Product Manager vs. Project Manager vs. Program Manager: What's the Difference?

updated on 09 March 2022

The abbreviation "PM" can be confusing. Many people outside of the big tech industry and even those working in big tech or FAANG companies often confuse the terms Product Manager, Program Manager, and Project Manager. The responsibilities of these roles are often conflated, making it challenging to understand which role is the right one for you, whether you're looking to apply to jobs as a new grad, looking to pivot roles, or switch careers. 

In this blog, we'll talk about:

  • What is Product Management, Program Management, and Project Management?
  • Responsibilities of a Product Manager vs. Program Manager vs. Project Manager
  • Product Management + Program Management + Project Management = A Powerful Collaboration.
  • Wrap up!

What is Product Management?

Product Managers are often referred to as the CEOs of teams. While this title is debatable, several FAANG and big tech leaders have product management backgrounds.

According to Martin Eriksson, Product Management lies in the intersection of technology, business, and user experience(UX). A product manager generally comes from a technical background related to their building product. They mainly focus on understanding the needs of its users and the market's needs to build a valuable, usable, and feasible product. They set the product vision, communicate with the team and stakeholders via product roadmaps, and collaborate with the engineering, design, marketing, sales, finance, and customer support teams to execute the product. Product managers oversee the product's functionality by working closely with the engineering team to ensure it does what it wants fulfils user needs.

 Product Managers work with technology but do not necessarily require coding skills.
 Product Managers work with technology but do not necessarily require coding skills.

Product managers are responsible for building Product Requirements Documents(PRDs) that cover all related information to a particular product based on user research. It aims to define what the product teams are going to build. PRDs differ from one company to another based on their vision and what they build.

It is also essential to remember that product owners are different from product managers.

Must read: Land into a Product Manager Role - Ultimate Career Guide

What is Program Management?

Program Managers are all about the 'hows' of a product or project. They identify interconnected dependencies between products, projects, or programs and coordinate and communicate with various teams and stakeholders on the execution of the project.

Program Managers can be considered to be the COOs of a team.
Program Managers can be considered to be the COOs of a team.

Program managers mainly focus on how the company will build the product or how the team will work on a project. Several company teams work on a project, and program managers handle the schedules of various project deadlines. Program managers are responsible for collaborating with cross-functional teams, managing senior stakeholders of the company and resource negotiation for their programs. They also help teams mitigate risks in a time and resource-efficient manner.

Roles of program manager are considered both tech and non-tech roles. A professional from a business background can also look at program manager roles at FAANG+ companies. However, there are also positions called 'Technical Program Managers' which require technical knowledge, preferably experience as a practising engineer in the past.

Program managers coordinate the efforts of various teams to ensure the product is ready on time and support the program to accomplish it. 

Tips: How To Crack FAANG Tech Interviews

What is Project Management?

Project Manager and Program Manager positions may look very similar. But there is a substantial difference between project Manager and program manager.

Project managers play the lead role in planning, executing, monitoring, controlling and closing projects.
Project managers play the lead role in planning, executing, monitoring, controlling and closing projects.

Project managers in big tech companies are assigned projects which may or may not be a part of a program. For example, a company may have a program that consists of various products and projects. While the program in its entirety may not have a deadline, projects within a program have deadlines. They need to be accomplished in the given timeframe with limited resources and budget. 

A project manager is responsible for breaking down strategic plans into actionable, task-oriented initiatives. This involves coordinating and leading teams, communicating within and among teams to ensure the project is ready on time.

Responsibilities of a Product Manager vs. Program Manager vs. Project Manager

Understanding the differences between these roles is important for job seekers to ensure they’re applying for the right positions.
Understanding the differences between these roles is important for job seekers to ensure they’re applying for the right positions.

Here's what the differences in responsibilities for each of these roles may look like:

Product Manager Responsibilities:

  • Defines the product vision, strategy, and roadmap.
  • Identifies and manages market and user customer needs.
  • Collaborates with the data science, engineering, design, marketing, sales, finance, and customer support teams. 
  • Builds business cases for new products and focuses on improvements to existing ones.
  • Participates in resource(staffing) negotiation and allocation for various projects.
  • Creates product roadmaps and PRDs.

Program Manager Responsibilities:

  • Organizes programs and projects in the company. 
  • Creates and manages short-term and long-term goals.
  • Develops evaluation methods to assess program strengths and identify areas for improvement.
  • Formulates risk mitigation strategies to ensure projects and products are on track.
  • Meets with stakeholders to make communication easy and transparent regarding project issues and decisions on services.

Project Manager Responsibilities:

  • Determines and defines project scope and objectives.
  • Predicts and manages resources required to reach goals and prepares budgets based on resource requirements.
  • Develops and manages a detailed project schedule and work plan to ensure that the teams meet goals with limited resources.
  • Utilizes industry best practices, techniques, and standards throughout the entire project execution.
  • Measures project performance to identify areas for improvement.

The roles and responsibilities for these positions may vary between industries and companies. Hence, when analyzing these positions from a career point-of-view, it is crucial to understand these roles in the context of their industry, company, and team.

To summarize the distinction between the three roles, we can look at them in terms of the ‘Wh’ questions. A product manager focuses on the 'Who,' 'What' and 'Why' of a product; a project manager focuses on the 'When' and 'Why' of a project, whereas the program manager focuses on the 'How' of a program.

Product Management + Program Management + Project Management = A Powerful Collaboration.

Although the roles and responsibilities of a Product Manager, Program Manager, and Project Manager differ from one another, when all three of them bring excellent skills and expertise to the table, it could result in a powerful collaboration.

Product, Program and Project Managers together help build a successful business for companies.
Product, Program and Project Managers together help build a successful business for companies.

A product manager combines a deep understanding of the customer with knowledge of the competitive landscape and market situation to provide the Project Manager with the scope required to determine the appropriate resources (Cost) and schedule (Time) to complete the project. 

The project manager brings together a team to implement a project, understands the details, and tracks work progress to meet the project's desired goal within the allocated time and budget to complete the product requirements. 

The program manager further oversees the tasks of the product and project teams to ensure everything is well-coordinated and communicated internally. 

They can accomplish much more when they work together, accelerating time-to-market through an exceptional project and program execution.

Wrap Up!

To sum it up, the responsibilities of a Product Manager, Program Manager, and Project Manager overlap at various junctures and are yet different from each other in certain aspects. While those in these positions develop presentations, roadmaps, and various other artefacts, their roles and responsibilities are mainly associated with communicating and aligning the strategy with stakeholders.

When applying for these positions, it is essential to know what a day for these roles looks like to identify the best fit for you. An optimized LinkedIn profile and resume that highlights all relevant skills to the position you're applying for can help you stand out from other candidates and land your dream job at FAANG+ companies!

FAANGPath team is committed to helping job seekers to take the first step towards their dream job. The team of our dedicated mentors will provide you with an in-depth overview of resume preparation, best LinkedIn tips, interview guidance, career mentorship, and much more. You can find out more about FAANGPath mentors at Team|FAANGPath. Our services include resume review, LinkedIn makeover, mock interview, and 1:1 mentorship.

Reach out to us now!

Get more tips on job search, LinkedIn makeover, and best career advice from FAANGPath mentors on our LinkedIn and Instagram handle.

Join our 4000+ member discord community and get a free LinkedIn profile review.

Understand the key differences between Product vs Program vs Project Manager.
Understand the key differences between Product vs Program vs Project Manager.

Read more