Your guide to understanding the difference between product and project management

February 14, 2023

The easiest way to offend a product manager is by calling them a project manager—or vice versa.

If you look quickly, the names sound almost identical. But despite the two letter difference, the difference in roles and responsibilities is huge.

Whether you have previous experience or are looking to make a 180 turn into a new position, this guide will help you deepen your understanding of the difference between product manager and project manager roles.

Defining the role and responsibilities

Product management

The product manager is the face and mouthpiece of the product. Your team, leadership, and other stakeholders look to you to make decisions. You must be comfortable being the person who makes the final call—this may be the single most important thing you do in your role.

This doesn’t mean you have to be an expert in all areas. You can and should leverage the collective wisdom of your team and take advantage of other tools at your disposal to make your best informed decision.

This role is really a jack of all trades. Depending on the needs of the product and company you’re supporting, you may be responsible for writing copy for product packaging or creating product designs.

Certain product management roles may require technical skills, but this really depends on the company and the products you’ll be supporting.

Project management 

The work of a project manager is much more defined. While product managers guide products throughout their lifecycle, project managers drive projects from start to finish.

Project managers have fixed requirements: a budget, a deadline, and a known outcome. Their ultimate goal is figuring out how to get from point A to point B. 

The projects you’ll manage in this role can be as big as a product launch or small like rolling out a new feature. 

Highlight your transferable skills to break into these roles 

Now that you have a better understanding of what product management and project management are, let’s dive into how you can make breaking into these roles a reality. 

You may already have some of the following skills from previous experience in other industries. 

If not, there are a number of opportunities to build these skills, from taking on an internship to signing up for a tech certification course. Here are some of them:

Product management

  • Prioritization and planning
  • Vision and strategy
  • Research and delivery
  • Relationship management and facilitation

Project management 

  • Stakeholder management
  • Supporting execution
  • Time management
  • Attention to detail

Make it a point to showcase these transferable skills in all of your job application materials. 

For example, look for opportunities in your job interview, tell a story where you utilized these traits in a previous role. Then connect that experience to the goals you have for the product or project management role you’re seeking.

You can also include the names of the skills as keywords in your resume and cover letter. 

Understand the key drivers behind your work

Product management

Here are a few product-centric questions that should guide your work:

  • Is this product useful?
  • Is this product usable?
  • Is this product desirable?
  • Is this product feasible to build?

Project management 

Here are a few project management questions that should guide your work:

  • What’s our budget?
  • What’s our deadline?
  • What outcome do we want with this project? How do we get from point A to point B?

These questions are great primers for you to figure out which of the two roles you’re interested in pursuing. 

If you’re not interested in understanding how budgets and deadlines impact the product creation process, project management might not be the road to go down.

If you’re interested in understanding product behavior but would prefer to market products rather than design them, you’ll actually want to pivot to looking at roles in product marketing.

If you’re still wavering on what role you want to pursue, that's okay! Apply now to the School16 tech career accelerator program to figure out how to thrive in the non-coding side of tech.

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