Product Manager vs. Project Manager: What’s the Difference? 🚧

  • Remote Working & Freelancing
Contra Tips
· 7 min read

Learn the difference between product managers and project managers. Discover what these titles mean, their pros and cons, and how they work together.

A clear understanding of management roles is essential to operational success. As businesses evolve and demands diversify, the lines between various management positions can sometimes blur, potentially causing inefficiencies or misalignments. And two titles –– product manager and project manager –– often become interchangeable, although erroneously. 

In this guide, we’ll learn about the product and project managers, including their roles and responsibilities, their significant differences, and when to hire them.

What is a product manager? 🧕

A product manager’s job description usually includes “responsible for product development,” from an idea’s inception to its realization. Product managers are often tasked with finding products that could prove usable and valuable, but that’s only part of what they do.

What does a product manager do? 💭

A product manager is the expert behind a product's life cycle. But that’s not all. Here are a few other pivotal responsibilities they shoulder:

  • Collaboration with cross-functional teams: Work closely with sales, design, and engineering teams to ensure a product’s smooth development and launch.
  • Product vision and strategy: Set a clear vision and develop strategies to achieve it.
  • Consumer insights and feedback: Constantly engage with consumers to improve product quality.
  • Performance metrics: Set and monitor the product’s key performance indicators (KPIs) to ensure it meets its goals.

Benefits of being a product manager 😃

Steering a product's direction comes with its set of unique advantages. Here's why being a product manager is a sought-after role:

  • Career advancement: Being at the core of product development often leads to significant career growth opportunities within the organization.
  • Holistic view: Product management provides a 360-degree product perspective, from conceptualization to realization, offering a comprehensive understanding of the business.
  • Influence and impact: These professionals shape products, potentially touching the lives of millions of users.

Challenges of being a product manager 💪

Like any influential role, product managers also face certain challenges that test their mettle:

  • Prioritization: With a barrage of features, enhancements, and bug fixes, deciding what to prioritize can be daunting.
  • Communication: Ensuring clear communication across various teams can get difficult, especially when making tough decisions.
  • Change management: Technology and customer preferences evolve swiftly, demanding constant adaptation.

What is a project manager? 🧑‍💼

A project manager’s job description typically includes “responsible for overseeing a project,” including planning, executing, and closing it. Much like product managers, project managers are there from start to finish. They create teams, manage budgets, and set and monitor tasks to ensure a project’s successful completion.  

What does a project manager do? 🤔

Beyond merely ticking boxes and meeting deadlines, a project manager’s responsibilities are multifaceted and integral to a project's success:

  • Scope management: Clearly define and maintain the project's scope, ensuring it stays on its predetermined path and meets its objectives.
  • Time, cost, and risk management: Develop a realistic project timeline and budget, and identify potential risks early on, ensuring smooth project completion.
  • Stakeholder communication: Regularly share the project's progress, challenges, and any changes that might affect the project's outcome with stakeholders.
  • Quality assurance: Oversee the project's deliverables to ensure everything meets the pre-established criteria.

Benefits of being a project manager 🥳

Stepping into a project manager’s shoes brings forth various rewards. Here are a few:

  • Professional growth: The role’s diverse challenges and responsibilities provide ample opportunities for skill enhancement and career advancement.
  • Tangible impact: Seeing a project come to fruition, from mere ideas to concrete results, offers a profound sense of accomplishment.
  • Broad organizational insight: Engaging with various departments and stakeholders gives a holistic view of an organization's operations and strategic objectives.

Challenges of being a project manager 👀

Project managers, when navigating projects, encounter specific hurdles that require astute problem-solving. Here are a few: 

  • Managing diverse teams: Ensuring alignment and motivation among team members with varying skills and personalities can be demanding.
  • Scope creep: Keeping the project’s deliverables within their defined scope despite changing requirements and unforeseen challenges is a constant battle.
  • Stakeholder expectations: Balancing the expectations and interests of multiple stakeholders can be a complex juggling act.

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Product manager vs. project manager: What’s the difference? 🤔

Both product managers and project managers are indispensable, and it's easy to confuse the two roles, especially when both deal with product development and delivery. Here’s how these two positions differ: 

Career paths 🛣️

Product managers often come from diverse backgrounds, including marketing, design, or engineering. They may progress to roles like product head or chief product officer. Project managers, conversely, start in roles that emphasize organization and coordination. Their trajectory might lead to senior project manager, program manager, or director of project management.

Skills 🧑‍🔧

Product managers require a mix of technical acumen, market insight, and user empathy. They need to be visionary, understanding user needs, market trends, and business objectives. Project managers, however, focus on time management, resource allocation, and risk assessment. They are detail-oriented, ensuring project roadmaps are clear and comprehensive.

Certifications 🎖️

Product managers might pursue credentials like certified product manager (CPM) or take courses from institutions like Pragmatic Institute. On the other hand, project managers seek certifications like project management professional (PMP) or certified associate in project management (CAPM).

Salary 💸

While both positions offer competitive salaries, being a product manager does involve slightly more work and responsibilities. A product manager’s salary is typically around $91,000–$154,000, whereas a project manager’s salary ranges from $72,000 to $117,000 (These salary ranges can vary depending on geographic location and experience level.)

Job description 📝

Product managers oversee a product’s entire lifecycle, from ideation to launch, ensuring it aligns with user needs and business objectives. Project managers, however, coordinate teams, resources, and processes to ensure the timely completion of specific projects, ensuring teams achieve all project goals.

Focus 🔍

Product managers focus more on what the product or service is, why it exists, and how it aligns with business goals. Project managers, on the other hand, emphasize how to develop the product by creating a project plan and when the project needs to be completed.

How do product managers and project managers work together? 🤝

The relationship between product and project managers is very complementary. Let's take a look at this example to see what this means in action:

A company wants to develop an app that shows restaurants in a user’s vicinity with customer reviews. To achieve this goal, the company would hire a product manager to oversee the app's production, which entails defining the goals, deciding on its features, and hiring product and software developers to get the job done. 

Next, it’ll hire a project manager to manage the product creation team. They would make a project brief, outline the tasks that align with the overarching goal, and ensure the project is completed on time.  

Which is the right one for your team? ✅

Since these two roles are similar, you might not know which to choose for your team. Think about it this way: Are you having trouble brainstorming, creating, or releasing new products, or are there issues with keeping projects on schedule

If your team struggles with keeping production moving efficiently, you need a product manager. However, if you have no problems with thinking of or creating products, but there are constant project delays or budgeting issues, you most likely need a project manager. You might even need both; there’s nothing wrong with being overly efficient. 

Use your skills on Contra 🔧

As you decide between product and project management, remember that the right fit is pivotal to your success. If you’re a freelance product or project manager eager to showcase your skills, Contra for Independents allows you to manage and promote your freelance services commission-free. And for clients aiming for business efficiency, Contra seamlessly matches you with the ideal independent project manager or product manager, ensuring your vision translates into tangible results. Sign up today.

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Find the perfect fit for your next big project, and hire for free.

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