Project, program and product management: what’s the difference?


Project managers (PM or PjM) tend to own shorter-term projects, deliver a single deliverable, and coordinate a team to execute under budget, by the deadline and with the right quality

Program managers (PM or PgM) tend to work on longer-term projects, coordinate with a set of project managers, prioritize projects and are more responsible for resource coordination and overall execution

Product managers (PM) tend to do more definition around the product vision, strategy and roadmap, work with more cross-functional teams like marketing or UX, and are responsible for the product’s performance in the market. They tend to be closer to end users and their needs

An all-too-familiar scenario for product managers.


It is easy to confuse these three roles – both by the PM acronym and their duties:

  • None of these roles actually manage anyone (despite the second word in their names)
  • Responsible for generally keeping an initiative on the rails
  • Delegate tasks
  • Coordinate teams
  • Manage stakeholders and report out the status of initiatives


But though they have some similarities, they have some key differences – even within those similarities. For example:

  • A product manager may define and delegate tasks that help define the roadmap, e.g. user research or design sprint. This is in part due to product managers being closer to end users and being more aware of their needs as a result
  • A program manager may work with finance to obtain budget for a program or set of projects – something not typically within a product manager’s purview
  • The issues they resolve also tend to be different. A product manager may resolve issues where a product feature is requiring a trade-off on schedule, cost or another feature. A program manager may resolve issues where a project is not landing in time for the next stage, and thus must determine how the budget, resources or other projects must shift to keep the program on the rails

It is important to note that, depending on the company, a product manager may take on responsibilities typically held by a program or project manager. At times, they may need to play the product and the program manager role. As described in this post, a product manager often needs to perform the duties of other roles.


Each of these roles also have a technical version, e.g. Engineering Program Manager or Technical Product Manager (being technical tends to also come with a higher salary). Speaking of salary…

Just how much do each of these roles earn? Averaging across the U.S., Indeed says:

  • Product managers top the list with an average of $106,725
  • Project managers are next with an average of $86,462
  • Program managers have an average of $85,265

These numbers can shift based on the city the role is in, how technical it is, how senior the role is and which company you work for. In bay area tech companies, for example, averages seem to be considerably higher.

Project managers also have an official certification process (PMP) which can yield higher salaries. Program managers tend to also benefit, salary-wise, from going through this process. I have not personally seen material compensation benefits for product managers to go through this process.

No comment.

I hope this post has helped you to learn the differences between project, program and product management!

Are you one of the “PM”s and feel like I missed something? Share your thoughts in the comments below!