Product Manager or Project Manager?

Posted on September 17, 2013 by ThePMJournal

In the companies I worked before, the two roles of Product Manager and Project Manager, were separate roles, because their responsibilities were different and could be done by one person. In F-Startup, the company I was initially hired as a Product Manager, the Product Manager and Project Manager job was the same thing. Despite the fact I knew the two roles can’t be played by the same person, I accepted the challenge to assume responsibilities of both roles. Initially I looked everything as an experiment, because I strongly believed I can do both function in the same time. 

The main responsibility of a Product Manager is to manage product scope. The scope of the product is related by the scope of one or multiple projects. During the execution of the project, the entire process of development and the decisions related to project are taken by Project Manager based on the requirements collected from Product Manager and other stakeholders. In other words, until project ends, the Product Manager plays role of a client to a project. Product Manager can take decision in a project only by influence. When project is delivered, the Project Manager hand over the product or the service resulted from the project execution to Product Manager, who will become the decision factor of the product on entire life cycle (Introduction – after the product launch, Growing, Maturity/saturation and Declination/Withdraw).

Naturally, on the project execution, a Product Manager will always try to increase the scope of the product, to obtain a better product, while a Project Manager will always try to keep or to cut the project scope in order to satisfy other project constraints: time, money, resources, quality, risks, customer satisfaction.

Because I fulfilled both hats of Product and Project Manager, each day I experienced a conflict of interests: “Should I deliver the project on time, even this means to realize a product less better I wanted?” (I was asking myself as a Project Manager) or: “Should I try to obtain a better product, adding/changing features on product scope, meaning to deliver the project lately?” (was asking the Product Manager in me).

When I worn the Project Manager hat, I imposed the deadlines and the way of work, when I worn Product Manager hat, each day I try to convince team of necessity of changing scope of the product. In other words, I could increase the volume of work by changing scope of the product and the project, in the same time I imposed the deadline. Team has only one option: to work more and faster. For teams I worked with, it was disastrous; I personally consider it was a miracle they didn’t shoot me for what I have done to them.

My superiors hardly have accepted the fact I couldn’t play both roles in the same time. According to wiki, a Product Manager in some companies (especially in IT), could be the same as a Program Manager (a function specific to Project Management). This is possible when Product Manager role involves management activities on other departments (R&D, Marketing, IT, Sales, etc.).

There are few similarities between a Product Manager and a Program Manager: both roles involve understanding of product priorities, based on marketing conditions, a good communication with the clients, with business partners, but also with other departments. Product Manager or a Program Manager, involve also coordination of multiple activities interdependent: a product is a result of a inter connected projects, a program represents a group of inter related projects managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits couldn’t be obtained by managing projects individually.

There are however some differences between a Program Manager (part of Project Management) and a Product Manager (part of Product Management): a Program Manager manage a large number of people in a program/proiect, while a Product Manager very rarely has more than 2-4 direct reports (maybe other Product Managers, product analysts, business analysts, designers, etc.).

In software industry, is very unlikely to become a Product Manager, without working at least once as Project Manager (a Product Manager should understand the implications, constraints, dependencies, priorities inside a project in the same way as a project manager does). In other words, the career of a Project Manager looks either as a Product Manager (more client oriented) wither as a Program Manager (oriented to internal organization).

How looks a career of a person aspiring to become a Product Manager: made a lot of grunt work, is a technical person in essence, has been working on various positions in all his career, is ambitious, he tried to create products by themselves, he tried to be entrepreneur but he failed. Those who become Product Managers, without starting their career from the bottom, without working hard on various positions, most likely they have chosen a wrong career.

Which is the fundamental resemblance between Product Manager and a Project Manager?

The common trait, a Project Manager and a Product Manager share, is vanity. Both, truely believe, their role is the most important in the world and they are proud with this. Because of this, a Product Manager tend to behave like a difficult client hard to satisfy, who always asks but never gives back in exchange and a Project Manager tend to behave like boss, but sometimes he doesn’t have the designated authority.

Some PMs think “manager” give them status of “boss”. Because of this false supposition, Project Managers tend to transfer a part of their responsibilities to team and this could lead to a total failure, by partially losing the control of the project.

When is about Product Managers, I know many who consider product documentation(Product Requirement Document, Product Backlog, Marketing Requirements Documents, wireframes, mockups, etc) a waste of time and believe is not their job to make it. By comparison, some Project Managers, believe their job is just a supervision role and everyone from the team should know what they have to do.

What career should I choose: Project Manager or Product Manager?

There are many professional articles describing the difference between a Product Manager and a Project Manager, but there are few can offer you guidance to choose between a Product Manager and a Project Manager career. When I had to choose between the two roles, I had to find out on my own what are the advantages and disadvantages of both roles. From my experience, a Product Manager has slightly less career opportunities than a Project Manager. There are many reasons for this: first of all, in the organization chart, usually a Product Manager report to a executive director or to CEO and because of this, the next career step would be a top management role. Another reason a Product Manager has a career limitation is because he/she hasn’t own a people management role (Product Manager usually lead by influence, not by authority) and almost every top management positions involve people management, so is unlikely he/she will get an executive role. As e personal observation, I noticed in majority of IT companies, a Product Manager is a direct report of an executive with a background in Project Management.


People choose a career in Product Management, not necessarily to have a career in management, but because they have a passion for creating products, for creating life from lifeless. They are those “lonely dreamers” that want to change the world by themselves, they are those who dare to think they will conquer the space, to colonize the first extraterrestrial planet, they are people thinking at evolution, they lead the future. In opposition, Project Managers, are those scared people, are not assuming risks, prefer not to dream, but to have a fat account in bank, a successful career in management… they are so called “men having one’s feet on ground“.

Although many are tempted to choose a career in project management, because it offers a rapid evolution to top management, there are also people who chose a career in product management, oriented to entrepreneurship, to unknown, to big dreams. If everyone would choose to be Project Manager, just to remain with the feet on ground, where would be our dreamers?

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