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.
Jim Jones, Technical Project Management Immersion Instructor at Thinkful
Anne de Ridder, Technical Expert Mentor at Thinkful
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.
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.
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!
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.
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:
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