How can Program Management and Product Management coexist in a company?

We currently experience a breakdown in the company. Some stakeholders want that project should only be executed and delivered to help for example the sales team with their tools. On the other hand I sit in the product team that advocate for discovery and incremental product delivery for any software product in the company.

I checked companies like google and see Program Manager roles and Product roles and wonder how they work together? Do the work on different products or do they work hand in hand where Project/Program is like Delivery Leads on the same Products?


Product managers normally work on a product like Android app, or checkout funnel, or internal search. And they often do that for multiple years.

Programm managers normally work on single aspects like GDPR compliance, or ISO 9001 compliance, or internationalization, or privacy, or user trust, that touch multiple, sometimes all, products.

Often - but not always - these product-wide or organization-wide changes are done after some amount of time. At that point, no single program manager is responsible anymore.

If we talk about tech companies, program managers - in comparison to product managers - spend a lot less time with developers (sometimes none at all) and a lot more time with senior management and other departments.


Yes, this is representative. A program could be more specific like, increase sales by 10%. The job of the program manager is to influence, track, and ultimately sell why this program is important, meaning why the product manager should prioritize the work


So who has the upper hand between the two?


Totally depends on the project/program and the company.

If the CEO, CPO, CMO, and CTO all agree that GDPR compliance is priority one, then the program manager for GDPR compliance will have the upper hand over almost any product manager.


And that’s is exactly why I think the finger pointing happens. The product manager will ask the 5 why questions while the program manager will want the product manager to just be quiet and execute…


Discussions on priority are very normal and can happen without fingerpointing.

If fingerpointing is happening or not, has more to do with culture than the existence of program managers.


It’s great at my company. I’m a product manager building a physical electrics product (think a WiFi router or something similar in complexity). I did lots of research upfront to define features and make a business case and kicked off development. My program manager makes sure we stay on schedule and on budget. He schedules all the meetings and works with the team to resolve issues. I’m aware of our overall status and get pulled in more deeply when there are trade-off discussions around costs, quality, timeline, etc.

Currently I spend most of my time with my UX/UI partner. We’re laying out the app UI and doing user research on how they’d expect stuff to work. The program manager is spending most of his time managing through supply chain problems like how do we design out a component where we found out they’re having major delivery delays.


We have both and it causes friction and finger pointing…


@Cathryn, Like everything in Product Management, titles and roles will manifest differently in large and small organizations depending on org maturity, org architecture, and the complexity of the product(s).

In general, if you research Product Manager and Project Manager, you will find clues to the expected differentiation in approach and responsibilities. In many cases, a Program Manager is a Project Manager responsible for an organizational function rather than an initiative with a projected completion date.

Philosophically, Product Managers work on ill-defined problems. They must be willing to “fall in love with the problem” and make tough decisions that may not be popular with all customers or stakeholders (notoriously, sales.)


In my company we have both and it’s very different functions for the same product. The Product Manager defines the product and it’s requirements and we deal with things like market needs, customer feedback and competition. The Program Manager is in charge of the team that designs and finally builds the product according the requirements the Product Manager defined.


Same thing in my previous company.

Product Manager defined the roadmap and requirements. Program Manager followed, and made sure that those roadmap are delivered in time

Program Manager must have a technical background (had worked as a developer before) and sort of becoming the Scrum Master also


But what’s the interest of a program manager compared to a product manager? I mean from my view I wouldn’t enjoy it. I read above that some say it is working with senior management…


I like to think of it as a qualitative quantitative split.

Product managers are about the quality aspects of a product or service.

Program managers are about the quantitative aspects like resourcing, sequencing and budgeting


Regardless of titles there are many different scenarios where different people have to manage different layers from compliance and delivery to marketing and strategy. So many not even mentioned.

Every one of these intersections is an opportunity for product to help lead.

If there are arguments and finger pointing then help settle it or escalate it with professional execution.


In my org at AMZN, Product Managers mostly build products but a few build cross cutting user experiences that require a dev team to work in several products to stitch it together.

Program managers solve specific problems that don’t require dev, or own processes that leverage what Product managers build.


@Felipe, So who will define and own the vision of that larger product? Let’s say for PRIME or maybe smaller for credit card payment: Product or Program Manager? Who has the last word when there is an important tradeoff?

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What larger product?

I think your implying that a cross cutting experience is “larger” - it isn’t, it just involves “combining” functions from two existing products. For example, you might combine several ML products into a product that takes action based on a heuristic interpretation of the combined output. In that instance, the ML providers would be your supplier and you their customer.

Something like Prime or Payments is a multi product effort and the VP of Prime has a portfolio of products managed by individual product teams with individual product managers on those teams, acting with a great amount of autonomy.

Overall vision is set in an organizational North Star document, but this is very abstract, directional, and aspirational - there is no place for a final say.

It’s up to the product teams to figure out how there products align to the vision, and then write their own mini-North Star documents defining their own approach, goal, and “sub-vision”. Leadership decides if they want to fund that and then you go build it, if you sell it to them.

As an aside, when people complain about how Amazon is awful for product managers, it’s because many product managers over promise at this stage and are now on the hook for what they over-sold to leadership.

This is all done by Product Managers, who have final say in their own realm.

Program Managers might use the products a team builds, but they aren’t really in a position to have any kind of final say.

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@MichaelYoffe, Very insightful answer! Thank you very much!

Another question: That VP of Product or Portfolio like Prime: Will he be heading also the different ML teams even if this is a shared capability?

We are having a ML team that builds an Engine to do for example image analysis or text analysis specific to our domain and industry. This capability will be used by a variety of products. The problem is where is this team optimally reporting to to ensure aligned vision and priorities?