A product manager is in charge of a product's success from the beginning to end of its lifecycle, while project managers shepherd projects to completion.
Product managers and project managers often work together, they have distinct roles. While a product manager sets the vision, goals, and business trajectory of a product, a project manager leads the many projects to make those goals a reality. So if the product manager is a strategic thinker, the project manager is more of a doer.
It might help if we distinguish products from projects. A product refers to any service or item that an organization creates to serve a customer need. Products can be physical, like furniture or clothing, or digital, like an app, or a video feature on a website. A project, on the other hand, is a set of tasks completed to achieve an outcome. A project's goal could be to create or maintain a product—like construct a house, or roll out a new software update.
A product manager is in charge of a product from the beginning of its lifecycle to its end. This means they set the vision of a product, direct any updates, and make sure the product is filling customer needs until the product is retired. Unlike project management, product management usually doesn't have a clear beginning and end.
At larger organizations, product managers can take on high-level work like managing a team. In smaller organizations, a product manager might do more hands-on work, such as market research, or even some project management.
Because product manager is a relatively new role and can change from company to company and team to team, specific tasks can vary widely. But generally, a product manager does the following:
Defines key metrics for product success
Understands consumer needs and relays them to the product team
Works with cross-functional teams—like engineering, design, and marketing—to develop and pursue product strategy
Finds ways to improve or grow a product through market analysis and other research
Keeps an eye on product performance
Tests and monitors new product features
A project manager oversees projects from start to finish. Projects are a set of tasks designed to achieve a specific goal. Projects can be big, like constructing a new building, or smaller, like rolling out a new tool for a team to use. A project manager is somebody who plans these projects by creating teams, determining schedules, managing budgets, and communicating with stakeholders, until each project is completed. There is generally a clearly defined beginning and end to a project.
Project managers can do the following specific tasks:
Determine key goalposts like project scope, timeline, and budget estimates
Collaborate and communicate extensively with leadership and stakeholders
Create and maintain processes for changes in the project
Use project management software to keep track of tasks and schedule
Make sure teams are collaborating well, and staying motivated and on schedule
Looking for more detail? Read What Does a Project Manager Do? A Career Guide
Product managers and project managers often work together. What would this actually look like? Let’s look at an example.
Imagine a company that sells furniture online. They want to launch an app that customers can use to browse products on mobile devices. The company might hire a product manager to be in charge of the app’s development. The product manager will define the goals of the app, decide what features should be in it, orchestrate a team of product developers, and monitor new challenges as they arise.
The company might then hire a project manager to turn these goals into reality. Let’s say the product manager determines that people like to discuss with family members before making a purchase, and wants to make this a key part of the app. A project manager might lead a project to roll out a feature on the app that will allow customers to share furniture they like through a messaging platform. The project manager may put together a team dedicated to the new feature, set a schedule for production, and make sure the team completes the project on time and within budget. In the meantime, they might be communicating with the product manager a few times a week with updates on progress.
Generally, product managers make more than project managers in the US. The average product manager’s salary in the US is $111,755 a year, while a project manager in the US makes an average salary of $87,637, according to August 2021 data from Glassdoor.
In addition to product managers and project managers, you may have heard of product owners. A product owner’s role is to make sure a Scrum team is aligned with the product’s priorities by managing the product backlog (that’s the to-do list of a development team). This makes sure that individual projects are aligned with the overall product goals. So while the product manager is in charge of the overall product, the product owner sits on a smaller team that is working on one aspect of the product.
So where do project managers fit in here? A project manager often works with product owners within the same project team. A product owner is one of two designated roles in an Agile or Scrum team, the other being the Scrum master, a type of project manager. The two roles generally coexist on a development team.
You’ll find that there’s a lot of overlap between the paths of project and product managers. But there are key differences too.
The road to becoming a product or project manager have many similarities—project managers can, in fact, go on to become product managers.
While some people might become product managers straight out of college, it’s common to build up experience and skills beforehand. Since product managers need a good sense of business and customer needs, you might see product managers with backgrounds in business operations or marketing. Product managers might go on to become senior product managers or vice presidents of product.
Project managers on the other hand often get their start in industry work. For example, a software development project manager might spend a few years working as a software developer. They might also work first as an associate project manager or project coordinator. Project managers can go on to be product managers, senior project managers, and directors of project management.
But keep in mind that these two fields are very flexible and new. There’s no one way to become a project manager or product manager.
For both product managers and project managers, human skills, also known as soft skills, are crucially important. You’ll also need some specialized technical knowledge.
Product manager skills:
Basic user experience (UX) knowledge
Basic business knowledge
Project manager skills:
Knowledge of project management approaches like Scrum, Agile, and Waterfall
Project management tools like Asana or Gantt charts
Certifications aren’t required to become either a project manager or product manager. They may, however, give you an edge in job applications; sometimes they can be required. Project management certifications are more common than product management certifications.
Common project manager certifications include:
Project Management Professional (PMP)
Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM)
Certified ScrumMaster (CSM)
Professional Scrum Master (PSM I)
Read more: How to Get a PMP Certification: An Overview
Product manager certifications are available as well. These include:
Product School - Product Manager Certificate
Pragmatic Institute - Certified Product Manager
AIPMM Certified Product Manager Credential
If you're ready to get started, consider the Google Project Management: Professional Certificate. You can learn the basics of project management and gain job-ready skills in six months or less.
“Better” is relative, but there are a few different ways to compare product managers and project managers. Product managers generally earn more than project managers. They also tend to oversee more higher-level decisions than project managers, making product managers the more senior position. You might see more variety in your work through project management, as you’ll likely be assigned to several different projects.
A product manager can make a very effective project manager. Many of the skills required to be a good product manager are similar to those needed to be a good project manager. Some smaller companies may require product managers to do some project management as well.
This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.