Since it’s still a relatively new role, there’s a lot of confusion around product management job titles, seniority, and hierarchy. This makes it hard to compare jobs, plan your career, and attract the right talent to your team. While there is still no one-size-fits-all solution, a standard is emerging from most successful product teams and organisations that can serve as a template for your own:
Product Management Career Ladder
Associate Product Manager
This is an entry-level position, for someone who is brand new to the role. It also has a specific connotation with an associate product manager (APM) program, which is a common rotational apprenticeship program in larger companies like Google and Facebook. The typical APM is a recent graduate and, as with most apprenticeships, the aim is to develop these candidates into full-time positions through a combination of training and hands-on involvement with real projects.
Junior Product Manager
A junior product manager is also new to the role, but doesn’t require as much hands-on training as an associate product manager. They operate independently with a product development team, maybe on a smaller product or area, and under the leadership and mentorship of a more senior product manager. A junior product manager typically has some work experience under their belt already and can come from any background. Though engineering, design, or business are the most common, some of the best product managers out there have come from customer support, QA, business analysts, and more.
The most common job title, this can span a wide gamut of experience, responsibility, and skills. Broadly this is someone who operates independently, leads the work of a product development team and is responsible for a product or customer journey. But because it’s the most common title what’s important to consider is what product they manage – if they’re a product manager for Facebook’s News Feed and impact billions of users they’re probably more senior and experienced than a product manager at a brand new startup.
Senior Product Manager
A senior product manager does the same thing as a product manager but has a senior title either in recognition of their contributions, the relative importance of their product, or to reflect the fact that they also spend time mentoring more junior product managers. In some organisations this is a hybrid role, where the Senior Product Manager is still hands-on with a product and also has some line-management responsibility for more junior product managers.
Product Lead / Lead Product Manager
This is a newer role, and usually a very senior product manager who is responsible for a critical product in the company. This can be equivalent in rank to a Senior Product Manager through to a VP Product, but the difference is they are not managing other product managers at all – they are simply exceptional product managers who want to stay hands-on and leave people management to others.
In many ways this is analogous to the Architect track in engineering (in contrast to the CTO track), and something we should encourage more. Just because you’re a great product manager and want to advance in your career doesn’t mean you should have to move away from being a hands-on product manager to a leader of other product managers. Some people are just better suited to one path than the other, and recognising who is great at leadership and who is great at building amazing products is equally important and valuable to an organisation.
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Product Director / Group Product Manager
This is where the role starts to change from an individual contributor who owns a product and works hands-on with engineering and design on that product to someone who has stepped back from the day-to-day in order to focus on leading other product managers and working on alignment and strategy. This is where soft skills around people management become a critical part of the job – managing people is even harder than managing products!
VP Product / Head of Product
This is similar to a Director, but common in larger companies with more products and management layers, or as the most senior product person in a startup. As with a Director this job is all about managing other product managers, and a VP will usually be responsible for managing a team budget – and some organisations even throw in P&L responsibility.
In many startups this is called a Head of Product but I’m not personally a fan of that title as there’s no way to promote a Head of Product – they’re already the Head!
CPO / Chief Product Officer
This is the senior-most product person in an organisation, usually manages more than one team of product managers, and represents product in the C-suite or management team. They’re responsible for overall product strategy and alignment within their teams and with other parts of the organisation.
In smaller companies the difference between a VP Product and CPO isn’t huge, and the title is used interchangeably for the most senior product person in the company. But in larger organisations who have both roles we can again borrow from our engineering friends to clarify the difference: the VP Product is responsible for the team, the processes, and getting things done, while the CPO is responsible for the product vision, product architecture, and overall organisational alignment.
One Size Does Not Fit All
Most companies don’t need all these tiers of course, so it’s important to think about how this fits in to your organisation. In a startup you may well just have a single Product Manager, and then as you grow a couple Product Managers who report to a Head of Product/VP Product, and only as the company grows and the suite of products grows do you need to consider more layers. As with anything else in product, these team structures and tiers should be aligned with customer needs so that you’re incentivising and organising teams in alignment with your company goals.
Product Owner ≠ Product Manager
Product Owner is a job role that came out of Agile and Scrum, and although many organisations use it as a job title that is interchangeable with Product Manager, it’s not correct. In Scrum the Product Owner is defined as the person who is responsible for grooming the backlog, in Agile it was defined as the representative of the business, and neither entirely describe the full breadth of a Product Manager’s responsibilities.
Product Owner is a role you play in an Agile team, whereas a Product Manager is the job title of someone responsible for a product and its outcome on the customer and the business.
Now a lot of Product Owners out there are great Product Managers, and they should just change their title. But a fair number of Product Owners have simply completed a certified Scrum product owner course and now think they’re equivalent to a Product Manager, which sets them up to fail as they never consider the broader role. So if you’re tasking a Product Owner with the broader product management responsibilities, make sure you provide the training they need to master the full breadth of the role (and then change their title).
Structure = Clarity
Having clear and common structures for product management job titles in our teams will help us all better understand our careers, roles, and teams. This structure should provide the right foundation for you and your teams to ask: Do your team’s titles accurately reflect their jobs? Are they clear enough that applicants looking at your open vacancies know what you’re hiring for and if the job is for them? Or do you need to rethink your structure to maximise clarity?