Product School

Roles Explained: Program Managers vs Product Managers

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Carlos González De Villaumbrosia

April 22, 2024 - 8 min read

Updated: May 6, 2024 - 8 min read

When two types of roles share as many letters as product manager and program manager do, and there’s bound to be confusion. Now consider that program managers are a type of high-level project manager, and you’ve got a recipe for a brain melt!

Luckily, we’re here to straighten you out with clear definitions of product managers, program managers, and project managers, plus technical program managers and technical product managers, to boot!

What’s the difference between a product manager and a program manager?

Product managers’ hearts beat to the rhythm of a product's lifecycle, focusing on the "what" and "why" behind product development. Product managers are visionaries, tasked with defining product strategies, understanding customer needs, and ensuring that the end product resonates with the target market. They bridge the gap between market demands and technological capabilities, shaping ideas into tangible solutions.

Product Manager vs Program Manager

While product managers hone in on product success, program managers oversee a portfolio of projects or initiatives, ensuring they align with the organization's strategic objectives. The distinction lies in their focal points; product managers are centered on product-specific outcomes, innovation, and market fit, whereas program managers emphasize cross-project coordination, resource allocation, and achieving broad organizational goals. 

While product managers dive deep into the lifecycle of a specific product, program managers operate from a bird’s eye view, focusing on a collection of projects—not necessarily product-related—that contribute to a unified objective. They might also supervise product managers.

The main difference between the roles lies in their scopes: product managers are concerned with user needs, product features, and market success; in contrast, program managers focus on achieving strategic alignment across projects, managing risks, and ensuring resource optimization to meet business goals.

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A Day in the Life of a Product Manager vs Program Manager

A typical day for a product manager

As you’ll see, product managers typically work on one product at a time. They manage the feature backlog, review user testing, and coordinate with design and GTM teams to make sure the product aligns with business objectives. Of course, as one product ships, another comes to take its place and there will be some overlap. However, a large portion of their days will be concerned with a particular product.

9:00 AM: Review and prioritize the product backlog by estimating the Cost of Delay for two different features of a new mobile banking app.

11:30 AM: Conduct a cross-functional meeting with engineering, marketing, and design teams to discuss new feature development for the mobile app launch.

1:00 PM: Analyze recent user feedback on the beta version of the app and adjust product strategy and feature prioritization accordingly.

3:00 PM: Present stakeholders with a product roadmap presentation for a user portal expected to launch the following quarter, highlighting progress, expected milestones, and potential roadblocks.

4:30 PM: Meet with the UX team to review the banking app design prototypes and ensure alignment with user needs and product goals.

A typical day for a program manager

Program managers oversee and coordinate different projects related to an overall business goal. Some of these may be product-related, but not necessarily. 

9:00 AM: Update the Digital Transformation dashboard and communicate adjustments to the strategy to senior management. 

10:30 AM: Conduct one-on-one sessions with project managers to ensure their projects align with the broader objectives of the Digital Transformation goals.

1:30 PM: Analyze risk management reports to identify and mitigate potential delays or issues within Digital Transformation.

3:00 PM: Attend a presentation by a product manager highlighting progress, expected milestones, and potential roadblocks for a user portal that is part of the Digital Transformation Program.

4:00 PM: Hold a synchronization meeting with project leads to discuss interdependencies, resource needs, and progress within the Enterprise Digital Transformation.

The Project Manager Position

As we saw above, program managers work closely with another type of PM, the Project Manager. Enough already with these P People! But no, it’s never enough because project managers serve a crucial role in every organization and work closely with both product and program managers. Let’s cover the difference between product and project management.

Project management fundamentals

Project managers focus on executing specific projects within defined constraints, such as time, budget, and resources. They plan, organize, and direct tasks to ensure project goals are met efficiently.

Product managers vs. project managers

Product managers and project managers play distinct but complementary roles within a company. Product managers are responsible for the vision and strategic direction of a product, focusing on market needs and user satisfaction. 

In contrast, project managers are tasked with the logistical execution of specific projects, which may or may not be product-based. They focus on meeting deadlines, staying within budget, and managing resources. Their role is crucial in ensuring that the projects necessary to develop and launch a product are completed successfully and efficiently.

The Role of the Product Owner

Product Owners are deeply embedded within the Agile development process, prioritizing the product backlog to maximize value and align development efforts with customer needs and business goals. They are the key decision-makers regarding what the development team works on, acting as the voice of the customer within the team. The Product Owner ensures that all features and tasks undertaken by the development team deliver maximum value and are aligned with user needs and business strategies

Product Owner vs Product Manager vs Program Manager

Product Owners, Product Managers, and Program Managers each have distinct roles that overlap: 

  • The Product Owner is focused on maximizing value from the development process, often in Agile settings, by managing the product backlog and guiding the team based on real-time feedback. 

  • Product Managers take a broader view, setting the strategy, roadmaps, and feature definitions for the product as a whole. They are more outward-facing, interacting with markets and aligning product visions with business objectives. 

  • Program Managers coordinate multiple projects and project managers, focusing on the overarching goals and strategic alignment of these initiatives within the company. 

Technical Program Managers

At SaaS or IT companies, Technical Program Managers bridge the gap between engineering teams and project management. Their ability to understand and translate technical details into strategic plans is essential for the seamless integration of technology solutions within broader business goals.

Technical Program Managers vs Technical Product Managers

Technical Program Managers and Technical Product Managers both play critical roles within tech-centric projects but focus on different aspects of product and project development. 

Technical Program Managers are primarily concerned with the technical execution and management of complex projects, ensuring that all technical requirements are met and align with the overarching business goals. They work closely with engineering teams to oversee the technical challenges and solutions, maintaining a strong emphasis on the operational aspects of project execution.

Technical Product Managers specialize in products that require more advanced technical knowledge, such as APIs, data platforms, or complex backend systems. Their responsibilities include defining technical requirements, working closely with engineering teams to guide product development, and translating complex technical details into business value for non-technical stakeholders.

While most of their actual duties will be identical to a non-technical Product Manager, they’ll be able to lend more of their skills to the engineering team and have a more hands-on role. It might mean that they have less time to dedicate to other aspects of Product like marketing.

Choosing Your Path: Advice from Product and Program Managers

Advice from a product manager:

Having keen problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills helps tremendously. Stakeholders often have competing priorities, and keeping everyone aligned and towards progress are great skills to have as a PM. Understanding that every function is important to get your product to market and empowering those involved to do their best work, in addition to all of the technical elements it takes to do the job, will make anyone a stellar PM!

– Angelica Alam, 

Senior Product Manager, Wells Fargo

Advice from a program manager

Learn from the experts. Program management is a complex and dynamic field that constantly changes with new technologies, methodologies, and best practices. You can benefit from the knowledge and experience of other program managers who have been in your shoes before.

– Sajjad Movaffagh, Program Manager at Hybrid Teams

Aligning Your Skills with the Right Role

Deciding between a career in product management and program management starts with understanding your strengths and interests. Product managers should have a keen sense for market trends, customer needs, and product innovation. This role is ideal for those who enjoy defining product features, engaging with users, and carrying a product concept through to its market launch.

In contrast, program managers excel in strategy execution, coordination, and operational management. They should possess strong organizational skills, be adept at managing multiple, sometimes conflicting, dependencies, and have a knack for seeing the bigger picture. This role suits strong leaders who thrive on ensuring that all aspects of a program align with organizational goals.

The Organizational Context

Product management and program management roles can vary significantly across different organizations. In startup environments, roles may overlap more, with individuals wearing multiple hats. In larger corporations, roles tend to be more defined and specialized. Making sure you’re the right cultural fit for an organization is just as important as the types of tasks you’re suited for.

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Whatever you decide, make that move with pride! Product and program management both have the potential to be fulfilling careers. 

Updated: May 6, 2024

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