Product Manager Vs Project Manager

Agile. CICD. User Centered Design. Product Roadmap. AI. Big Data. TDD. To those on the outside looking in, the software industry seems to be full of buzzwords. Further exacerbating this perception, the terms used to describe careers in this industry can seem like synonyms to the average individual. For instance, if I used the terms product and project manager in a sentence, would you assume they were interchangeable terms? If you did, that’s okay.

A lot of people would, too. That’s why I’ve decided to write this article. I want to take the time to walk through both of these professions with you to provide an accurate description of what a product and a project are, and what a product and a project manager actually do.

Project is the output

  • A project focuses on timelines, dates and budgets. It can be defined by the “project triangle”: time, money scope.
  • I see Project Managers (when done properly) as the enablers for the best chance of product team success. They’re always being aware of the product development but rarely intervening into the actual product build. They leave it to the product team’s skills to deliver on the product.
  • They enable the product teams success by working with the Product Managers on scope, cost and time and strategically delivering that enablement by working with the stakeholders. This helps the product managers worry about delivering on the product although product managers should still be in the communication pipeline with stakeholders. This also depends on the size of the company. A startup or medium sized company may only have a product manager to stakeholder relationship where as a large sized company may have a project manager in the middle.

Product is the outcome

  • What is a product? — A product is any good or service that solves a users needs or wants and has a combination of tangible or intangible features. In our world, it is living entity, delivered quickly and is constantly iterated on. There is no end date as it evolves to users needs.
  • Think Uber, the app is the product and the ability to select a pick up time and location is a tangible feature. This serves the busy users want for the ability to select a precise pickup time and location. A project would be the start and end time to when this product feature can be delivered.
  • Outcome focused? — Rather than focusing on timelines, dates and budgets, product managers focus on delivering a product roadmap with the users wants and needs. Product Managers still rely on the Project Managers to achieve the product outcomes. They still need help managing resources to accomplish goals and timelines to ensure market timing. Scope is something that will derive from the users needs whether it’s getting an MVP out or implementing complex machine learning as an example.

The main takeaway here is that the two roles are completely different. They have different skill sets yet the roles in an ideal situation work very cohesively together for the best chance of product success. When done properly, product managers can dedicate more hours of the day on delivery because project managers enable them to do so. I’ve personally only seen it go wrong when the project manager isn’t engaged enough with the product team to convey the product situation to stakeholders. The other way around would be that the product manager isn’t transparent enough to the project manager for the project manager to effectively enable the product team.

Would love to hear your thoughts on this,

Thanks for reading!

Alex Passero

Product Manager in Tech. I'm early in my career, growing, learning and have no idea where the next product will take me. I