Today, we’re exploring two of the most mixed-up roles in the business world: product managers and project managers.
If this is your first experience with these terms, you’d be forgiven for wondering what the difference is between a product manager and a project manager. That’s why I’ve broken down the responsibilities of each role along with fitting examples for each one. However, before we jump into that, what is a project manager and product manager?
Product manager vs project manager: What’s the difference?
These two titles sound nearly identical, and you might even think they are interchangeable. The devil is in the details (sue me, I like cliches) when it comes to these two positions, and in some ways, there is some overlap.
A product manager, sometimes known as a product owner, is the shot caller with the development of new products. They drive the vision and initiative when creating products. On the other hand, a project manager is the driving force and oversight of projects. Product development is, essentially, a project.
Therefore the product manager will always work closely with the project manager throughout the development life cycle with the former dealing more in the high-level responsibilities, while the latter works more closely with a team.
What is a product manager responsible for?
Now that you understand the general difference between the product manager and project manager, let’s dive deeper into what a product manager is responsible for. I’m warning you now, I have plenty of Steve Jobs product management examples cued up for this section because, well, I’m an Apple fanboy, and you’re just gonna have to deal with it. So, let’s get started.
1. Defines the vision of the product
While this responsibility makes the product manager sound like a glorified TED talker, it is one of the foremost and important duties of this role. The product manager is the centralized visionary of the development process. Their purpose is communicating the needs and requirements to the development team in order to make that vision a reality.
Steve Jobs is a fantastic example for this. Before Apple fired Jobs, he led the development of the Apple LISA and original Macintosh. While I’m aware that the first Steve Jobs biopic scrubbed away a lot of his rough image, this scene is an interesting rendition of what a product manager is supposed to do.
Jobs wasn’t a technical worker. He famously never wrote a line of code for any Apple product. Instead, he set and guided the vision of these two products throughout the development process. This was a job he notoriously took a little too seriously, to the point of creating a severely hostile work environment, which contributed to his initial exit from the company.
These flaws aside, Jobs was known for his vision. This strength eventually led to his reinstatement at Apple and subsequent success as the CEO after delivering hit after hit with the iMac, iPod, and iPhone. Just please, don’t yell at your team and make them feel miserable.
2. Develops the position and messaging for the product
The great thing about defining the vision of the product is your intimate knowledge of its features, target audience, and use cases. The product manager doubles as the product evangelist by developing the position and messaging presented to the consumer. The product manager works closely with marketing to develop the messaging strategy and sometimes even delivers that messaging to the public.
You guessed it, here comes your second Steve Jobs example. We’ve all seen the keynote speeches. The black turtle neck, mom jeans, and white New Balance shoes are practically a Silicon Valley icon at this point because of Jobs’ memorable presentation style when unveiling a new Apple product.
Take the unveiling of the iPod for instance:
Jobs understood the iPod was more than just another MP3 player. Apple wasn’t the first to the game in the portable digital music scene, but Steve wanted to make the iPod the standard to which all other devices aspired. He marketed it as “1,000 songs in your pocket.”
As Apple CEO, Steve Jobs involved himself as a de facto product manager by having a hand in the design, direction, vision, and messaging of its most important products, including the iPod.
Product managers should know their product inside and out to where they can help create a messaging campaign that targets the correct audience and use case.
3. Goes to bat for the product team
The product manager is ultimately responsible for the team developing the product. This means that whenever the product team requires anything, whether resources, time, or anything else, the product manager fights for these things. The product manager is the bridge between the product stakeholders and the development team, and their job is to get whatever the team needs to deliver the product.
While developing the Macintosh, Steve Jobs continuously had to go to bat for his product team so they could get access to the best hardware available to build a revolutionary product, even if it meant going over the established budget. Now, in some cases, a product manager can go overboard and push too much, as was the case with Steve Jobs.
I’m gonna use the second (and superior) Steve Jobs biopic for this example:
Everything Steve pushed into the Macintosh, the budget be damned, placed the Macintosh out of the public's price range, especially during a time when no one could understand what the computer was meant for.
Luckily for Steve, most everything that you use in your current operating system interface, like drop-down menus and such, started with the Macintosh. Technically the Apple LISA was one of the first to use a graphical user interface, but it was quickly overshadowed by the cheaper, newer Macintosh. Just throwing that in there for the sticklers.
Jobs was proven right because he went to bat for his team and his product even when Apple wanted to rest on the sales of the Apple II, a product that was becoming obsolete. While it’s apparent that Jobs partially went to bat for his ego, it’s clear he cared about the team and the product they developed.
4. Creates the product roadmap
While the product manager is not the all-knowing arbiter of the creative workflow, they are the final say in how and when a product is developed. They determine how long it will take to develop the product, what the steps are, how long each step will take, what the priorities are in the roadmap, and what risks threaten to throw the roadmap off course.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a specific Steve Jobs example to go along with this product manager responsibility, but let’s take a look at the release patterns for Apple products. Apple is consistent with product announcements and releases. have come every September without fail since 2012, minus special exceptions like the iPhone X.
And they’ve tried hard to hit this goal every single year. Like the user experience it tries to create, Apple seeks consistency and predictability with product releases and this is only possible through quality product road mapping, courtesy of skilled product managers.
What is a project manager responsible for?
Let’s shift away from all my Apple and Jobs references because we’re moving onto a different animal: project management. This time I’ll draw on my experiences with one of the best project managers I’ve worked with in my career, an old mentor and manager, Rachel.
So, what is a project manager responsible for?
I’ve boiled down my list of project manager responsibilities into four distinct directives that meld together several similar attributes for expediency. If you want to learn more, visit the linked article.
1. Team leadership
While the product manager is the general of product development, the project manager is the platoon leader of the project life cycle. Their job is to lead the team to success no matter what it takes. The best project managers are excellent communicators with open minds and fervent people skills.
A project manager finds the strengths and weaknesses of the team and assembles their personnel to guarantee the best possible outcome. Leadership also means holding everyone accountable through time management, building camaraderie, team building, and inspiring action through reward and recognition.
Rachel was a leader. She went above and beyond to get to know her team, understand their strengths and weaknesses, and find the best possible assignments during the project intake process so her team would succeed. She even took time out of her schedule to speak individually with each of her team members to understand how they came to work for the company.
Once she took the time to understand and place us, she was fantastic at fostering our success through open dialogue and encouragement. If we were stuck on an issue she wouldn’t give us the answer, but she would help guide us to a solution. Project management is a role for leaders and without leadership skills, it’s hard to envision how deliverables will make it through the execution process.
Project managers are not only expected to lead; they’re also ultimately responsible for the project’s number crunching. They aren’t expected to be whizz accountants, but project managers are supposed to keep regular tabs on the project budget to ensure the team isn’t incurring significant and unnecessary costs.
Rachel was responsible for the expenses our team incurred while working through our tasks. She also went to bat for new expenses to expand the responsibilities and capabilities of our team, whether that came in the form of new software, tools, classes, or materials. While I wasn’t familiar with her budgeting processes, I know she informed the higher-ups on all of these expenses, along with their justifications.
3. Project documentation
A project manager reports progress back to the project stakeholders, and the only way to accurately do that is through documentation. Throughout the project execution phase, the project manager must document all progress through reporting tools and write-ups which detail the ups and downs of the process.
Rachel was great at managing our progress metrics and gathering feedback from her team so she could report back this information to her higher-ups. What’s even better is that she would show us our metrics and work to understand the highs and lows of our numbers so she could accurately contextualize the data to her supervisors.
Rachel was all about measuring, communicating, and finding new ways to improve our performance as a team. Everything was connected and nothing was ignored.
4. Project planning
Just like a product manager, the project manager is directly involved in developing the project roadmap. The project manager is involved with all aspects of planning the project and they’ll work with all members of the team to understand their capabilities and time frames so they can build the most accurate timetable for completion.
Rachel was a master at planning out new projects for our team to work on. Like all of her other responsibilities, she understood these tasks didn’t happen in a bubble and she had to communicate with her team to build a project plan.
She knew our capabilities and would regularly meet with us to get a sense of how fast we were expected to finish any particular task. She would develop roadmaps for everything from major projects to experimental side efforts that our team was looking to implement.
To succeed as a project manager, understand that while you build the plan, it takes the entire team to execute that plan. Open up the floor for discussions and feedback before putting pen to paper on the project plan.
Want to learn more about working in project and product management?
If you’re on the path to becoming a project or product manager, The Blueprint can help you with countless how-to articles and beginner’s guides. Once you’ve learned everything you need to know — from project phases to the major project management software players (a few certifications don’t hurt either) — you’ll be ready to tackle any project with ease.
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