Product Manager vs Program Manager: What's the Difference?

Updated on June 14th, 2021
Product Manager vs Program Manager: What's the Difference?

In the world of management, you’ll see a lot of different management roles. And it’s easy to get confused about some of these roles. That’s why we need a product manager vs program manager-style look into the differences between a product manager and a program manager.

Both these roles serve a specific purpose that is mutually exclusive. The job titles may overlap in some cases, but when we’re talking about an established product, both roles are required to make it work.

Generally, both product and program manager roles serve an overseeing role.

In this article, we’ll have a product manager vs program manager-style look into the differences between both roles.

Let’s get started.

What’s the Difference Between Product Management and Program Management?

Oftentimes, the terms Product Management and Program Management are used interchangeably without people realizing that there’s a distinct difference between the two.

Product management is a field that focuses on product development, product launches, and consistent product support needed to maintain and improve company products and services.

The entire point of product management is to ensure that all company products follow a strategic roadmap, ensuring that all products go through the stages of the product lifecycle.

However, for the most part, product management is mostly the continual maintenance and oversight of existing products and product lines.

Alternatively, program management is focused on lateral support. It involves managing and coordinating the interdependencies among various projects, products, and other strategic initiatives.

In other words, program management is there to make sure that every department and team gets what they need. For instance, during product development the engineering team, web design team, marketing team, and other stakeholders will have some deliverables.

The program manager ensures that each team has what they want, ensures collaboration, and makes the communication process easier.

While the roles in product management and program management may overlap in small-scale organizations, they need to be different in large-scale operations.

Factoring in Project Management – Product Manager Vs Project Manager

We understand the difference between product management and program management, but there’s also a project management role in the product world.

Project management is an action-based role where the project manager is responsible for execution. Project managers are often called the Scrum Master and have to work with Agile development processes. Their focus is on schedules, budgets, and deliverables.

More importantly, project management mostly focuses on individual projects rather than an entire product.

That means if a product is getting a new feature, the development and implementation of that feature will be one project. And subsequently, a project manager will be assigned to that project.

They would then be working with the product manager to develop a project plan based on the current product roadmap. At the same time, the project manager will also be working with the program manager to work out the dependencies.

If you're interested in getting the skills to become a great product manager, then check out our product management certification courses.

Product Manager Certification

Product Manager Vs Program Manager – Overview

The following is a complete breakdown of what a product manager and program manager are, including their responsibilities and skillsets:

Product Manager Overview

A product manager focuses on the company’s products and their success. They may have to decide what products to build and launch and justify the reason behind it. Similarly, they have to decide how to maintain and develop any company product further.

Usually, product managers are responsible for launching a new product. They have to complete market research, figure out profit-maximizing approaches, and understand customer needs.

If we’re talking about a technical product manager, they will also need to keep track of all product features, customer feedback, and the available technical and financial resources.

Product Manager Job Responsibilities

The duties, tasks, and responsibilities of a product manager can vary depending on the industry, organization, and product. However, generally, a product manager needs to be able to do the following:

  • Manage the product team, development team, and product marketing team
  • Review new product ideas, product features, and more to determine whether they fit customer needs
  • Come up with a product strategy with the help of the marketing manager, project team, and product owner
  • Work closely with the development team on any software development projects
  • Oversee the product development process to ensure it follows the product visions and product design
  • Ensure there are no issues with the product backlog
  • Assist senior management with budgeting, setting business goals, and product pricing
  • Figure out the product lifecycle of all company products and come up with new product lines accordingly
  • Use management tools and metrics to track product performance, develop reports, and come up with new business strategies
  • Help with the recruiting and training of new product employees

To manage the responsibilities listed above, product managers need a few technical and soft skills as well.

Product Manager Skills

The following are the major skills all product managers should have:

  • Prioritization is needed to prioritize various tasks, goals, and more
  • Excellent budgeting skills are needed to effectively manage the resources available
  • A good understanding of product development frameworks and processes is needed
  • Top-notch communication skills are crucial to communicating with stakeholders, consumers, team members, and upper management
  • Problem-solving skills are needed to quickly take care of any issues
  • It’s critical to be skilled with various project management tools like Microsoft Project

Depending on the industry and organization, product managers may need additional skills depending on the product.

Program Manager Overview

A program manager oversees and coordinates with different products, projects, and other strategic initiatives, making sure it all runs smoothly.

Any group of related projects and products tend to work toward fulfilling a business strategy, and this process is called a program. Program managers are responsible for these programs as they have to maintain collaboration and communication between different project teams, departments, and product teams.

Program Manager Job Responsibilities

The responsibilities, duties, and tasks of a program manager tend to vary depending on the industry, organization, and the total number of projects. Generally, every program manager is expected to:

  • Develop new programs to help manage various projects and support strategic initiatives
  • Help the product manager with developing new budgets for projects
  • Create new business goals based on the current products and projects
  • Organize various programs and activities across the organization
  • Write program funding proposals to the upper management
  • Meet and update stakeholders and senior management
  • Evaluate existing programs, their strengths, weaknesses, and figure out how to make them more efficient
  • Work closely with the product team and the project team to ensure there’s a complete collaboration

In the case of a technical program manager, the responsibilities remain the same with the exception of a few additional duties based on the product type.

Program Manager Skills

The following are the major skills that all program managers should have:

  • Excellent leadership skills are needed to manage multiple teams
  • Great communication and interpersonal skills are needed for collaboration efforts
  • Good conflict resolution and risk management skills are needed
  • A single-ended focus is crucial to managing multiple projects
  • A good understanding of strategy development and product development is needed
  • Product and sales planning skills are crucial

Depending on the type of product and the industry, there may additional skill requirements.

Bottom Line

A great product manager understands what role a program manager and project manager play to ensure a successful product.

Similarly, a great program manager understands their role when it comes to various products and projects.

In any large company with multiple products and services, both the product manager and program manager play a crucial role in ensuring business success. You don’t need a product manager vs program manager-style distinction to realize that some aspects of both jobs may overlap.

However, that’s why the product manager and program manager work together for maximum efficiency and productivity.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1.     Is program manager higher than product manager?

In the hierarchy of any organization, the program manager and product manager roles are lateral. One isn’t above the other. In fact, they have to work together to ensure everything’s on track.

However, program manager job descriptions tend to have more detail and specifications because they work on the interdependencies between various products and projects.

2.     What is the difference between a program manager and a product manager?

Product managers are responsible for the development, design, and production of products. Program managers ensure the effective implementation of all product plans by providing strategic guidance, oversight, and communication channels.

3.     Can a program manager become a product manager?

Both the program manager and product manager work laterally, and that means they are dependent on each other. That helps the program manager learn what it means to be a product manager and vice versa.

Therefore, a program manager can get on a product manager career path, especially if they’ve been working with a specific company’s products for a while.

However, it’s best to complete a product manager boot camp or get a product management certification before doing so. Update your CV and LinkedIn profile to show you’re certified, and then apply to become a product manager.

4.     What pays more Project Manager or Program Manager?

According to Glassdoor, the average project manager salary in the US is $87,368 per year. The average salary range is between $56,000 and $135,000.

Alternatively, the average program manager salary in the US is $94,917 per year. The average salary range is between $56,000 and $161,000.

Therefore, program managers tend to earn more than project managers on average.

However, the average product manager salary is the highest among the three at $111,174 per year with a salary range between $72,000 and $172,000.

5.     Is program manager a good career?

The program manager job is a highly paid career choice that has substantial personal and professional growth opportunities. The best thing about a program manager career is that you can move towards program management, product management, and project management simultaneously.