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How to Become a Product Manager

Product Manager vs Project Manager

Ready to start your career in Product? Find out more about BrainStation's Product Management Course

In simplest terms, a Project Manager delivers a complete project, while a Product Manager delivers a usable product. The difference here being that a product isn’t “complete” in the same way a project is once it’s launched.

While Project and Product Managers often work hand-in-hand, there are a few more differences between these roles than just two letters. If you have any professional experience, you’ve likely either avoided a Project Manager in the office hallway or desperately sought them out. These individuals play a critical, and often fleeting, role in an organization. Their goal is to steer a specific project through its lifecycle – initiation, planning, execution, monitoring, and completion – with an eye towards striking the delicate balance between time, cost, and quality.

Project Managers have a bird’s eye view of a project. They’ve mastered the art of laying out a plan that maps out the timeline and resources needed to bring a project to life, breaks down the budget, identifies and removes roadblocks, and minimizes risks. On top of all of that, Project Managers need to motivate the team through the typical highs and lows that come with project delivery and manage communication with stakeholders of all stripes.

The work of a Product Manager can be slightly different depending on the organization. For example, some organizations include marketing as a responsibility while others don’t. Ultimately, a Product Manager is responsible for the success of a product from concept to launch to continuous improvement. They determine the what, why, and when of the product that the engineering team then builds out. They communicate this through a product roadmap (more on this further below). Product Managers eat, sleep, and breathe the needs of their customers. They’re constantly working to create value for them that’s also aligned to business goals. For this reason, many people describe Product Managers as “mini CEOs” that sit at the intersection of business, technology, and user experience.

Imagine a company spots an opportunity to launch a new product. As mentioned earlier, a Product Manager would put a lot of legwork into determining the what, why and when of the product ahead of its development.

A Project Manager might enter the picture when it’s time to start bringing this product to life. Both the product and Project Manager help determine the when, but the Project Manager influences the how and by whom. Once the product is launched, and all parties celebrate, a Project Manager steps back while the Product Manager prepares for the next iteration.

Project Manager Responsibilities

  • Project plan: A detailed document that includes scope, timeline, resources, and costs that maps out the optimal path to project completion.

  • Stakeholder communication: This can be something as simple as an email or as detailed as a presentation, but typically outlines progress and next steps.

  • Project handover: All of the documents and artifacts needed for the next or future teams to operate and maintain the outcome of a project (ie. a new product).

  • Post-mortem: A report or presentation that explains what went well and what didn’t. It’s meant to help future Project Managers better predict obstacles and identify helpful shortcuts.

Product Manager Responsibilities

  • Product strategy: A document outlining the vision of the product that includes how the product will evolve, how it will get there and why it’ll be successful with customers. The customer’s needs must have a starring role in this document.

  • Product roadmap: The roadmap is a visual representation of how your product will evolve over time. It helps ensure that even the smallest tasks roll up to the grander goal. It used to prioritize tasks, coordinate teams and track overall progress.

  • Product backlog/user stories: This is essentially a working list of things to be done during product development from the perspective of the user. The product manager is constantly maintaining the backlog.

  • Product analytics: Once the product is launched, a Product Manager monitors its usage, analytics, and customer feedback to look for areas of improvement or new opportunity.

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