Project Management

Project Leadership: What’s In a Name?

At WebDevStudios (WDS) we take pride in the team we put together to help our clients achieve success.  Putting together a successful web development team is similar to putting together a winning sports team. There are the players, team coaches, head coach, and team owner.  Although every role is important to a successful end game, a large part is the leadership that helps players get to their shared goal. Oftentimes, project leadership roles seem interchangeable, though. So, when it comes to project leadership, what’s really in a name?

What is Project Leadership?

Every industry has their own version of project leadership. It’s important to remember the common denominator is the empowerment of people and working to everyone’s strengths.

The job of a manager is to implement processes and procedures for efficiency. The job of a leader is to provide teams with tools and support needed to implement those processes.

Project Leadership Roles

Every industry has unique leadership roles, but since WDS is in the web industry, we’re focusing on the technology sector—specifically product managers, program managers, and project managers.

When I entered the world of project management, I didn’t think much of the nuances in those job titles. I figured they were all similar enough that it didn’t matter much.  Upon further research, I found there were very distinct (and important) differences. Although I found my role specifically as project manager, I still find when I tell someone I am a ‘PM,’ the term often gets mistaken for a program or product manager.  I realize it wasn’t just me confusing the terms, but that they often get used interchangeably whether in job descriptions, job postings, and determining job responsibilities.

Although they are all leadership roles, we can use our sports analogy to help clarify how they relate.

  • The product manager takes full ownership of the larger picture of the product, similar to a team owner.
  • The program manager takes that vision and oversees programs to help it come to fruition, similar to the head coach. 
  • Similar to a special teams coach, project managers are responsible for working with the team players. They provide planning and tools to achieve independent tasks making up a larger project.

Understanding Roles and the Benefits to Your Project

Not every company will have a product manager, program manager, or project manager. It depends on a variety of variables, including the size of the company, the project, and the goals. Understanding what each of these roles brings to an organization will allow you build the proper team for your needs. 

Larger jobs may benefit from having a product manager to focus on the bigger picture and customer interest. The program manager will focus on getting the right teams in place to achieve programs to build the product. Then a group of project managers will work with the engineers to achieve the independent tasks for those larger programs.

If it’s a smaller job, you may not need a product manager, but still benefit from hiring a program manager. The program manager can identify interdependence needed to achieve the initiative and put together a team of project managers.

There is no right or wrong way to put the team together. Having an understanding of each role can provide the knowledge to make educated decisions in bringing the best team together.

Product vs Program vs Project Manager

All these roles work together to achieve a common goal. Understanding their nuances is the first step in making sure the correct person is in the correct role. Let’s explore each one a little deeper to provide a clear picture for each one.

Product Manager

The product manager’s main focus is to satisfy a customer’s needs. They do so through overseeing the life cycle of a product at a high-level. Product managers originally entered the scene when technology companies hired brand managers, knowing they had a deep understanding of product creation and customer satisfaction. Over time, that evolved into the product manager role, and allows the product manager to focus on implementing the best strategies across design, technology, and business from a product’s conception to production. They are often answering the questions: what do we build and why are building it?

Program Manager

Program managers have different roles in different industries. In a consumer goods or retail industry they focus more on overall strategy of a new program (such as marketing initiatives). Within the technology industry, having more technical knowledge, they work with engineers, and have the title of technical product manager.  Either way, it’s the job of the program manager to take an idea, oftentimes outlined by the product manager, and coordinate the interdependence to help achieve that initiative. 

They may determine strategy and teams to implement marketing programs, web development needs, or customer support for product needs.  Multiple programs may be needed to achieve a product launch. It’s the program manager’s job to oversee the impact of those programs while balancing customer needs.

Project Manager

The project managers are the ones overseeing the operations of specific projects that usually make up larger programs; that’s not to say every project that a project manager oversees is part of a larger agenda, though. While the product and program managers are often overseeing things at a higher level, the project manager ensures project success by breaking a large scale project into manageable tasks and are critical to project success.  They act as liaison between the development team and the client while coordinating time, budget, and resourcing and act as the main contact point between all those involved. They are normally removed from the question, “What do we build?” and focus more on the when and how.

In Conclusion

Whether job searching, growing skills, or building a team, understanding the nuances of any job is important in finding success. Although the product manager, program manager, and project managers work on similar projects at similar times, they each require a certain set of skills that allow the individual in that position to be successful. The more understanding there is around the meaning behind a job title means that both those in the role and those working with the individuals will have a greater understanding of the expectations and capabilities of what can be achieved.


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