Product Management Job Titles and Hierarchy

Posted: May 16, 2021 in Business, Recruitment, Product Management, Guides, Leadership
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There’s a lot of confusion around product management job titles, seniority, and hierarchy. This has become more prominent since organisations started creating the Product Owner job during their Agile transformation using the Scrum framework, even though Product Owner is a role that a Product Manager plays rather than a job in itself. This makes it hard to compare jobs, plan your career, and attract the right talent to your team.

Inspired by Mind the Product, in this article I’ll walk through the product manager levels, providing overviews for each product role, and some useful content to refer to.

Associate Product Manager (APM)

This is an entry-level product position, for someone who is brand new to the role.

An APM can be a recent graduate who would enter into a rotational apprenticeship program across the business. The aim—similar to most apprenticeships—is to develop these candidates into full-time positions through a combination of training and hands-on involvement with real projects.

Alternatively and the most common route, an APM has some work experience under their belt already and can come from any background. Engineering, marketing, design, or commercial are the most common backgrounds.

The APM works with a product development team under the leadership and mentorship of a product manager, where they would focus on learning the full breadth of the Product Manager role whilst on the job.

Typically an APM would need 3-5 years of experience before progressing to the next level as a Product Manager.

Product Manager (PM)

The most common job title of a product manager can span a wide range 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 line or customer journey. Because it’s the most common title, it’s important to consider what product they manage.  For example, 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.

To be clear, the Product Manager is fully accountable for the success of their product line, so as well as defining the product vision, KPIs, strategies and product roadmap for their product line, they would be part of an Agile team managing the product backlog and working with the engineers to execute the product backlog items (PBIs) and test hypothesis.

For some insights on the Product Manager role see ‘How do you Become a Product Manager?’ by Liam Smith and discover what it is that Jase Clamp believes really makes a Product person in ‘What’s in the DNA of Product People?’.

Similar to the APM role, after 3-5 years as a PM you can expect to take the next step to become a Senior Product Manager.

Senior Product Manager (SPM)

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 reflects the fact that they also spend time coaching product managers. The Senior Product Manager is hands-on with a product line and also has some line-management responsibilities.

Once you’ve been a PM/SPM for at least 7 years and at least 2 of those has involved line managing/coaching other PMs, then you’re ready to take the next step up to the Lead PM or Head of Product of a specific product line eg. Head of Product – Rewards, Head of Product – Engagement or Head of Product- Gaming.

Principal Product Manager (PPM)

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. 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 similar 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, it 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. Recognising who is great at leadership and who is great at building amazing products is equally important and valuable to an organisation.

Product Lead / Lead Product Manager / Head of Product – [product line]

This role is more common in larger companies with more products and management layers. Whilst this role does focus on managing other product managers, a significant amount of time would be spent supporting Product Managers with their product line vision, strategies, market analysis and execution, helping improve the product organisation structure, leading Lean initiatives to reduce waste across the business and work on cross-product line strategies.

At this level you’d have been exposed to working across multiple product lines, line management/coaching PMs and being even more dynamic, so after 3 years of being at this level, you’d be ready for the Product Director / Head of Product role.

Product Director / Group Product Manager / VP Product / Head of Product

This is where the role starts to change. It goes from an individual contributor who manages a product line and works hands-on with engineering and design teams, to someone who has stepped back from the day-to-day to focus on leading other product managers and working on alignment. This is where soft skills around people management become a critical part of the job.

After being a Product Director for at least 3 years, it’s time to take the final step up to be the Chief Product Officer.

Chief Product Officer (CPO)

A Chief Product Officer is the most senior product person in an organisation. They usually manage more than one team of product managers and represent 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.

The difference between a VP Product and CPO in smaller companies isn’t huge, and the title is used interchangeably for the most senior product person in the company. But in larger organisations that 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 overall product vision, product architecture, and overall organisational alignment.

In ‘Where Does Product Fit? What’s Being a CPO Really Like?’, Zoopla’s CPTO Dave Wascha shares his take on the reality of the CPO role, where Product fits within the organisation, what skills product managers need to be successful, and more. You can also learn how Ashley Fidler went from a PhD in Linguistics to a CPO at Eigen Technologies in her instalment of How I got my job.

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 into your organisation. At a startup, you might have a single Product Manager. As you grow, a couple of Product Managers could report to a Head of Product/VP Product. 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. This way, you can incentivise and organise teams in alignment with your company goals.

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?

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