PM — P for Project or Product?

An illustration of P for product, project, program. 3 circle venn diagram of the three terms with a large P in the centre

Is it just the same thing different names, the title of a PM could stand for either a project manager, product manager, or even program manager. Different companies have a different meaning for each title as well, and slightly different nuances to each one. Over 6 internships, 400+ job applications and several interviews later, I have come to a more generic understanding of the difference between a product manager and a project manager.

What kind of questions do they ask?

A product manager is the one who is more interested in the ‘What?’ and ‘Why’ whereas a project manager is the one who focuses on the ‘When?’, ‘Who?’ and ‘How?’. A broader definition of the product manager role is an individual who identifies and articulates what a user’s problem is, determines why this problem needs to be solved, defines a ‘success criteria’ to validate the effectiveness of a solution, and works with UX/UI designers to come up with a prototype of a solution.

A project manager comes into the play after a problem has been identified, and a prototype for the solution has been finalized. The project manager then decides who needs to be involved in building this solution, when the solution will when implemented, and how the final outcome can be achieved. The project manager is the one who drives the effort on a day to day basis, and runs the team to achieve that final goal.

Trip Planning Analogy

Think of a Trip Planning analogy — a product manager would be the one who decides what is the next place the group should travel to, what a possible route might look like and why they should visit that place. The project manager is more like the driver, that decides who needs to come onboard, estimates when they would reach the destination and how they’d get there by bus, by car, by plane.

Differences and Similarities in skills

Given the broader understanding of the two roles, several other aspects of their job also help differentiate the two roles primarily their skillset, the artifacts they work with and the people they work closely with.

Both roles have certain similar skillsets, and a few nuances that make each role unique in itself. The most common are good communication and people skills primarily because both project managers and product managers work with a variety of people like developers, designers, marketing, business etc. Good communication skills help both them understand and speak in different languages depending on the team member’s role.

A few skillsets of a product manager that differentiates them from project managers are their analytical, problem solving and their visionary/entrepreneurial skills. Product managers often work very closely with customer data, as a result they need to analyze it in various different aspects to extract relevant information and insights out of it. Good problem solving skills help them identify which of the solutions best resolve the user’s problem.

Project managers are often found to be detail oriented, have good organization skills and planning skills. Their attention to detail helps them ensure all necessary requirements that are requested by a product manager are met by the development team. It also aids in reporting purposes. Project managers also need to be really organized as they are often the only ones who know what is going on in the team at a high-level (strategy wise) and at a ground-level (implementation & development). Time management and planning skills are also essential in the life of a project manager as need to be on top of the project timelines, delivery schedules, execution etc.

At the end of the day, despite their similarities and differences both roles are quite essential to the teams. Comparing them is like comparing apples to peaches, they might look somewhat similar, but are actually quite different.

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