Deep Dive


Deep Dive: Product Management vs Technical Project Management

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By Jess Feldman
Last Updated March 24, 2021

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Product management and technical project management have become in-demand tech-adjacent fields that often don’t require managers to have extensive coding knowledge in order to excel. But what is the difference between product management and technical project management? Two instructors from Thinkful break down the on-the-job responsibilities and most used tools for product managers and project managers. Plus, learn what Thinkful includes in the curriculum to help students make a career change into product management and project management.

Meet our Experts: 

Jim Jones, Technical Project Management Immersion Instructor at Thinkful

  • For 30 years, Jim Jones, has worked in a variety of tech positions, from help desk technician to Vice President Chief Information Officer. Jim did his doctorate dissertation in managing and motivating IT teams.
  • At Thinkful, Jim applies his extensive skills and knowledge base to help students land technical project management roles. 

Anne de Ridder, Technical Expert Mentor at Thinkful

  • Anne has a Masters of Science in Human-Centered Design & Engineering from the University of Washington and a Bachelor of Arts in Chemistry from Occidental College. She serves as a dedicated expert and mentor to students in Thinkful’s Product Management Flex bootcamp.
  • Anne has over 20 years of combined professional experience in product management and user experience design delivering consumer and business digital products for companies representing a broad range of industries. Throughout her career, Anne has built and led product management, product owner, and product design teams. 
  • As a manager, Anne has experience mentoring, coaching, and contributing to the development of her team members who have been in various stages of their careers.
  • On top of all that experience, Anne is certified in Pragmatic Marketing (PMC-III) and is a Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO)!

What is Product Management?

A product manager defines a vision for a specific product, and establishes goals and objectives to reach that vision.

Product managers identify market needs and opportunities and develop a related product strategy and roadmap to solve/address that need in a way that also delivers on the business goals for the company. Product managers may need to be more strategic than technical project managers. Product managers typically work with a product or portfolio of products for a long time whereas project managers work on something new and different all the time. 

How does a product manager work within a team? 

In a hierarchical view, product managers sit more at the top of an organization hierarchy because they set the path for the company. Typically, a company has a C-suite/Leadership team that sets the company strategy, and the product manager is in tune with them. Because product management is ultimately accountable for their product, they work with teams across the company to build and deliver it to market. Product management sets the product strategy in alignment with the Leadership team's company goals, then works with development, UX, training, sales, marketing, customer service, etc to ensure successful build, deploy, launch. The C-suite is responsible for reporting on progress to the Board quarterly.

What is Technical Project Management (TPM)?

Project managers are dedicated to the tactical side of a project. They are internally focused on logistical details of a full project, translating expectations into programming language, and boosting team morale. Project managers set deadlines, create a schedule, motivate the team, and get requirements defined in conjunction with a product manager or sponsor. Project managers are generally not aware of market trends or strategy like a product manager. 

Do technical project managers juggle multiple projects simultaneously?

Project managers have a constantly changing portfolio. Depending on the size of the project, it’s not uncommon for project managers to work on 5-15 projects simultaneously. In other cases, they may work on a single, multi-year project and not have space for other projects. 

How does a project manager work within a team?

Project managers are focused on motivating the team, meeting objectives, and determining if there are any gaps in skills, knowledge or experience within a technical team. Defining the gaps and building a team that can successfully execute on all of the project requirements. The TPM brings the team together and often leads and motivates the team without having any formal authority over the team members like performance management or discipline.

The project manager leads, serves, motivates, influences, and cajoles the team to high levels of performance. They are ultimately responsible for the project’s communication and completion.

In industries where a “project” can be incredibly complex and cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars, teams rely on project managers to keep everyone moving forward on schedule and under budget. While managing logistics, they also track and communicate progress toward high-level goals.

The Tools: Product Manager vs Project Manager

What are the tools and languages that project managers rely on? 

Project managers apply a broader technical application, focusing on schedule management, resources, and budgets, plus quality and bug tracking. Project managers may only use Excel or they may use more advanced tools like GitHub, Trello, Microsoft Project, or Jira.

What tools do product managers rely on?

The tools and products a product manager uses varies depending on the company they work for, but there are some categories of tools that product managers always use and the functionality of products in each category are very similar. If you know one, you can easily learn another!

  • Communication is a critical activity for a product manager. We rely heavily on all core office products (Google Suite, Microsoft Suite) for videoconferencing (Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google Meet), word processing (Microsoft Word, Google docs), spreadsheets (Microsoft Excel, Google Sheets), and presentations (Google slides, Powerpoint). For daily team communication, Slack or Teams Chat (depending on your company’s SW suites).
  • Companies may have specific products for capturing objectives and key results (OKRs) and tracking progress across the whole company at all levels
  • For Roadmapping, there are a number of products, such as Product Plan. In the Chegg Product Management module on roadmapping, students gain experience using Product Plan.  
  • For Agile product backlog management, Jira is used most broadly.  At larger companies, an enterprise-level tool like TFS or VersionOne might be used. Many of these tools also have views for managing roadmaps, so a company might choose to use the integrated roadmapping tools vs buying a separate product. Jira is owned by Atlassian, which has another tool called Confluence, which is a collaboration wiki. Most companies that have Jira also use the Confluence product.
  • If the product manager is working with development teams using GitHub, a PM may also access it, but generally PMs don’t work in GitHub directly.
  • There are a wide range of data analytics tools out there, and each company will have tools they choose to use. New data analysis products come out all the time and each one has a specific area they focus on. Many companies have dedicated data analysts so a product manager is usually both looking at data themselves and then working with the data analysts. Product managers should know how to use Google Analytics for web analytics. If a product manager knows SQL, they can write their own queries to pull from data directly. Tableau is a common analytics tool as well as products like Pendo or Amplitude. In the Thinkful program, students are exposed to Google Analytics, Tableau, and SQL.
  • The amount of actual UI/UX design a product manager will do varies, and your company may have a dedicated UX person. Even if a product manager doesn't handle the design, knowing UI/UX tools and how they work is helpful. Product managers may want to familiarize themselves with Figma, which is popular because it brings together design, presentation, and feedback tools all in one. Sketch and InVision are other popular tools. Many Thinkful students learn and use Figma as part of the UI design and prototyping modules.

Who Belongs in Product Management vs Project Management?

What are the key traits of anyone who works as a product manager or a project manager?

The key traits of managers are fundamentally similar. Product managers require more social acumen as they might be fundraising or presenting a new innovation to a group of investors as well as motivating internal teams with the product vision and reinforcing how the work being done is helping solve a customer problem. That's a slightly different skill than a project manager who is all about motivating the team and leading with empathy. Product managers are more publicly socially engaged while project managers are more internally socially engaged, with their team. 

For career-changers, which careers easily translate into product or project management?

People have transitioned into technical project management from the IT help desk, secretarial positions, systems administration, and development. Transitioning from a support field (technical or customer service for a particular product) could also be a pathway into a product manager role. 

Is a technical background required to get into either field? 

Both management types require the ability to translate end user needs into action items that your development team can work with. It’s essential for product managers and technical project managers to have basic skills in Excel, Microsoft Word, and email.

While neither PM roles require a technical background to excel, it’s beneficial for anyone trying to break into the product or project management career fields to take a “mile-wide inch-deep” view and know of coding and/or IT fundamentals. Understanding the fundamentals of how something is built helps when prioritizing and making tradeoff decisions. Plus, being able to talk with technical teams and understand at a high level what they are building is critical. 

How to Learn Technical Project Management + Product Management

What does the curriculum for Thinkful’s Technical Project Management Immersion cover?

Thinkful’s Technical Project Management Immersion is 12-weeks long and focuses on the foundational principles of running a technical project using different methodologies, such as predictive, traditional waterfall, Agile, and Scrum methodologies to run a sprint. The curriculum provides students an enormous toolkit of resources (templates, methodology, and concepts) that they then choose from when preparing for their role as technical project manager. Every organization is different, so it’s important that our students know which tools are necessary for which job. We give students the tool kit and teach them how to use it, then it's up to them to know which tools to use when in a new environment. Some of our students go on to pass their Scrum Master certification after going through the curriculum.

In Thinkful’s Product Management bootcamp, students not only learn product management basics, but they get experience practicing and doing the work through capstone projects. Each capstone builds on the last, so by the final capstone, students are doing the full range of PM work, from strategy through design. Having that exposure and experience give Thinkful students a leg up just starting out and will accelerate their journey. Thinkful graduates will start a little ahead of others who don’t have that background.

As far as product manager certifications go, for software-related product management roles, being a Certified Scrum Product Owner is a plus – this is related, but not required. Many product owners also get certified in Pragmatic Marketing at some point in their career. Pragmatic Marketing is an expensive program, so product managers often end up getting this certification when their company does a group training session with Pragmatic or if their company provides professional development stipends. We also look for business-related experience (certificate, minor/major, work experience). 

Mentorship is a cornerstone of Thinkful’s teaching. How often do Thinkful students interact with their mentors? 

Both our immersive and flex students work directly with their instructors. Immersive students have bi-weekly check-ins with their mentors, and Flex students have weekly mentor check-ins. Thinkful mentors for the Technical Project Management Immersion and Flex bootcamps all have technical project management backgrounds. Their experience in the field is invaluable to helping our students learn the process.

Can you get a product manager or project manager job without a college degree?

Thinkful’s program prepares graduates to immediately hit the ground running in a TPM role. At a two- or four-year college, students receive a well-rounded degree with foundational concepts of project management, but Thinkful’s project management immersion teaches students how to run a project. Thinkful students emerge from the program with a skill set that they can immediately apply on the job.

This is also true for Product Management. The Thinkful certificate is great to have and shows a student’s experience in product management. For product managers without a degree, a hiring team will look at certifications and experience. Someone without a degree will then need to be good at articulating how their experience gives them enough background to be effective in the role.

How can Thinkful TPM students and graduates stay on top of new trends? 

There are a number of ways for Thinkful students and graduates to stay current:

  1. Community - Connect with your cohort, form relationships, and stay connected after the program ends. 
  2. Certification - Get certified and remember to renew it every year.
  3. Stay on top of current events in tech - Scour LinkedIn and other media sites to stay sharp on trends.

Find out more and read Thinkful reviews on Course Report. This article was produced by the Course Report team in partnership with Thinkful.

About The Author

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Jess is the Content Manager for Course Report as well as a writer and poet. As a lifelong learner, Jess is passionate about education, and loves learning and sharing content about tech bootcamps. Jess received a M.F.A. in Writing from the University of New Hampshire, and now lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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