How To Make Sense Of Different Product Management Job Titles

During my transition from engineer to product manager, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out which role I wanted to be in and what was best for my long-term career goals.

It wasn’t easy.

You see, there are so many nuances in product management-related roles. Titles can be very vague, and the responsibilities often change from company to company.

I’ve found it’s helpful to think of these roles through two lenses:

  1. Inbound versus Outbound
  2. Tactical versus Strategic

An inbound-focused role means you’re working more with the internal team and focusing on engineering, whereas an outbound-focused position means you’re spending more time with clients and customers, and concentrating more on marketing.

Looking through the other lens, a tactical role is more about day-to-day execution and delivery. And the strategic component is about the medium to long-term strategy of the product in relation to company strategy and goals.

Here’s how I like to break down the most common product-related positions:

1. Product Manager

A product manager role is very balanced when it comes to inbound/outbound work and tactical/strategic focus. This position is responsible for the product strategy, as well as ensuring the tactical execution of requirements.

To be successful, you have to be able to speak with your internal engineering and development team and understand the technical implications of what they tell you. You must be able to have an intelligent conversation with them about the trade-offs inherent in any product’s development.

But you also need to talk with customers and explain a product’s uses and features. This includes tactical as well as high-level strategy conversations, so you must also have strategic knowledge.

Product manager is a role people in other disciplines such as engineering, design, marketing and sales look for when they’re transitioning jobs.

That’s because it’s more of a generalist role with a strategic component that expands your career opportunities beyond your technical training.

2. Technical Product Manager

This role is very similar to the product manager, but as the name implies, it skews towards a technical and inbound focus.

It usually requires a more advanced technical skill set because, in some companies, the product itself is technically complex. Think of products based on APIs, machine learning or artificial intelligence, and industries such as biotech, core science or advanced math.

You’ll be working with highly-skilled engineers in these industries, who sometimes have PhDs.

Being a successful technical product manager usually requires knowledge of basic software development concepts — what’s involved, how complex it is, what’s needed to develop it. That makes the position attractive to former engineers, as they have an easier time making the transition.

If you’ve been working on developing iOS apps, Android apps, or SaaS solutions, then it’s not too much of a leap to become a technical product manager leading your former work.

3. Product Owner

This role is similar to a technical product manager, but it’s even more tactical and inbound.

You’ll see this specific job title for companies using Agile product development. Agile advocates for an iterative process, where a smaller iteration of the product is developed in two weeks and sent out to customers quickly. Then, their feedback is used to make changes, and the process repeats itself.

The product owner manages the backlog — the prioritized list of features the team wants to build. They’re making sure everyone is following the Agile process and executing on each iteration. So essentially, a product owner is a technical product manager in the Agile ecosystem. This person creates user stories and manages their execution.

4. Product Marketing Manager

As a company grows, someone needs to communicate what its product is all about.

The product marketing manager sits at the intersection of product management and corporate marketing, which is geared towards the company as a whole. This role is about putting out content such as white papers and articles, pursuing thought leadership, and explaining to potential customers what the product is and what its capabilities are.

The product marketing manager is also primarily responsible for the product launch — a large endeavor to launch your product in the market.

While the entire company is involved in that process, it’s led by the product marketing manager, who is assisted by the product manager and the core marketing team of the company.

In a small company, these three roles can collapse into a single role. In that case, this person is usually responsible for all aspects of marketing for both products and the company — and a product manager typically also does product marketing.

In a large company, this position may only be working on one specific product.

5. Technical Program Manager

There are several job positions out there that you’ll see listed as program manager, project manager, or technical program manager. In Agile, there’s a derivative of these known as the Scrum Master.

Even though they sound similar, these roles are not product management roles. The positions are all about ensuring a project is finished on time.

The program manager is essentially controlling the schedule and resolving any dependencies — another very inbound and tactical role.

In some software companies, engineering managers do this work or dedicated program managers are hired. Facebook, Google and Amazon, for example, have technical program managers for this role.

At Apple, this is a critical position. Program managers are in charge of making sure everything is accomplished on time. They have to manage multiple internal teams and external vendors, and ensure the delivery works like clockwork. Incidentally, at Apple, this role called a “product manager,” which just goes to show how fickle these job titles can be.

That’s why it’s so important you take the time to figure out exactly what a prospective employer is going to need from you, even if you think the title is right up your alley. When I was transitioning from engineering to product management, I turned down a few roles because I could tell they weren’t going to be right for what I wanted to do.

You should always ask how tactical versus strategic and inbound versus outbound the role is.

All of these positions offer paths up the corporate ladder, but not all of them end up in the same place. Think about your strengths and weaknesses, as well as your aspirations. Do your research, speak with people working at the company, and make sure you know what the role entails.

If you go in blind, you could easily sign up for something you don’t want to do or aren’t prepared for.

Thanks for reading!

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