A PM by many names is a rose just the same. Maybe that’s what Shakespeare would have said had he been looking at today’s job descriptions. But alphabet characters aside, what actually separates the PM roles — project manager, product manager, program manager — that Puget Sound companies post?
Let’s start from the top. The standard duties of a project manager are initiating, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, and closing out a project, says Andrée LaRivière, senior program manager at Synapse Product Development in Seattle. Within those phases, they will manage scope, risk, communications, resources, time, stakeholders, quality, and, to a lesser extent, procurement and cost.
Dawn Seymour, vice president of communications at the Puget Sound Chapter of the Project Management Institute, adds that a project always has a beginning and an end, and a project manager might work on multiple projects at once. For example, they could be assigned to the cat cafe finder app for iPhone and the goat yoga finder app for Android.
A product manager is in charge of a specific product and how it is manufactured, deployed, sold and improved over time, Seymour says. One product manager might be responsible, therefore, for the cat cafe apps for all platforms and markets, while a different product manager would handle the goat yoga apps.
Megan Slabinski, district president for Robert Half Technology and The Creative Group, says the product manager role is often a marketing position.
A program, in its standard definition, is “a group of related projects managed in a coordinated manner to obtain benefits not available from managing them individually,” says LaRivière. Hence, a program manager is in charge of an entire program, which could include projects and products, according to Seymour. This might be a program of iPhone apps that includes the cat cafe app and the goat yoga app, plus the new pug meetup app, while a different program might contain all of these apps, but for the Android platform, as an example.
This leads us to portfolio manager, something both Seymour and LaRivière added to our PM list. LaRivière explains it as the shift from execution and delivery to strategic planning and assessment of whether investment in specific projects, products and programs will meet corporate goals. In other words, a portfolio manager might look beyond if the company should design next-generation cat, goat and pug apps to whether continuing those apps helps the company’s ability to reach its ultimate target, the unicorn finder app.
So if we have these nice definitions, why do job roles still vary widely, even for a position of the same name?
For project manager roles, it’s not so much about the job description, but more about the project at hand, and it can vary by industry, says Slabinski. “You can be a project manager in technology design, application development, systems integration, infrastructure, etc.”
“In Seattle, you often see people asking for a project manager when they actually need a product manager, and a program manager when they need a project manager,” Seymour says, as companies don’t always align with regard to the specific tasks they want the manager to do.
LaRivière says that the program manager role is where she has seen the most range. “At Microsoft, I was a combination of systems analyst/architect and project manager. I elaborated the specifications of the product, and managed the scope and release schedule of when those features would be packaged and released to our customer,” she says.
Microsoft also has a deeper technical aspect to its program manager definition, in LaRivière’s experience. Google and Apple seem to have followed suit, whereas Amazon tends to use the program manager role simply to designate large projects. Seymour says she has noticed that many of Microsoft’s program manager positions show tasks a project manager would do, such as working on several different projects at once.
There are still a fair number of companies that retain true project and program manager definitions, says LaRivière. “Caveat emptor: Ask questions about the role and unearth if it’s aligned with what you want to do and the expertise you bring.”