Response Crafting

Project vs. Program vs. Product Management from someone who’s done all three

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Apparently there’s some confusion around what each of these three roles are from some people – mostly those who are looking to move into one of them.

Having held each of them at different times over the last few years of my career, I want to offer my insight.

One disclaimer: The titles – and roles – can mean different things at different companies, so even my having held all three should be taken with a grain of salt. That being said, from talking to others, these definitions are pretty consistent across most companies and should give you give you enough to get started.

First, the similarities:

It should be obvious enough to go unsaid, but in case it isn’t: all three roles are involved with the product. And all three are involved with the product’s “program.” They all deal in and touch feature releases.

All three heavily rely on communication. All of them also demand mitigation of risk, responding to challenge, and navigating adversity. (In other words, all of them have “manager” in their title for a reason…) 😐

The difference, however, is that:

(Ready for some 1998-looking html?? Git ready for all its glory…)

PRODUCT Managers are responsible for definitionwhat will be done. 

PROJECT and PROGRAM Managers are responsible for delivery: making that happen. 

PRODUCT Managers are the CEOs of a product and project.

PROJECT and PROGRAM Managers are the COOs of a product and project.


If the product is a restaurant…


Those are the devs. Obviously.

The Product Manager decides what’s on the menu.

The Project and Program Managers work with the kitchen to make sure it’s plated on time.

The product is the restaurant. A dish might also be a product, or a dish might be a feature.

A project is the delivery of a single dish. A program might be plating The Whole Entire Menu. Plus drinks. (’cause you know you want those diners nice n sloshy. You know you do.)

Aiight. And here’s more:

Project/Program Managers vs. Product Managers

Here’s a chart that Product Managers love. I’m pretty sure Product Managers love it because it represents the product manager as being The Center Of The Universe, which makes sense, because that’s a bit how we see ourselves. (Joking.)

(Kind of.)

Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 6.50.30 PM

(OMG look! There we are! Right smack dab in the middle, right where we [do not] belong.)

Anyway. Product Managers interact with Marketing, Engineering, and Executives. They use customer insights (from Marketing) and company objectives (from Executives) to give Engineering the What’s What on What to Build. (And they also listen to feedback from each group. The good ones might listen to feedback even from Engineering. Whoanow.)

Here’s how that might look:

Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 7.53.40 PM

Again, that chart is common.

But, you might ask, but where is Project and Program Management?! Wasn’t that what we were discussing?

Yeah, Pacha. Calm down. I’ll tell you where the Project and Program Managers go.

When I do, know that there are Project and Program Managers (no, really more Directors Of The Project Management Organization) out there who would fight me on where I put their titles, nestled so humbly… but this is the reality, guys.

Here is where the Project and Program Managers go. (I also added UX. Just for freebies.)

Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 6.48.36 PM

Project and Program Managers are a supporting function, usually to Engineering, sometimes to other groupsYou may not realize this, talking to most Project or Program Managers, but that’s the reality of the state. They don’t just live with the Engineering team. They exist beneath them – a supporting role. Admin, even.

They do also take on a lot of the communication responsibility, talking to both Product Managers (or Product Owners, in Agile projects) and Executives. But at the end of the day, they’re doing this to make sure the project keeps moving.

Project and Program together here because both are much closer to one another than either is to Product. And frankly, at this high of a level and in this context (compared to Product), they are pretty similar…

That’s not to say that Project or Program Managers are lesser than Product Managers. That’s just the graphic speaking. To make them feel better, here’s another take with Project or Program in the middle:

Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 8.22.29 PM

In a service model, many would swap out the client’s executives in preference for their own internal reporting structure (because, hey, they’re the ones in charge of promotions, amirite?!) But that’s none of my business anymore.

But now let’s do a deep dive on differences:

Project vs. Program Managers

Recall that if this is a restaurant, Project Managers would oversee a single dish. Program Managers would oversee them all – plus drinks.

Project Managers manage one release (“project”) on a product at a time, but usually oversee releases on many different products (or clients, for those in service.) Program Managers manage many releases at a time, usually all on one product (and client.)

In other words, while they may each have five or ten “projects” (feature set deliveries) on their plate at once, a Project Manager’s are largely unrelated to one another, whereas the Program Manager’s are usually all related to one product (or product family), with many releases, sometimes overlapping, on a road-map.

This means the Program Manager involves increased inter-dependencies and demands richer understanding of the overall product and higher strategical oversight.

In bad scenarios, Program Managers are a bit like glorified Project Managers. (And both, at their worst, are little more than glorified admins.)


(Can’t even tell you the last time I wrote an actual “Summary!” on something…)

They’re all managers. They all touch software.

But they differ with regard to responsibility / authority. Project Managers have the lowest (and their heads aren’t typically on the chopping block.) Program Managers are in the middle. And Product Managers have the highest responsibility of the three – and also the highest risk. They decide what’s shipped to production. If it doesn’t perform, they may be cut.

If you are decisive and can stand behind your decisions (and comfortable with your job being on the line for them), Product. If you are a Guardian and just want to see other decisions executed, Project or Program. If you want to handle a bunch of little ones, Project. If you want the responsibility of executing across an entire Product, go Program.

And just being honest: if the words “product,” “program,” and “project” are entirely foreign to you, probably don’t pursue any.


One thought on “Project vs. Program vs. Product Management from someone who’s done all three

  1. Pingback: 2015 Review | Response Crafting

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