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Product Manager vs Project Manager vs Program Manager Explained

Mike Kulakov, April 6, 2020
product manager vs project manager vs program manager explained

Product Manager vs Project Manager. Which one do I need? In almost any business, these titles bring confusion about who does what. Here, we’ll break down these roles and see how they compare to one another and set you straight on the who’s who of management.

But before we can uncover the differences between product, project and program management, we need to know a little more about what these areas mean.

  Product Project Program
What is it? A deliverable that evolves over time to meet the needs of an end-user. A temporary activity has defined aims and objectives that should be completed in a certain time scale.  A series of projects joined together that meet a longer-term aim or objective. 
Timescale Long-term Short-term Long-term
Concerned with Evolution of the product Short-term results Benefits/results achieved 
Produces Deliverables/ meeting end-users needs Output (project requirements) Outcome (overall change)
Planning mode Adaptive/Iterative Predictive Adaptive/Iterative
Success measurements KPIs Aims, objectives Overall outcomes

What Is a Product Manager?

A product manager is essentially the boss of their product. Think of this person like a mini-CEO. Whether it’s an app, piece of software, or hardware, they are the person in charge. Of course, they will need to report to the stakeholders, but other than that – this is their baby.

  • Pre-product research 
  • Developing a vision for the product 
  • Selling their vision to the stakeholders and getting them onboard
  • Creating the strategic plan and product roadmap

They focus on the whole of the product, including all its elements from conception right through to realization. The product manager champions their vision for success, evaluates the market and establishes how the product fits, works on internal and external communication strategies to bring the product to the world, and also makes sure the team understands it.

Product Manager vs Product Owner 

But what about a product owner? Who’s that? The difference in these roles is a hot debate online. Some companies use them interchangeably, while, in others, who holds which title says who’s higher up the management food chain (in this case, it’s the product manager). The same goes for the product owner vs project manager debate.

You may see a product owner as a name for product manager in a Scrum team. But the most common use of the term means the person deals with product backlog and user stories, who gives priority levels to the development process, and turns customer pain points into user stories, so the product solves problems.

What’s the Salary of a Product Manager?

If you’re wondering: how much does a product manager make? Let’s take a look. According to Glassdoor, the salary of a product manager ranges between $71K to $146K, with an average of $109K. 

product manager vs project manager vs program manager explained
Remember, these statistics over a variety of fields and areas.

What Should I Be Asking When Hiring a New Product Manager?

You want the smarts, adaptability, flexibility. Someone who is quick on their feet. But how do you know the person in front of you meets these qualities and will be an awesome addition to your team. Here are the questions you should be asking to interview your would-be product manager:

1. To show user focus

✅ What, in your opinion, makes a good user interface?
✅ What’re the best ways to understand user pain points?
✅ Describe a company you think provides and great user experience and tell us why
2. To highlight their ability to challenge the status quo

✅ Tell us about a workplace scenario in which you had to say, “no.”
✅ What do our competitors do better than us, in your opinion?
✅ At our company, we usually use [X] methodology. What’s your view on that and what would you change?
3. To display an analytical mindset 

✅ You have two vital tasks to your project but can’t complete them both. How do you prioritize?
✅ Your design department disagrees with the opinion of your developers. How do you approach this situation?
✅ How would you go about establishing how many internet users there are in the US?
4. If they fit the company culture and are able to work with the team

✅ What methods do you use to explain your strategy to the team? How do you solve problems?
✅ Is consensus always necessary?
✅ What types of people do you enjoy working with?

Which Famous Product Managers Do I Need to Know?

They might not be the superstar CEOs of a company. But product managers play a vital role. Here are some of the top product managers today that you need to pay attention to. Remember to follow them on Twitter or Medium.

product manager vs project manager vs program manager explained

Julie Zhuo

Former Product Design VP at Facebook (see her Medium profile)

product manager vs project manager vs program manager explained

April Underwood

Chief Product Officer at Slack (find out more on her Investor page)

product manager vs project manager vs program manager explained

Josh Elman

VP of Product at Robinhood a Fintech company (learn more on his Medium page)

product manager vs project manager vs program manager explained

Ken Norton

Former Product Manager at Google (see his website for more info)

product manager vs project manager vs program manager explained

Deborah Liu

Product Manager with 15 years’ experience at Silicon Valley companies, such as Facebook, PayPal, and eBay (learn more on her LinkedIn)

What Is a Project Manager?

Project managers need to balance cost, quality, and time to deliver on the aims and objectives. This often means adapting the team and resources to meet the required results. 

  • Converting ideas and initiatives into solid tasks
  • Developing a project timeline to meet the deadline
  • Distributing resources including staffing and financial, and budgeting
  • Setting metrics and monitoring task completion
  • Reporting and providing updates to stakeholders. This may include, product or program managers

The key for project managers is implementing a structure to get results. Their success depends on the team completing their set objectives on time and on budget. This will be the person setting all those Jira (or other) tasks and helping make that project plan.

What’s the Salary of a Project Manager?

You asked, we answered: how much does a project manager make? According to Glassdoor, the salary of a project manager can range between $46K to $107K (per year), with $66K being the average.

product manager vs project manager vs program manager explained
Skills, experience, location, and the specific role will determine the salary you will receive or will offer.

What Should I Be Asking When Hiring a New Project Manager?

Analytic, a keen risk manager, adept at hard and soft skills with leadership qualities to boot. That’s what you need in your project manager. But how will you know you’ve found your ideal project manager? Here’s what you need to ask:

1. To determine analytical skills

✅ Which KPIs do you find helpful in a project?
✅ How do you tell when a project is off-track?
✅ And how do you get it back on track?

2. To establish their ability to work as part of a team

✅ What’s your methodology for distributing tasks?
✅ How do you deal with conflict within your team?
✅ How do you envision your team’s dynamics?

3. To show leadership qualities

✅ How would you get the team on board with your strategic plan?
✅ You have to choose between two essential tasks for your project. Which one do you choose and why? 
✅ How would you describe your leadership style?

4. To highlight experience

✅ Tell us about a project you previously managed. What was your biggest challenge?
✅ What’s your ideal project?
✅ Have you worked with remote teams? Tell us more about your experience.

Which Famous Project Managers Do I Need to Know?

They’re the drive behind the company, the people who push to get things done. Need a little project manager inspiration? These are the people to watch out for:

product manager vs project manager vs program manager explained

Brett Harned

Director of Education at Team Gantt and founder of Digital PM Summit. Brett has literally written the book on project management. See more on his Twitter.

product manager vs project manager vs program manager explained

Susanne Madsen

A world-know PM expert. Susanne is also an author and blogger.

product manager vs project manager vs program manager explained

Seth Godin

PM superstar, Seth uses his blog and Twitter to deliver some of the best info on project management around.

product manager vs project manager vs program manager explained

Danielle Zhu

Danielle is an experienced project manager with 15 years’ experience, and a Twitter packed with loads of helpful insights for PMs worldwide.

What Is a Program Manager?

The program manager is the visionary glue that binds the company’s projects together. Essentially, the program manager makes stuff happen and is the person concerned with the impact of the project, both for the company and for its end-users.

  • Developing an overall strategy and structure
  • Acting as a mentor to project teams
  • Informing and advising stakeholders
  • Undertaking reviews and reporting
  • Monitoring and tracking progress towards the overall result

Differing from company to company, the role of the program manager is to ensure that the company’s projects work towards the overall aim of the company. In tech-based companies, the program manager may take on a more technical role than a product manager. Think of the program manager as the CTO or COO of a business. 

What’s the Salary of a Program Manager?

While the challenge of the job is the real motivator, there’s no doubting money is important too. So, how much does a program manager make? According to Glassdoor, a program manager’s salary can range from $36K to $94K, with $58K being the average.

product manager vs project manager vs program manager explained
This will depend on the project management field, the candidate’s experience, and the company.

What Should I Be Asking When Hiring a New Program Manager?

Someone who manages to get it all done and makes it look easy. Your ideal program manager is someone who brings it all together and makes strategic decisions, such as will timekeeping help our company? These are the top questions you need to be asking your potential new hire:

1. To show leadership

✅ Good communication skills make a good leader. How do you communicate with your teams?
✅ There are conflicts between two of your teams. How do you resolve it?
✅ You have a list of potential projects. How do you decide which ones to include?
2. To highlight critical thinking ability

✅ You have three projects of vital importance. How do you prioritize them?
✅ In the middle of the program, the stakeholders want to change the objective. How do you handy this?
✅ If one area of the program looks like it's failing, what do you do about it? Describe the steps.
3. To display job skills qualities

✅ What was the most recent program you managed? How did you contribute to its success?
✅ What do you do when a program falls behind schedule?
✅ Which metrics matter most to you?
4. To reveal how they work as part of a team

✅ Which methodologies did you use to bring your teams together on a previous project?
✅ How do you motivate your team to achieve their goals?
✅ Which metrics do you apply to your team as a measure of success? And how do you get them on board?

Product Manager Vs Project Manager Vs Program Manager Comparison

Phew! Now that you know a little more about who these people are. Let’s take a look at how these roles compare to one another. Are they interchangeable? And do you really need all these people on your team?

The short answers? No, and yes.

Each of these roles has its own distinct function within an organization. And, there’s no double jobbing here. You need an individual person for each one. Here’s the breakdown.

Product Manager Vs Project Manager

  • Both follow a task-based process to reach their objectives
  • Hold responsibility for proper budget allocation
  • Have a range of transferable skills – listening, communicating, organizing, and love for what they do
  • Need to display leadership skills and industry knowledge
  • The product manager makes the plan, while the project manager strategizes how to implement it within their team
  • The project manager is a problem-solver while the product manager focuses on ascending to the bigger picture

When choosing between a career as a product manager or project manager, one of the topics that comes up is product manager vs project manager salary. Although a product manager generally comes out on top of this. The answer to this question should be more about what you are looking for from the role. Do you seek more creativity and outside interaction, or are you focused and logical? The former should explore the product manager role, while later may be best suited to project managers.

Program Manager Vs Project Manager

  • Both oversee the work of others and require excellent communication skills
  • Problem-solving is top of the list here. Both these roles require solving people, resource and budget issues
  • The scope of the program manager is wider. They often oversee large numbers of projects and are often the bosses of project managers
  • Program managers focus on overall strategy, while project managers are tactical in achieving it
  • While both have deadlines, program managers often work on long-term objectives that can cover a number of projects. Project managers focus on short-term deliverables which contribute to those objectives

These similar-sounding roles could not be more different. Although the titles are often mixed up and switched around, for those thinking of entering the field, the key question is, do you like long-term plans or short ones? That critical thinking mindset is valid for both, but you should decide where you want to focus your energy to get results.

Product Manager Vs Program Manager

  • Both cover a wide scope and tend to wear many (working) hats
  • Focus on the bigger picture and drive the company and its activities based on a vision
  • The roles are uncertain and require creativity
  • Product managers and project managers both need to be deeply involved and have a good understanding of all areas of the company from A to Z
  • The product manager is outwardly focused, shaping the product around the end-user. While the program manager looks inward and at the internal strategy of the activities and how the fit

While almost similar in function and qualities required, these roles require differently focused people to undertake them. The would-be managers should be analytical, but the focus of those analytics varies between in-ward facing activities and outward-facing ones. 

Wrap Up

So, who do you hire for your team? That star product manager vs project manager? Or should you give preference to a program manager vs project manager?

Truth is…

It’s preferable to get all three. Their roles are diverse and interconnecting. If organized properly and concisely defined they can work together in harmony to strategically and effectively boost your business and not even break a sweat.


Mike Kulakov

IT entrepreneur, executive and a former engineer. Responsible for company growth as well as the team’s motivation. Big fan of playing tennis, snowboarding, traveling, reading books, and (of course) I live and breathe our product.