Product management and project management are both important roles in the development of successful products. By understanding the key differences between these two roles, you can better understand how they work together to create products that meet the needs of customers and achieve business goals.
While product managers and project managers have different roles, they often work together to ensure the success of a product. Product managers provide the vision and direction, while project managers execute the plan.
Product managers are responsible for the overall success of a product, from conception to launch and beyond. They work with stakeholders to define the product vision, set goals, and develop a roadmap. They also work with engineers, designers, and marketers to bring the product to life.
Project managers are responsible for overseeing the execution of a specific project. They work with a team to define the project scope, create a timeline, and manage the budget. They also track progress and identify and mitigate risks.
Product = What
Project = When
Imagine a company working on building a mobile application. This mobile app is being built as a 0-1 product and the company has never offered something like this. The main functionality of the app is to facilitate mobile payments. This could be funded as a project and as a product. The project would have a start and end date. There could be a team of engineers (a scrum team) that have a budget to build the app. There would be a scope that would be agreed upon and a budget to abide by. The project manager would help keep the project on track and marching toward an end date. They would help evaluate and alleviate risks that arise and communicate to stakeholders. The project manager would be focused more on the delivery and execution of this project.
The product manager would be setting the scope for what they are actually releasing, working with stakeholders and customers on design input and feedback. They would be laying out the requirements for engineering teams to execute upon. The product manager would work on a strategy to get the product into the hands of customers, from ideation to delivery. The product manager would also help with a go-to-market strategy and partnering with the right stakeholders on the product launch. The product manager is focused on what to build.
I started out as a “project coordinator” working at a small startup. The company offered private-label debit cards to the convenience store industry. The projects I worked on were helping the onboarding of customers to the platform.
This included working under the head of project management, onboarding our newest clients, and helping manage existing clients' requests.
I quickly moved from “coordinator” to “Project Manager” managing the full onboarding of clients. This included management of go-to-market strategies, managing the development and setup of the clients on our system as well as working with the customer to implement software and hardware changes in their physical stores.
As outlined above, some of the tasks above included stakeholder management, intake and go-to-market activities and management of software development processes. This is when I started to overlap with “product management”. I worked on bringing setup and development requirements to engineers, making sure client requests were completed and satisfactory. This also became relationship management with existing clients where we had in-take of new feature requests. As I became more familiar with the business and our customers, I truly began to see the problems that arose in our own offering and where we fell short. I started to gather customer feedback and started pitching in new features and business lines to the executive team.
For me, I and some other team members ended up pitching a new business line to the executive team. This line of business helped fulfill a customer problem and would also provide an additional revenue source to our company. This was funded and I ended up leading this initiative.
Well, my job changed from just carrying out onboarding activities, managing timelines, mitigating risks, and tracking progress and budgets to defining the vision of a product that solved a customer problem, setting goals and developing the roadmap and product that was launched to customers. The job became much more ambiguous. The foundation in project management set me up for success because I had been down in the trenches with customers and truly understood the needs of customers and end users. I was also able to foresee issues that most customers ran into and then help build features that improved the product overall.
My background in project management enabled me to be a great product manager.
I’d recommend a few things. First, make sure you’re interested in being a product manager and you’re familiar with the role. There are a lot of PMs roles out there that are very different. You could be looking at technical roles, growth roles, B2B, B2C, etc. For aspiring PMs, it will be important to have a focused point of entry you’re looking at so that you can gain experience in that and break into and land that product role.
Remove your ego. There can be a lot of ego in articles around product management and in the actual workplace. Product management is not “better” than project and program roles. They are different. If you understand this early in your career, you’ll be set up for success at small and large organizations to become a great partner to cross-functional partners. You’ll most likely end up wearing any combination of these “hats” at some point in your product career and it’s important to understand their differences and significance to the organization.
Think adjacent. There could be many ways to break into product management. A lot of advice I’ve seen is to “create your own product” or “build your own website.” I don’t see this as very helpful. Just because you’ve created a product or built a website does not mean you’re ready to be a product manager. If you go and do that, you’re most likely making assumptions about a customer problem or need and using your ideas and judgments to launch and build something. You would probably gain more valuable experience pairing with a product manager, shadowing, being a project manager for a specific project or even a scrum master on a high-performing team. Engineering leads, developers, UX designers and researchers, project managers and scrum masters are all team members that a product manager would work closely with. If you can become one of these first, you can start to partner with product managers to understand their role. Offer your help and become invaluable to the business to become an SME. You need to develop a keen product sense and customer empathy. Working shoulder-to-shoulder with product managers will provide invaluable experience.