Intricacies of a Product / Project Manager

Why am I both?

This has been a constant mote of discussion— product or project manager? Who are you?

Well I am one who I can brand myself to be. But honestly, though I am yet to become a thought leader in this field, I can humbly provide my 2 cents on this subject.

Since I am product manager for a tech startup, it overlaps the nuances and responsibilities of a project manager as well. In digital products (or even physical products which need to be sold online eg. Apple products which need a digital presence to be sold/displayed online), the applications/features/software/services which need to be built go through a software development lifecycle (much like a manufacturing process in a factory). This can be agile, kanban, waterfall — you name it, we have it.

Product Manager

Thus a product manager/ product owner ‘owns’ these digital/technical products (which can be software products, online ecommerce sites or apps which help physical products be sold and marketed online, mobile apps etc.). He is responsible for driving the ideation and launch of innovative products and features, thereby creating new opportunities for the business while staying abreast with the current industry trends. He needs to be able to strategize and streamline the product operations in order to deliver a healthy product which is aligned with the initial expectations and goals of the organization.

Project Manager

Now project management is a subset of this above phenomenon. A project manager applies his project management skills to the “when” part of the equation. He needs to setup detailed milestones, timelines and processes keeping a holistic view of the budget and resources for ‘projects’. Note here, that a set of projects can make a ‘product’.

A Project Manager leads key deliverables, creates accurate technical project documentation, leads and plans the project from a functional and quality assurance perspective to achieve the project objectives.

Eg. As an Ecommerce Product Manager for a publishing/consumer products’ company, my overarching role was to manage the ecommerce and other online channels for the entire brand i.e. the online version of the company became my ‘product’. However, being a small team within a bigger corporate structure (and because product/project management is not really a thing in a publishing house), we used to regularly take on ‘projects’ not related to ecommerce from regional marketing teams (eg. if a Harry Potter 9 book was up for world wide release). In this sense, we were ‘project managers’ since these projects had a set deadline — though these projects in totality made up the ‘product’.

Thus a product manager of an electronics’ brand might need to think about the customer pain-point in the market, research about how a particular type of laptop needs to be designed, validate and decide the initial blueprint (logical ideation) of the system and let his project manager take care of the actual deliverables from a technical standpoint. This is akin to a project manager of a construction firm who oversees the progress of an architectural construction work and gets it delivered by a particular timeline.

In many cases, these roles often overlap. There might be different use-cases in various circumstances.

  1. A product manager in a startup might have to do the goal-setting as well as the actual delivering of the product from a technical standpoint (deadlines may or may not be involved in this case). He/she would validate the findings, make sure there is a product-market fit and accomplish all the other tasks involved in customer research. He may also create the sprint and release plans, work with the engineers to deliver the features in a timely manner and take care of the budget and resource restrictions. Hence there are aspects of both product and project management in this case.
  2. Agencies or companies that take on product development work from an assortment of clients may have to deliver on a ‘project-by-project’ basis and hence would require project managers. In this case, strict timeline would be involved since these projects would be billable to these clients. These ‘agency’ project managers might work directly with the ‘product managers’ of the client companies (who are the ones setting the actual goals and product strategy).
  3. In bigger corporations, a product manager might collaborate with a project manager (internal or external) in order to manage a software product/service on a continuous basis. Even though there might not be any strict deadlines in place, the role of the product manager will be to set the goals and let the project manager lead the actual delivery of the individual projects.
  4. Almost similar to the third point, a product manager in a ‘physical’ consumer products’ company (eg. P&G selling its products in retail stores) or a consumer service company (eg. Rogers telecom offering its wireless internet or mobile simcards in retail shops) might be the one determining the strategy of the product in question or laying out the grand design of the pricepoint of a particular product line or shaping other hundreds of business-level decisions.
    The actual delivering (manufacturing of the physical product or service) might be handled by various ‘project managers’ who might be more knowledgeable with the actual jerry-building process.
    Timelines will be key in these cases since a product once manufactured and sent off to retailers/warehouses/publicized in the media, in most cases, cannot be ‘optimized’ easily or ‘patches’ cannot be released every day or even every week. To manage these timelines, project managers will play a vital role.

Thus, a product manager pre-emptively address risks, address future problems, and sets and actualizes goals in the broader sense of the term. He may have to handle a complex portfolio of “projects” which make up the entire product or handle a portfolio of ‘products’ themselves.

A project manager on the other hand, handles projects from a ‘get down and dirty’ perspective since he will be the one making sure the project is on track and the locked-in goals are achieved.

These roles often overlap and I believe an awesome product manager should at some point experience both sides of the coin.