Product vs Project Management

December 8, 2020

The last couple days I’ve been involved in a couple unique conversations about the difference between Product and Project Management. As someone who does not work in either of these roles, but often works with people in these roles, these are just my opinions and expectations as an engineering looking in. I don’t expect to be 100% right, and recognize that these roles will have slightly different meanings in different organizations.

If you are reading this and work directly in one of these roles, and your responsibilities differ, I’d love to hear from you, and potentially include your personal experiences at the end of this post.

First off, why does this question even matter? Well, despite what many “thought leaders” on Twitter may argue, titles do matter. They are a signal to others (both in-and-out-side of the company) of your level of expertise, trust, and responsibility. These same reasons why titles matter in other areas of a company apply to the difference between a Product and a Project Manager: the title sets the expectations for the responsibility and expectations of those in that role.

Any statement that “titles don’t matter” is being made from a position of blinding privilege, but this is a deeper topic for another post.

Product Manager

A product manager should be a subject matter expert in the field that the product lives. They should know the order that tasks should be delivered in, based on what actually matters to the end user, but the exact calendar timeline of those deliverables may be less in their control. They should be working to un-block the rest of the team at a product requirements level.

A product manager should be 100% involved in defining the deliverables and feature requirements of the product that they own, and should be the one interacting the most with the end-user and external stakeholders.

Project Manager

A project manager should know what tasks are complete, when tasks are schedule for, and if we’re probably going to hit the deliverables/time-lines as expected. They should be working to un-block the rest of the team at an organizational level.

A project manager typically should not be defining deliverables or feature requirements from an external-facing perspective.

In effect, a Product Manager should be responsible for acting as the “CEO” of their product, by determining and defining the overall direction of the product. A Project Manager should be operating as the “COO”, ensuring that the operational pieces are in place such that the team is able to effectively deliver on those goals.

There are clearly talented individuals who are capable of performing either of these roles. In many smaller companies, it is even possible (and common) to do both of these jobs at the same time, but that does not change the fact that this becomes less common as companies (and responsibilities) grow. Attempting to perform both of these roles at the same time can quickly become overwhelming, and focus becomes necessary in order to do either of them well. Having the roles and titles well defined helps everyone in the organization to set and understand expectations.

Note: There is a similar argument that can be made between many “Lead Engineers” and Product Managers. Many people could do both jobs, but it can quickly grow to be too much work for a single person.