially important as growth is one of the toughest areas of product management and can feel like an uphill battle.
A product manager is typically focused on one product or a set of features (depending on the size of the organisation). They are tasked with shaping the product or product feature, end-to-end, especially from a strategic perspective, including ownership of the product roadmap. Product Managers usually:
- Provide direction to the business based on the product strategy
- Own the product roadmap or a part of the product roadmap
- Work with the UX and engineering teams to drive the commercial success of a product.
I have written extensively about what is a product manager and highly recommend reading that for more detail. Although a Product Manager is usually an individual contributor it is not uncommon to for them to have direct reports like Junior or Associate PMs or even Product Owners.
Associate or Junior Product Manager
An Associate or Junior Product Manager is simply a product manager in training. They work alongside a Product Manager, typically on one small feature where the direction is overseen by a more senior product manager.
Generally they are expected to be well versed with the basics of product delivery like managing a backlog, sprint planning with engineering, writing product requirement documents and have a "working knowledge" of the commercial model and also the business/product strategy,
A Product Owner is a tactical role that focuses more on the product delivery aspect of product management. Product Owners aren't tasked with strategy, although they're expected to understand product strategy (otherwise how would they deliver on it?). Product Owners typically:
- Manage the product backlog
- Work extensively on the requirements, making sure all the tangible details and use cases are captured effectively
- Own the product requirements document
- Work with the engineering team to break down the requirements into a delivery cadence
- Actively attend sprint planning and other agile ceremonies
- Are hands on with the day-to-day delivery of the product features they are working on
There's more to it than the title
While product manager job titles are usually reflective of the responsibility a Product Manager has in the business, but ultimately what you do depends on the size and scale of the business (as with any role).
You may find that in a small organisation, the person with the "Product Manager" title bears all the burden of product management, from strategy to planning sprints. Similarly you can also find people with the title "Head of Product" with no people management or strategy involved.
VP of what?
In tech, "title bloat" has become commonplace. This is especially prevalent in startups where a business starts with a core set of talent and in order to retain that talent as the business grows, titles keep changing to reflect more responsibility. In a healthy organisation the underlying product organisation is actually growing, in unhealthy cases it is actually not growing and only titles are.
This is actually counterproductive as it sets these individuals up for failure in the long term. When these businesses reach actual scale, they find that the person wearing the "VP of Product" title doesn't really have the skill to manage the responsibility that comes with the role. While that is a topic for another day, for the CEOs reading this article, please do yourselves a favour and avoid this mistake. It will cost you talent in the long run.
When "promoting" product managers it is critical to evaluate them as you would any new hire. The most common mistake is to take a talented and brilliant product manager and promote them to a people leader because that was the need of the day. Not everyone is setup for people leadership, and often the kind of people attracted to product management are very much those who like solving problems on a deep level rather than managing people.
Did I miss anything?
While I believe this is comprehensive list of product manager job titles, there could be some that I didn't cover. I've deliberately stayed away from "creative titles" like "Product Rockstar", and I believe I've seen more than one instance of "Product Whisperer". If you think I've missed a title or just want to get in touch and exchange ideas, let's connect.