Program Manager, Project Manager, Product Manager — Which PM Role is Right for You?
Program Manager, Project Manager, Product Manager — Which PM Role is Right for You?

In the modern workplace, many organizations rely on professionals who might refer to themselves as a “PM.” But this shorthand title can represent a variety of roles, including “program manager,” “project manager” or “product manager.” What’s the difference?

Read on, and we’ll help you discover what these three common job titles mean and how the roles compare. And if one of these sounds up your alley, we’ll also let you know about programs that UW Professional & Continuing Education (UWPCE) offers to help you qualify for related positions at popular companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Salesforce and more.

What a Program Manager Does

The program manager role inherently focuses on strategy. These PMs are strategic thinkers who define and often implement important business goals. A big part of their job is to ask questions that help the organization focus on what’s most beneficial for the business.

Program managers often handle multiple projects or initiatives simultaneously, so they must factor in any interdependencies or prioritization issues that would affect the projects. A program manager typically works directly with senior leadership and department heads to plan and execute on the organization’s major objectives.

“As a program manager, your focus is on benefits and value,” says Steve Grierson, a veteran instructor in the UW Certificate in Program Management. “A business recognizes a situation — a strength, weakness, opportunity or threat (SWOT) — and creates a strategic vision to address the situation. The PM is then responsible for the program that executes on that vision to achieve the benefits and value for the company.”

▸Learn More: How to Become a Program Manager

What a Project Manager Does

By contrast, a project manager has a more tightly focused role. This type of PM is responsible for shepherding a project through every stage, from start to finish. This includes creating a plan for a project’s progress, coordinating the personnel involved, and managing all the different aspects, including deadlines.

“A project manager’s job is based on delivery,” says Grierson. “You’ve got a set time, budget and scope, and you get it out the door. That’s what you’re measured on.”

When prospective students weigh which career track is right for them, UWPCE’s enrollment coaches can help differentiate the two roles and advise them on their education options.

“In a general sense, program managers supervise project managers,” says enrollment coach Briell Thomsen. “You must have previous project or program management experience to qualify for our program management certificate program. People without that experience are more likely to qualify for the UW Certificate in Project Management program.”

Thomsen also says that students seeking an introduction to the field can enroll in the Foundations of Project Management course, a four-week online offering. Students looking specifically to prepare for the Project Management Professional certification exam should check out our PMP® Exam Prep course; those who want to get ready for the Certified Associate in Project Management exam will want to consider our CAPM® Exam Prep course.

▸Learn More: How to Become a Project Manager

What a Product Manager Does

If you love bringing products to market, you’re an excellent fit for a product manager role. Most product managers focus on a specific product (or family of products) and work closely with other teams, such as engineering, design and marketing, to help develop and launch their deliverable.

The Seattle area is one of the leading technology hubs in the country, with thousands of software-related PM jobs. The UW Certificate in Software Product Management program has become a top choice for professionals seeking a product-related role in this booming industry.

“The software product management role is part innovation, part marketing, part design and part business strategy and operations,” says Lalitha Subramanian, who manages the program for UWPCE. “Our certificate program offers a unique blend of these four elements, which provides students with outstanding preparation for these jobs.”

Subramanian also notes that effective product managers have many of the same skills possessed by good project managers and program managers, including “expertise in time management, cost management and effort management.”

▸Learn More: How to Become a Software Product Manager

Putting It All Together

In the end, the professionals that fill these roles must collaborate in today’s workplace to accomplish their organizational goals, according to Luke Panezich, an experienced project manager and instructor in the Certificate in Project Management.

“You always need to keep in mind that the product itself is the outcome — if I'm going to produce a computer or a piece of software, or I'm going to build a house or bring a new drug to market,” Panezich says. “I'll use project and program management methods to develop and bring that product to market. That’s where these roles overlap.”

Getting Started as a PM

Interested in a career as a PM (of any stripe)? Our enrollment coaches are ready to help you explore your options. Reach out to talk to a coach today.



Responsible For


Program Manager Broader initiatives that tie into larger strategic organizational goals UW Certificate in Program Management
Project Manager Focused initiatives with specific objectives and deadlines UW Certificate in Project Management
Foundations of Project Management
PMP® Exam Prep
Product Manager Product-driven initiatives that focus on successfully bringing the product to market UW Certificate in Software Product Management
UW Specialization in Machine Learning Product Management

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Author David Hirning

David Hirning

David Hirning is an accomplished writer and editor with extensive experience in both tech and higher education. He began his career in journalism, then spent over a decade as an editor at Microsoft, where he worked on Encarta Encyclopedia and related reference products.

David worked for six years as a full-time writer and content manager at UW Professional & Continuing Education. He also operated his own editorial consulting business, with stints at leading companies like Amazon and Expedia, and taught English for two years in Costa Rica.

David has served as an instructor for the UW Certificate in Editing program and as a teaching assistant for the UW Certificate in Storytelling & Content Strategy. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Stanford University and a Certificate in Literary Fiction from the UW.

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