Best Practices

Program Manager vs. Product Manager: What's the Difference?

Jonathan Friedman
February 5, 2021
Program Manager vs. Product Manager: What's the Difference?

If someone were to ask you to define the differences between a program manager vs. a product manager, what would you say?

Several hiring managers have had the program manager vs. product manager debate, and there are plenty of professionals that still don't see the difference between the two roles. The two roles may have some similarities, but the real differences between both roles matter more than you'd think.

Not understanding when you need a product manager or a program manager can lead to your business trouble. You may not hire the right talent for specific projects, which could put your work in jeopardy. 

We're going to help make sure you get the right talent for your next big project. Keep reading to learn the differences between the two roles and how you can hire the right people for your next project.

Below is everything we will cover. Feel free to skip ahead.

What is a product manager?

Overall, it's important to remember that product managers aren't responsible for a single project or team. Their scope of work is for one or more of a company's products, and it's a job that doesn't end once a product is released. They're focused on the ongoing success of their product, which involves constant monitoring and periodic updates.

When you're trying to build a digital product, three kinds of people matter the most: stakeholders, production staff, and the end-user. Stakeholders can be seen as any of the principal decision-makers in a business, the production staff is typically made up of designers, developers, and copywriters, and end-users are the customers. 

A product manager is someone with expertise that aligns perfectly with business, user experience (UX), tech, and customers. Simply put, they're someone that can align customer needs with current business objectives and production capabilities to create a successful product. 

Product managers are true cross-functional professionals.

They're heavily involved in conducting customer interviews, user testing, and running design sprints. They focus on product roadmap planning and feature prioritization, as well as translating business-to-technical requirements. Your product manager will help when the time comes to price your product and will also play a role in defining and tracking your product's success. 

What is a program manager?

While product and project managers work on their initiatives, program managers figure out how everything fits together to meet business goals. They focus on products, projects, and other strategic initiatives across a business or organization from a high level. Program managers are essential in matrix organizations.

Program managers aren't concerned about the day to day work that goes into a product. They're much more focused on the long term goals a business has. Product managers are concerned about meeting tight deadlines. Program managers are focused on major milestones that can occur in a much more flexible timeframe.

Strategy is the main focus of every program manager. They're big-picture thinkers that concern themselves with making the right strategy to help each initiative they oversee. They know a bit about change management and how to get support from different people in leadership.

Program managers still concern themselves with budgets, planning, and execution, but they do it on a much larger scale. Product managers are doing it for a single product, and program managers are doing it for various products and projects under their control. 

Program manager vs. product manager: the true difference

Overall, Product managers are needed when companies need to develop and refine products. Program managers are required to manage large scale initiatives that can involve several products and other elements.

Are you still having some trouble figuring out the difference between the two roles? If you think this is tricky, break things down in terms of "why" vs. "how" and "when." 

Product managers are a bit more tactile in their work and are always thinking about "why." Since they're concerned about their product's overall success, they have to think about how to make improvements continually.

They may ask themselves why they chose to build a product in a certain way or why they chose a particular user persona. They're always thinking of ways to improve and refine their product.

Program managers have to consider the organization as a whole before they make any significant strategic changes. They're asking themselves the "how" and "when" at the office.

How much budget can I give each individual initiative? When do we need to have the marketing department work on creating new materials to promote things? How can we find the time and people to manage pre-launch training? These are all essential questions a program manager has to answer. 

Overall, both positions can bring much value to a business or organization. Instead of seeing if you need one or the other, think about the importance of having both could bring!

The top-3 product manager qualities 

Top-3 product manager qualities infographic

Now that you know a bit about the two professions, let's spend some time figuring out how you can hire the best of the best for either role. 

Product managers need to have the perfect mix of tactile skills and strategy. Anyone can list an impressive amount of product work on their resume. That's why it's up to you to find someone with the right skills to succeed. 

If you're going to bring on a product manager, make sure you look for these crucial skills. 

1. Outstanding research skills

Research plays an essential role in deciding the best direction to take a product in. Understanding market problems and what motivates users to drive business decisions and steers design and development direction is critical.

Try to find someone with a little user research experience. Having a strong background in understanding and researching users can help set your design and development teams up for success. 

Market research will help product managers when they're talking to stakeholders and managing user expectations. Anyone that knows how to analyze the current competitor landscape is someone you want on your team.

2. Ability to make decisions

Sometimes the most challenging part of a job may be simply saying yes or no. Product managers are going to be big decision-makers. Make sure you can hire someone that won't just make decisions but can also stand by them.

Ask candidates about how they've dealt with making tough decisions in the past. How did they weigh potential pros and cons? Do they involve other people in the decision-making process? 

3. Thirst for innovation

A good product manager will keep things running and meet the goals set by leadership and board members. A great product manager will improve upon set goals and think of new ways to improve their product.

Find someone that genuinely embraces innovation and wants to bring solutions to market problems and clients. 

Ask them what they've done to bring about change at other places and what things excite them the most about your industry. Anyone that gives a lackluster answer is someone you should think twice about hiring. 

The top-3 program manager qualities

Being a big picture thinker is only one part of being a successful program manager. There are plenty of other skills that need to come together if you want to make a successful program manager hire. 

Top-3 program manager qualities infographic

Make sure to put these attributes and skills at the top of your hiring list when you're looking for a program manager. 

1. Experience 

We're not trying to knock new talent, but you may not want a fresh-faced professional for your program manager job. 

You can learn about many strategies and methodologies in school about the right way to run a program, but the best teacher is experience. Look for someone that has a proven track record of managing programs. 

Don't shy away from hiring someone that may not have specific industry experience. Many program management skills are the same regardless of what industry you're working in.

2. People management skills 

How does your potential candidate handle employee conflicts? Have they ever been put into a situation where they've had to take someone off a program or project? Do they know how to escalate issues to individual managers and senior executives? 

A lot of program management comes down to proper people management. If you find someone that knows how to manage people across the organization, you'll find someone that understands how to manage a program. 

3. Ability to execute

Defining programs is only one part of a program manager's job. If you want someone that can excel in the role, find someone with a proven background in execution. 

Execution isn't just delivering work on time. Someone that knows how to execute also knows how to delegate work, change priorities to meet current needs, and bring in more help whenever it's needed. 

Ask a potential candidate to walk you through a project from start to finish. Ask them specific questions about how they were able to meet certain deadlines and give accurate deliverables

Manage products or projects with outstanding software: TrueNxus

TrueNxus understands the difference between program manager vs. product manager, and it has everything that both roles need to collaborate from end-to-end. TrueNxus is the most pragmatic work management platform for cross-functional teams.

Whether you need help with:

TrueNxus has got you covered!

Here's a look at some of its features:

1. Multiple views

Personalized views illustration

A program manager vs. a product manager both require different ways to visualize work across time. Not only that, but each individual specializes in a specific domain, and as such, each thinks about work differently. To ensure successful planning and execution, you need software that provides personalized views that make sense to each role. These views need to be in sync as well.

TrueNxus provides you with the following views:


Plan screenshot

A list is a table that allows you to manage your cross-functional work easily. From product roadmaps to project plans, you can organize your work into groups such as workstreams, epics, or any logical way to categorize tasks.


Product roadmap or project timeline screenshot

With TrueNxus's Timeline, a Gantt-chart like view, you can visualize your product roadmap or project plan across time. It lets you understand how all of the work fits together. You can make updates to product roadmaps or project plans through an interactive interface.

3. Automated status reports

Automated status reports illustration

We understand that each cross-functional team member is busy balancing multiple priorities, from your day-to-day responsibilities to various strategic initiatives. Therefore, TrueNxus successfully executes monitoring and controlling of work by automatically analyzing the product or project health in real-time, giving senior leadership and the team the insights they need to make decisions and move the ball forward.

4. My Work

View all of your work in one place

Another essential thing for everyone involved in product management and program management is understanding what you're on the hook for delivering. With TrueNxus, you can view every task and every dependency vital to you, across every product or project, in one location, ensuring success.

5. Dependencies


Additionally, we know that you don't want to let your colleagues down or be let down. You can ensure the successful delivery of work through collaboration and documenting task dependencies. By doing so, you can be accountable when others are reliant on you. You can understand dependent tasks, change implications, and adjust course as needed.

6. Automated notifications

Automated workflows - notifications

Whether you're a program manager vs. a product manager, you can also successfully execute work by leveraging software to notify when changes occur. With TrueNxus's 20+ out-of-the-box automated notifications, you will have the transparency you need to stay in-the-know.


Cross-functional team collaboration - comments

Additionally, the entire team can ensure product roadmaps or project plans are successful by collaborating directly in the app. With TrueNxus, you can communicate with colleagues, clients, consultants, and contractors in one place.

8. Project charter

Charter illustration

Lastly, if you are a project manager, you can leverage OKR and create a project charter. You can ensure the successful execution of projects by documenting and aligning the project's objectives, benefits, and risks from the very beginning. TrueNxus is the only software that has a project charter directly in the app.


As far as we're concerned, the program manager vs. product manager question is never up for debate. Both roles may be connected, but they each bring very different skills and expertise to the table. 

Regardless of what role you hire for, make sure you set your management team up with the right tools. A collaborative cross-functional tool is something anyone in management can use. 

Are you ready to introduce your team to a tool that could change the way you do work? Sign up for a 14-day free trial and see what TrueNxus can do for your workplace.