Product Manager vs Product Owner - Who Cares!

There seems to be an ongoing (and recently heating up) debate within the product leadership community about how we should define our roles. What’s the difference between a PM and PO? Does a company need both roles or just one? Does the choice communicate something important about how a company works? Should we all rise up and define a global standard? I’ve seen more Venn diagrams on this subject than almost any other.

Normally this isn’t something that keeps me awake at night, but as our growth at FindHotel continues to accelerate, we’re on the lookout for the best product leaders on the planet to join us (check out our careers page if you’d like to read more). This of course means posting jobs online, sourcing talent and talking to candidates, and naturally this leads to a lot of discussion about how we define this role. Rather than try and boil the ocean, or in this case try and tell the rest of the world what I think they should do, I thought it would be a much more productive exercise to tell you about the product leadership role here at FindHotel, what to expect and how we think about this role.

So why do we call the role Product Owner? It’s really simple, we hire people to own the product. Let’s break that down into its component parts.

How do we define a product?

From the outside, it’s easy to think that here at FindHotel we have just 1 product: our consumer facing hotel marketplace. Of course, we see things a bit differently. In the simplest possible terms, almost everything we might work on as a company can be treated as a product. These might be specific internal tools for building our marketing campaigns, services that run our ETL pipeline and help get all of our data into our warehouse, or individual services and features within a larger platform such as an algorithm to sort our hotel images by quality. Some of these components are currently treated as features of a product and are owned as part of a stack of features or services by a single team, but as we scale it's not hard to imagine that one day there is a team focusing entirely on any of these individual components as its own product within our stack. Exactly when these components make that magical leap, and can benefit from a dedicated team with its own leadership is simply a matter of value, prioritisation and resources.

Owner vs Manager

What about the most controversial part, owner vs. manager? This is where we could easily get into a discussion of semantics and the importance of language, but I’ll try to avoid that trap. At FindHotel, our product leaders are truly empowered to own their product. In practical terms, this means defining the vision and forming a roadmap, acquiring the resources needed to execute on this plan (everything from the right mix of cross-functional team members to services or providers you might work with) and driving execution to achieve their objectives. Like all good product leaders, you know that this vision is realised through a mixture of data gathering (quantitative and qualitative product data, opinions, feedback and more), consensus building, market knowledge and a finely tuned product instinct, among other factors. Ultimately, the ship moves in the direction that you point it and at a pace you help to set. We don’t think of you just as a manager, you’re a leader who owns an important part of our business and works with a cross-functional squad of super talented people to do whatever is needed to move the product forward and build value.

The last point worth discussing is if Product Owner is really the most common way to refer to this role. That depends on the context. Here’s in Europe, it's more common to think of any product leadership role as a PO. In North America, the role I describe above is more often called a PM. Companies who follow Scrum by the book will often have a PO in the team with a very specific set of responsibilities, and maybe a different product leader elsewhere in the organisation. Some companies will tell you the complete opposite and claim that the PO has ultimate authority and the PM assists with a subset of these tasks and responsibilities. There are also plenty of places where a PO or PM stands alone from a team and spends their day trying to get their features squeezed into the plan for a centralised engineering team to deliver.

So, is it Product Owner or Product Manager? For us it doesn’t really matter what you call the role, if you're an experienced product leader looking for a chance to help solve some of the toughest problems in travel, deliver amazing experiences for our customers and shape a vital part of our company then you should get in touch. In the future we'll dig much deeper into the subject of product and process here at FindHotel, covering how we set and measure our goals, how we stay in sync and our preference towards small, focused, cross-functional squads (you can read more about that here) so keep an eye on the blog in the coming weeks.

Lee Clissett

Lee is a product and technology enthusiast from the UK. With more than 10 years experience in product leadership he is obsessed with building a world-class product company.