Differences Among 3 Types Of Managers

Aatir Abdul Rauf


Aatir Abdul Rauf


Sep 26, 2022

Differences Among 3 Types Of Managers

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.

  1. A Project Manager owns the construction of the house
  2. A Product Manager decides where to build the house & what kind
  3. A Program Manager owns neighborhood planning
  4. How are these roles used in practice?

On paper, the roles do have different focal points. Using the housing analogy again, here's how I'd describe them:

A Project Manager owns the construction of the house

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.

A Product Manager decides where to build the house & what kind

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.

A Product Manager owns the strategy

A Program Manager owns neighborhood planning

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.

How are these roles used in practice?

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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