The Difference Between Product Management and Project Management

It never ceases to amaze me how few people in the software industry understand what a product manager does.

So many times when we open up for a product manager, of the resumes we have submitted, around 80% will be for a project manager position, not for product management.

Project management is very important, but it is not product management.

The role of a product manager can be described using the analogy of a railroad. The product manager is responsible for laying the tracks. They navigate the landscape and determine where the train will go. It is their responsibility to avoid the obstacles and make sure the train is successful at arriving at its destination.

Project management is responsible for making the train run. They’re responsible for the internal operations of the train. They answer the question of how fast it goes down the track.

These two disciplines, working in concert, are essential.

The product manager is responsible for defining the product vision, the product definition, the road map, and the features and functions that will be in the product. They do this by pulling together marketing, customer feedback, finance, and the engineering team. That’s how they determine what it is the software product will become.

Product management is an essential function in building software that touches the customer’s customer and is a successful product within a market.

By having great product management you have a true ability to differentiate, innovate, disrupt markets, and grow market share. Product management is essential.

That’s not to minimize the need for project management. That is also important, but these two different domains need to be well understood for what they are.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. isidorep says:

    David – I read your post with interest today (not that I don’t on other days 🙂 ). I have been involved with Product Management, with software and also with medical devices, for over a decade and I continue to be amazed that the role is not understood well. Even within organizations which have Product Management, the role of Product Management is often confused and muddled with other roles.

    And I see the role getting confused on 2 ends of a spectrum: some people see it as a ‘marketing’ role and should not be overly involved in the development world (‘stay in your marketing bubble and don’t get in the way of real work’), and some see it as a role which should do everything (‘who should this action item go to? the Product Manager!’).

    I believe it’s up to Product Management to help clarify that role, with the support of executives such as yourself. The key, in my humble opinion, is to provide value and results to the organization. When Product Management does that, people are more open to understanding what the heck it is that we do on a day-to-day basis!

    Love your blog, newsletter, and perspective on things,

    Mike Posey

    1. David DeWolf says:

      I couldn’t agree more. The Product Management role is undoubtedly one of the most difficult to define, but, is perhaps one of the most powerful when done correctly. Unfortunately, even those that know often fall into the trap of “I’ll know it when I see it”

      The reality is that in different organizations, Product Managers play different roles. In my experience, the most important role that a Product Manager plays is to “tie it all together”. The product manager absolutely bridges the gap between marketing and engineering, however, it must also bridge the gap with finance, human resources and every other department within the organization. The Product Manager is a business role. The Product Manager is a conduit for success. The Product Manager helps to capture the vision and navigate the train successfully by taking into account the input of all constituents.

      IMHO, the Product Manager is not a marketing role per se, though, it often properly belongs within the marketing organization. At the same time, the Product Manager is not the engineering manager and must be careful not to be consumed by the technical implementation and details. While it’s very helpful (and, I would argue in a software setting critical) for a Product Manager to be fairly technical, true innovation comes from great collaboration between the two. In fact, I would venture to say that the Product Manager – Engineering Manager relationship is perhaps the second most important relationship within the product development ecosystem (the first being the relationship between the customer and the product team – represented by the Product Manager).

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