Product Manager vs. Project Manager: Know the Key Differences

7 min read

Product managers and project managers, while similar, play two distinct roles on the product development team. One caveat — if the project is a product, the product manager’s role may include project management over their product. But we’ll touch more on how that works in a minute.

Ultimately, the goal of this guide is to help you understand the key differences between product management and project management roles.

To start, a popular saying in the technology industry might help: Product managers deal with the ‘what’ and ‘why’, while project managers deal with the ‘how’ and ‘when.’ 

How is a product manager different from a project manager? A product manager creates the product strategy and vision, while the project manager leads the project team who executes that vision.

Whether you’re building a product team or considering which career path is right for you, this guide explains everything you need to know.

Starting Simple: Product vs. Project

Let’s start by defining exactly what is meant by the terms “product” and “project”.

Products refer to items, whether physical items, like a keyboard, or digital items, like software. The term products may also refer to a service like consulting. 

Projects refer to the set of tasks required to complete a goal.

With that out of the way, let’s discuss the roles and responsibilities of product managers and project managers. 

Product Manager Role & Responsibilities

Product managers lead teams of designers and engineers across the new product development process and throughout the entire product lifecycle. Product managers determine how to create the most successful products by integrating user needs with business objectives. 

What are the responsibilities of a product manager?

Product manager responsibilities include:

  • Improving the product based on market research and competitor analysis 

  • Monitoring product performance

  • Testing new features

  • Analyzing consumer and customer needs

  • Determining and tracking product success metrics

  • Leading product strategy and product team members (designers, engineers, marketers)

Project Manager Role & Responsibilities

The project manager takes the product manager’s big picture strategy and determines the workflow needed to ensure all moving parts are completed and everything runs smoothly.

What are the responsibilities of a project manager?

Project manager responsibilities include:

  • Monitoring task completion through project management software

  • Keeping teams on schedule

  • Recording project changes 

  • Communicating and collaborating with leadership

  • Tracking timelines

  • Creating project scopes

  • Overseeing budgets

Product ManagerProject Manager
Performs research Creates project timelines
Strategic planningDivides large projects into individual tasks
Creates product visionAllocates resources
Creates and follows a product roadmapMonitors task and project completion
Communicates product strategy to stakeholdersCommunicates project progress to stakeholders

While product manager initiatives ensure integration of customer satisfaction with business goals, the project manager is responsible for ensuring day-to-day tasks move towards timely project completion.

Can a project manager become a product manager? A project manager with experience on a product development team could become a product manager. Product managers should consider courses or certification if they don’t have any experience on product teams.

Skills & Certifications

When it comes to the skills required to be a product manager or project manager, many soft skills like communication and problem solving will overlap.

Below we’ll cover the unique skillsets needed in these roles, as well as the certifications that can help you close any skill gaps. 

Product Manager

Product management roles require more technical skills, like data analysis, market research, user experience (UX), and UX design.

For product managers who are project managers over their products, time management and understanding how to use project management software will be important.

If you’re looking to become a product manager, consider these popular product manager certifications: 

Product Manager Certification Course by Product Manager HQ: Best for learning the essential product management skills, like creating a roadmap, marketing, and tech fundamentals 

Technical PM Certification Course by Product Manager HQ: Best for individuals looking to transition to a technical role; not requiring previous technical or product management experience

Product Management Certification by Product School: Another certificaton ideal for those just starting out, this certification provides a strong intro to modern digital product management

Product Management Certification by Pragmatic Institute: Best for experienced product professionals

Project Manager

Project managers must be proficient in time management to lead the project plan and run successful projects.

One way project managers run time management initiatives across their team is by using project management tools. Project management software helps project managers monitor the backlog of tasks and make decisions about how to keep moving forward within a set timeframe. Project managers must be comfortable using project management software

A successful project manager might implement a project management methodology to create a system that guides how they approach projects, such as Agile or Scrum

If you’re wondering what more you can do to prepare for a role in project management, read more on How to Become a Project Manager

Consider these popular project management certifications:

Project Management Professional (PMP) from Project Management Institute (PMI): Best for project leaders and senior level professionals

Certified Associate in Project Management from (PMI): Best for entry-level project managers

PMI Agile Certified Practitioner: Best for professionals currently working in or have experience working in an Agile environment and are looking for advancement

Google Project Management Certification: Best for people looking to jump into product and project management

Potential Challenges

While we’re comparing the two roles, it’s important that we cover the challenges you might face if you’re deciding between the two positions. 

Product Manager

The product manager's job requires strategic decision-making that can be quite complex. With this great responsibility comes a number of challenges, such as: 

  • Communication: Launching a product requires multiple teams to collaborate and communicate effectively

  • Timeframes: Product launch schedules can be tight and difficult to adhere to

  • Product failures: Product managers are responsible for making corrections or deciding when to scrap products altogether

  • Vendor relationships: Continuous material sourcing and vendor communication management are required

Project Manager

It’s the project manager’s job to keep projects moving and on-time, but they are also at the mercy of team members who may or may not be so adept at keeping to a schedule. More challenges project managers face include:

  • Complex tracking: Tracking timelines, deliverables, risks, and changes to projects

  • Collaboration: Project managers work across many initiatives with various product managers and program managers, which can be difficult to coordinate, at times

  • Market trends: Project managers must stay on top of new tools and resources

Product Manager vs. Project Manager in a Nutshell

Product Manager Project Manager
SummaryManages the product lifecycle from ideation to releaseTakes projects from start to finish, from assigning tasks through project completion
MissionDevelops the product strategyCoordinates project completion among team members
TasksAnalyzes data, creates roadmaps, runs launchesOrganizes work and resources
GoalsFix product issues and meet sales goalsLead communication among teams and meet business objectives

Can the same person be both project manager and product manager?

While the majority of this article focused on the differences between the two roles, in some instances, the same person can fulfill the role of both product manager and project manager. 

Jon White, VP of Product at Highspot, asserts that if the project is to launch, release, or deliver the product, then a product manager can act as project manager.

While product managers often possess many of the same skills as project managers, whether they should be the same person, is a bit more nuanced. Jon explains, “Every hour a product team spends on daily project status meetings is an hour less spent talking to customers figuring out the next big win.”

Great product managers will inherently possess strong project management skills, but whether it’s right for your team to have your product manager also running as project manager, will depend on the unique needs of your company.  

Which role does your team need?

Creating a successful product without the right team members is like trying to screw in a lightbulb while your hands are tied behind your back. If you need help sourcing the right product development team members, let us help. Here at MVP Match, we’ve built a community of skilled tech talent that is waiting to work with you. 

If you’re a freelance product manager or project manager, apply to join our network and find your next big opportunity.

About the Author

Kate manages content marketing for talent acquisition at MVP Match. Her job? Attracting the best and brightest tech talent into our community where they are matched with rewarding roles they deserve. She's a copywriter at heart, and has spent over 10 years in marketing for tech, healthcare, and consulting firms. An avid traveler and workation pro, Kate both embraces and advocates for a future where everyone is empowered to define work on their terms.