Q: "What's the difference between a Product Manager, Project Manager and a Program Manager?"
The terms can get confusing at times as organizations tend to use them interchangeably. This is especially true for program & product management. At my Microsoft Program Manager internship, I was doing pretty much what product managers were expected to do: spec writing, collaboration with dev, prototyping etc.
On paper, the roles do have different focal points. Using the housing analogy again, here's how I'd describe them:
A Project Manager is concerned with the "how" & "when" of the project. They obsesses about timely & high quality delivery.
The Product Manager/Owner hands them the blueprint of the house (product) that needs to be built. They then allocate the necessary resources, draw out timelines & monitor progress like a hawk. They are responsible to raise red flags, work with product professionals to get clarity on fuzzy areas & prioritization. Essentially, they're shepherding the team (developers, designers, QA) to get the product out on time.
They own the product strategy, the long-term roadmap & customer discovery processes. They setup the reporting metrics, greenlight major initiatives, prioritize epics, manage expectations with leadership and spearhead innovation.
While they have a say on the functional specifics of the product, they are also thinking at broader level implications, namely, how all the other company departments play a role in the success of the product.
Just like a house isn't completed without a mechanical, electrical and drainage story, a product also needs to hook into sales, marketing etc.
Program Managers coordinate with marketing on go-to-market strategy, customer support for scripts, pre-sales on sales enablement collateral, operations on process engineering & external providers on SLAs. In certain cases, they also sit with legal, governance & accessibility teams to ensure the product is compliant.
In most startups, all three roles are owned & executed by 1 full-stack product manager.
In mid-size organizations, the Product Manager becomes more strategic while Product owners/ Business Analysts pick up the detailed specifics. Project delivery is either owned by tech leads or dedicated Project Managers. Product Marketing Managers, primarily responsible for go-to-market & demand generation, often extend their duties to pull off a number of Program Management duties.
Once teams scale to a number of products (or ecosystem), it's common to have a Product Manager for each workstream, a couple of Project Managers to monitor the overall assembly line & Program Managers to apply the glue between the product stack and other functional areas.
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