A Product Manager Is Not a Project Manager

What is a Project Manager?

A project manager is a person who is responsible for a project or program and directs its implementation. The definition and perspective of the role vary by industry, organization, and job type. In some cases, the role of a project manager is carried out by an individual or a small team. In other cases, it is carried out by an entire department.

A project manager is a highly skilled professional who is responsible for a project’s success. It is one of the most critical roles in any organization since it ensures that the goals of the project are met. 

With project management, everything depends on the initial plan and activities. Once a project is handed over to a project manager, it’s their duty to make things happen. And this includes planning, scheduling, resource allocation, budget monitoring, and quality control.

Before we dive into the details of this debate, let’s quickly review what project management and product management are. 

A project is an initiative or undertaking that is carefully planned and managed to achieve specific goals. It has a beginning and the project once delivered is considered finished. At least it’s this way I’ve been trained during my years as a consultant many years ago. 

More formally: project managers have the responsibility of organizing, planning, and managing a project. In any activity that has a defined range, defined start, and a defined end. The type of industry does not change this fact. Project managers are the person in charge of any concerns or issues arising internally or externally.

Role and Responsibilities of a Project Manager

  • Project Definition,
  • Document Management,
  • Project Planning,
  • Resource Allocation & Budget Management,
  • Progress Monitoring, Stakeholder (and Governance) Board Meetings,
  • Risk Management,
  • Quality Insurance and Control,
  • Project Closure & Delivery,
  • Lessons Learned and Repository/Wiki follow up for future Projects.

The Project Manager is responsible for the success or failure of the project.

There are many different industries and each of these roles and responsibilities will diverge from the other.

In our case, we’ll focus on IT Project Managers and more specifically in software development. At Product.House, we build products, essentially digital products: Web and Mobile oriented mainly.

What is an IT Project Manager?

IT project management generally falls into two categories, namely software (development) project manager and infrastructure project manager.

Although he fulfills many of the same skills as his colleagues from other industries, a software project manager will typically have a wide set of skills and experiences in software development. Many software project managers are highly educated engineers, often holding computer science or information technology or related field degree (such as management of information systems). 

What is a Product Manager?

A product manager is a person who is responsible for the conception, development, and launch of a company’s product (heavily simplified but you get the idea and the level of discrepancies). 

While the terms “product manager” and “project manager” are used interchangeably in some companies, they are very different roles responsible for managing very different things. 

A project manager is responsible for managing a specific project, and a product manager is responsible for developing, planning, and launching products. 

One (the project manager) is project-focused (the achievement of an ultimate goal. Let’s say a bridge construction and its official delivery). He is often concerned about meeting strong deadlines and does deliver a unique “production”.

The other one is product-centered, and the product and service he is working on are destined to be “produced or delivered” en masse. 

Of course, both are pretty obsessed with Gantt charts and/or Roadmaps but with different levels of obsessions if I may attempt at a little humor here.

What are the Roles and Responsibilities of a Product Manager?

Simply put, the Product Manager pilots:

  • vision and product leadership,
  • strategy and market research,
  • business model,
  • product roadmap,
  • UX and product backlog,
  • product lifecycle management.

Product Manager vs. Project Manager

The Project Manager focuses on

  • delivery dates, and ending: the project delivery final date,
  • project plan, 
  • project scope, 
  • project cost and budget, 
  • external dependencies, 
  • monitoring progress and 
  • answering project stakeholders questions, and 
  • solving cross departments (involved or affected by the project) issues.

The Product Manager focuses on:

  • product strategy,
  • high-level requirements,
  • rough time frame,
  • product research, 
  • understanding customer needs, rallying team members around his product vision, validating the business model, defining, monitoring, and improving on the KPI (Key Performance Indicator), the success metrics.

What is the Overlap between the Product Manager and the Project Manager?

  • Both lead without use of power,
  • Both roles are requiring strong communication skills,
  • both are held accountable towards stakeholders,
  • both are way more efficient if they have a strong Industry knowledge,
  • they both need strong abilities in prioritization, Gantt (for slightly different purposes), planning/scheduling, and follow-up know-how.

Can a Project Manager Become a Product Manager?

As you understand by now, because of the overlapping roles and responsibilities, your abilities to manage a project, plan and schedule activities and resources, your non-authoritarian leadership style, your practice of soft skills set, you can become a great product manager and adapt quickly enough to serve as a great company and product team asset.

Which is a Better Career Product Manager or Project Manager?

Oh, yes, one more “it depends’ type of answer, but it’s really what it is. So let’s try to be more specific.

Is a Product Manager Career Better than a Project Manager for a new College, University Student?

These are my take based on 40 years of working experience from worker to technician, consultant, business owner across industries. It won’t be the usual advice you’ll find out there, you’ve been warned.

I strongly believe in starting from the bottom and building your career from the ground up by hard work and immersing in one more different working world each step of the way. 

Well, for the sake of the argument, I’ll assume that you are attracted by High-Tech Industries. I’d advise you to get your hands dirty and start with some workers’ experience to understand workers’ world, challenges, issues, and their mindset, and values.

Then grow to a “technician” level. It does not matter if you come from business management or technical training background. You got out of the “worker” minimum wage zone to enter a non-exec “problem-solver” universe. It’s a career move, one more ladder “rung” under your feet. 

To speed things up, because you won’t have to spend years in each “universe”, you could build this professional development path through internships with an apprentice mindset. 

You will find more on internships vs apprenticeships in Product.House website. You will understand why I think Internships are a misuse of your time, energy, and cannot mean much for an employer. 

I will detail my thought on our apprenticeship model in a dedicated article.

Is Product Manager Career Move better than Project Manager for Junior Professional?

So you got your degree from a Trade, Vocational School, or College, and you managed to work in a “Problem-solving” universe for let’s say 1 to 3 years. It’s maybe time to move on or move up. 

By now, you got a better idea of what you dislike by experiencing work politics, interrelations games, power trips, strong egos, baronies, management silos, and have experienced the: 

  • “what-is-not-said-but-meant”, the
  • “why-organizational-culture-and-mission-statements-seldom-match” and the
  • “there-is-a-world-of-opportunities-in-the-rest-of-the-universe-out-there” feeling of liberty.

It’s maybe the best achievement you could dream of since there are so many misconceptions about the “discover your dream job and professional happiness” notion. 

At least, now, you know better and understand that technical skills won’t get you that far unless you are hyper-focused in the technical aspect of your job and by no means want to enter any “managing” roles… for now.

Of course, what I describe could be different and maybe you experienced an organizational world where love, empathy, widely felt support and passion for your work shine. 

In this case, what would help is to talk to project managers and product managers, getting to know them, and acquire enough “on the job” feedback so that you could make your own informed decision.

A word of caution, the term management (in “product management”) does not imply a management typical role. You are not “owning” any team member. You do not act as a “real” manager. You are not working in a higher position, you are leading a product vision and facilitate product success. 

Don’t be disappointed, that’s the beauty of product management. It will force you to polish your interpersonal skills and increase your EQ (Emotional Quotient) and EI (Emotional Intelligence) skill sets. You will discover how leading by rallying is way more “comfortable” than leading by the implied power over your teammates.

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