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Program manager vs. product manager: a comprehensive comparison

Last updated

4 July 2024

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Mary Mikhail

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The terms “program manager” and “product manager” can be confusing. They sound like similar jobs, and in some ways, they are. However, the two roles are not the same.

In this article, we’ll break down the roles and how they differ from one another.

What is a program manager?

Companies often have a group of related projects that need to align with the company’s strategic objectives as well as within the grouping itself. The program manager is responsible for overseeing this group of projects. They coordinate across all related projects, manage resources, and mitigate risks so that the program can achieve its goals.

Program managers focus on developing and executing a long-term strategy that transcends any single project.

Let’s take a closer look at what the program manager does as they go about their duties.

Program strategy and vision

A project’s vision and strategy dictate its long-term direction and overarching goals. Why are these products grouped together? What strategic objectives is each trying to solve, and how do they relate to one another? The program manager is the one who lays out this vision and keeps it aligned with stakeholders’ strategic goals.

Program planning and execution

After finalizing the vision for the project, the program manager must work to bring that vision to life. They develop comprehensive plans that cover the scope, objectives, and timeline for each project in the program. Then, they coordinate with the project managers to keep the development of the project on track and within budget.

Resource allocation and optimization

Each project in the program will have its own set of resource needs. Balancing the needs of all the projects and ensuring product managers have the resources they require to successfully develop their specific products is another role of the program manager. They will use various technologies and methods to help streamline the process and minimize waste so that resources stretch further.

Risk management

Every program has potential risks that jeopardize its success. A program manager is responsible for identifying those risks, assessing the threat level they pose, and developing strategies to mitigate them.

They must take a proactive approach. For example, they might create a risk management plan, conduct regular risk assessments, and develop strategies to address those risks. To do this, they must work closely with project managers.

What is a product manager?

Each individual product needs a manager to take care of its day-to-day needs. The same is true whether you’re working on a standalone product or a group of products. That’s where the product manager comes in.

This person is responsible for developing the product’s strategy, roadmap, and features. They examine customer needs and use that information to define product requirements. Their overall goal is to deliver a product that meets market demands and drives business growth.

Here’s a closer look at what the product manager does as they manage their teams:

Product strategy and vision

The product strategy and vision consist mostly of the project’s long-term roadmap and high-level objectives.

The product manager will develop parts of these together with the program manager, but they have a lot of leeway regarding the development of their specific project. Their vision will help the team prioritize features and set development goals.

Product development and delivery

After defining the vision, the product manager turns it into a real-life product. This process covers the initial conception of the product through its launch on the market.

Throughout the process, the product manager ensures the final result meets the customers’ and company’s needs. They work with all the teams involved in development, keeping them on track and ensuring those all-important needs are addressed.

Product lifecycle management

A product’s lifecycle doesn’t end when it’s launched.

Once the product is released, the product manager should keep track of its performance. They will identify any adjustments needed for the product to stay relevant and profitable and make sure they are carried out. This part of the role involves continuously monitoring customer feedback and changing market conditions.

During the growth phase, the product manager will try to scale the product and capture a larger market share. As it matures, they will turn their attention to improvements and updates.

Customer feedback and satisfaction

Gathering and responding to customer feedback is a big part of ensuring the final product meets customers’ needs and continues to do so after launch. This allows the product manager to better understand customer needs and wants.

Feedback can come from various sources, including reviews, support requests, surveys, and direct interactions. The product manager will use this data to drive decisions about the product’s future.

Key differences between the two roles

Below, you’ll find details of the key differences between the program manager and product manager roles.

Scope of work

Program manager: a program manager oversees multiple related projects that combine to contribute to a larger objective. They work to ensure all projects within the program are aligned and progressing smoothly. Part of this is managing the interdependencies between projects so that the individual project managers are all working toward the same goal.

Product manager: by contrast, the product manager focuses on a specific product or product line’s lifecycle. They oversee the product’s development, launch, and ongoing improvement. Product managers work closely with engineers, design, and marketing teams to build a product that meets market needs and aligns with the business’s goals.

Responsibilities

Program manager: the program manager works with multiple projects and must ensure they are all aligned. They define the program’s objectives and manage resources across projects. They track the progress of the program as a whole and report those findings to senior management and other relevant stakeholders.

Product manager: the product manager’s responsibilities are specific to a single product or product line. They conduct market research, define requirements, and prioritize features. They work with cross-functional teams to bring the product to market and then take responsibility for the product’s maintenance and improvement.

Skills required

Program manager: program managers must be able to effectively allocate resources and manage risk. Strong strategic thinking and problem-solving skills are key to ensuring multiple projects are aligned and well-coordinated. Strong leadership is also required because they need to work with multiple project managers.

Product manager: to ensure a product meets market demand, product managers need a deep understanding of market dynamics and customer needs. Strong analytical skills help them interpret this data. They also need strong communication skills so that they can clearly articulate the product vision and drive consensus among cross-functional teams and stakeholders.

Focus and goals

Program manager: a program manager is responsible for multiple projects in a program, so their primary focus is ensuring that the projects all align with the program’s overall goal. Their focus is long-term. They look at the projects’ strategic outcomes and organizational impact.

Product manager: a product manager focuses solely on the product’s lifecycle, from its conception to its launch and beyond. They work to ensure the product meets customer needs, performs well in the market, and contributes to the business’s goals.

Similarities between the program manager and product manager roles

You may have noticed that there’s some overlap in what the two roles do. Let’s explore these similarities in more detail.

Stakeholder management

A collection of projects and individual projects have the same stakeholders. Both the program manager and the product manager must work closely with these stakeholders to understand their needs and expectations, provide them with updates, and manage any concerns.

Coordinating cross-functional teams

Various departments work together to create a product, and an even larger group of teams works across multiple projects. Each team must be aligned and work toward a common goal.

Both program managers and product managers should help these teams collaborate effectively and ensure that everyone understands their responsibilities.

Communication skills

Managing any group of people requires strong communication skills. Program managers and product managers need to be able to effectively share ideas, address concerns, and provide informative updates. Being able to tailor these messages to suit the specific audience being addressed is key to success in these roles.

Career paths and salaries

Now that you understand what program managers and product managers do and don’t do, let’s take a look at what a career in each of these fields looks like.

Average salaries for program managers and product managers

Like all salary data, the ranges for program managers and product managers vary dramatically based on location, experience, industry, and more. Generally, both roles are well-compensated. Data from Salary.com provides some insights into these figures.

Program manager

The median salary for a program manager is around $150,000 per year. This median comes from a range of around $110,00 to $192,000. The higher end of that range represents program managers in high-demand industries who have a lot of experience.

Product manager

A product manager takes responsibility for a single product or product line. As such, they can expect to bring in slightly less than a program manager.

The range for product managers is around $90,000 to $150,000, with a median of around $130,000.

Career growth opportunities

Anyone looking into a new career is probably thinking about career growth opportunities. Thankfully, both program managers and product managers have substantial opportunities to progress in their organizations.

Program manager

As they move up the corporate ladder, program managers can move to the following positions:

  • Senior program manager

  • Director of program management

  • Vice president of program management

Their advancement will involve being placed in charge of higher-stakes programs with larger teams of project managers.

Product manager

Product managers can look forward to similar progression as program managers. They can progress to:

  • Senior product manager

  • Director of product management

  • Vice president or chief product officer

With each step up the ladder comes more responsibilities and larger pools of products to oversee.

Skill sets and educational backgrounds

The next question job seekers ask is, “What skills and education do I need to get the job?” Due to the overlap between the jobs, the two have some similarities. Below, we’ll explore the skills and education each role requires.

Program manager

Here are the skills you’ll need to become a program manager:

  • Strong organizational and communication skills

  • Program and project management

  • Strategic planning

  • Resource management

  • Risk management

  • Leadership skills

Program managers can come from various educational backgrounds. Common degrees in the field include business administration, engineering, or information technology. They may also have professional certifications such as Project Management Professional (PMP) or Program Management Professional (PgMP).

Product manager

Key skills for a product manager include the following:

  • Product lifecycle management

  • Market research

  • Customer insights

  • Strategic planning

  • Project management

  • Communication

Educational backgrounds typically include degrees in business administration, marketing, engineering, or computer science. Advanced degrees such as an MBA can help you attain higher-level positions.

FAQs

Can a program manager become a product manager?

Yes, a program manager can move into the product manager role. As we’ve seen, there’s a fair amount of overlap between the two roles.

To move from program management to product management, you may require skills in market analysis, customer needs, and product lifecycle management.

Is a program manager more senior than a product manager?

A program manager working with multiple product managers sounds as though they are in a higher-ranking position. The slightly higher salary range supports this theory.

However, each organization can structure their hierarchy differently. Product managers, with their more direct impact on project success, might be the more senior position in some companies.

What are the key challenges and success factors for program managers and product managers?

A few challenges stand in the way of harmony between product and program management.

Overlapping responsibilities

You’ve seen how the two roles’ responsibilities can overlap. Both need to have effective teamwork and collaboration skills to navigate these responsibilities in a way that avoids conflicts and ensures each person contributes effectively.

Aligning with business goals

Program managers must ensure that all projects within their program contribute to the organization’s strategic goals. Product managers need to ensure that product development aligns with market needs and business objectives.

Keeping all these things aligned while working with each other and cross-functional teams requires strong strategic thinking.

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