Program Managers vs Product Managers: Who’s who?

Ad hoc projects

Program manager vs product manager is a debate that comes up often in a technical office and here is the scene: You’re working on a task when a question comes up. “Ask the PM,” says your co-worker. But which PM are they talking about? In this article we are going to sum up how to use a program manager, product manager and how they stack up side by side – program manager vs product manager.

Depending on your company or the project, it could refer to the program manager or the product manager. But what’s the difference between them? How does a program manager compare to a product manager? However similar the titles might seem — these roles are not universal and can change at each organization. One company’s product manager might be a different company’s program manager and vice versa.

Both program and product managers have a wide-ranging area of responsibilities. Product management can be broadly defined as driving the development, market launch, and continual improvement of a company’s products. Program management is more lateral, involving the identification and coordination of interdependencies among projects, products, or other strategic initiatives in an organization.

What is a program manager?

program manager vs product manager

A program manager designs and develops programs that are aligned with the company’s goals and vision. Programs are generally defined as related projects that fulfill a business strategy and can be either internal or external. This might include launching a new product or implementing a new customer recruiting process. Program managers must be able to analyze pertinent data to understand the strength and success of their programs in order to continuously improve and provide value.

Their responsibilities of a program manager might include:

  • Expanding program offerings and improve existing programs
  • Work with stakeholders to manage staff and resources for programs
  • Manage program performance and create high-level update reports
  • Promote programs internally or externally to drive engagement
  • Identify risks and create appropriate risk-mitigation plans

Some critical skillsets for a program manager might be:

  • Budgeting and resource allocation. Program managers develop budgets and manage program finances. Strong resource allocation skills can help stretch a limited budget.
  • Conflict resolution and communication. Program managers connect with multiple stakeholders that might have conflicting points of view. They must be able to clearly articulate the program’s value to bring people on board with the central vision.
  • Risk management skills. Managing a program is not without risk. Project managers need to be able to anticipate risks and develop mitigation plans for when things go sideways.

Program managers would bring these skillsets into high-level strategic questions, such as:

  • What value does our current programming offer? How can we increase customer awareness?
  • How much budget should be allocated to these initiatives?
  • Our marketing team has a conflicting initiative — how can we get them to sign on to our hours and workweek to help produce marketing collateral?

What is a product manager?

program manager vs product manager

Product managers decide which products to build and the justification behind them. They’re singularly responsible for the success or failure of a product launch. Product managers usually sit at the intersection of design, technology, and business. As a result, strong product management teams often have broad backgrounds, which allows them to have multiple areas of expertise and bring different perspectives to the table. At the end of the day, the product manager has to ensure that the product vision is closely tied to the company’s values and goals. Similarly to program managers, product managers need to analyze data to guide their product in a strategic direction.

Responsibilities of a Product Manager might include:

  • Determining the needs of customers in a market
  • Reviewing new product ideas and assessing market competition
  • Educating stakeholders on the market and the product
  • Reviewing sales and production costs while managing product profitability
  • Managing the team and training new employees

Valuable skills for a product manager include:

  • Creative thinking with strong attention to detail. Product managers should be able to think outside the box without sacrificing attention to the smaller details of a project.
  • Analytical and problem-solving skills. They need to have an acute awareness of the target market and understand what problem they are trying to solve while analyzing relevant data.
  • Excellent communication and presentation skills. Since product managers interact with multiple stakeholders, they must be able to clearly communicate their vision and the value of the product.

Product managers focus on tactical questions such as:

  • What is the benefit of building the product this way?
  • What is our target buyer persona, and why?
  • What is the optimal product pricing to entice buyers?
  • What features and functionality will be most valuable to our customer base?

Valuable Skills for Both a Program Manager and Product Manager

  • Being organized and ensuring that no work falls through the cracks.
  • Program managers and product managers must be transparent with fellow team members about deadline and project expectations.
  • Having stable and repeatable workflow processes that can be refined automated and implemented are crucial for both program managers and product managers.
  • Being nice and treating team members with respect is something that applies to every and all team members without any exceptions!

While we’ve provided an overview of a program manager vs a product manager these definitions might still change depending on the company’s needs and business areas. Both product and program managers have unique skill sets and responsibilities to expand upon a company’s strategic goals.

By clearly outlining the roles and responsibilities of your product and program management teams, you’ll be more likely to achieve internal alignment and external project success. The tactics they use might be different, but they arrive in the same place: increased value to your customer base.