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Program vs Product vs Project Management

Based on a real story.. and years of first-hand experience across a variety of Individual Contributors and People Management roles
Federico Maffini

Leadership | Program Management | Data & Analysis | Interviewing | Strategy, AWS

How it all started

I started my career at Amazon, as an Intern. My university required I did an internship in order to graduate, so I applied to dozens of companies all across Europe. When Amazon reached out, I didn’t even know I had applied for a role there. The catch? The internship was in Finance, the only career path I was sure I did not want to get myself in. Math, statistics, accounting, I despised it all. What I really wanted to do at the time was marketing, guerrilla campaigns, and other viral advertising. But how could I possibly turn down a role at Amazon?

So there I was, studying Excel through YouTube videos, researching interview questions on Glassdoor.com, and feeling incapable to learn how to write SQL in just a few weeks. Then the day finally came. I rented a car, embarked on a 300km drive down to Luxembourg (at the time Amazon interviewed everyone in-person and on-site), and gave everything I had in what truly was my first ever real job interview. The rest is history.

From Finance to Program Management

Four years and a couple of promotions in, I knew my 20-year plan wasn’t to be the CFO at the boardroom table. I wanted to move closer to the business and to the actual customers. Most importantly, I wanted to be the one making decisions on behalf of the business I was part of. True, finance leaders have as much of a weight in a lot of the decision making as their business counterparts, but on a day-to-day basis and especially at more junior levels, the work of a business person is ultimately what I wanted for myself.

As I started to look and apply for internal roles, I proceeded with the assumption that all PM roles (Program Management, Product Management, and Project Management) would be the same and would get me where I wanted to go. Wrong. Very wrong. Unsurprisingly, it took me months to transition away from finance and into a business role – possibly because I was approaching hiring managers for Senior PM roles saying something along the lines of “[...] I’d love to move closer to the business and to the customers and that’s why I’m looking for a PM role. Whether Program, Product or Project Management, it doesn’t really matter to me [...]”. Not very smart of me. But hey, we are all here to learn! 

It was only when I became an actual Program Manager and that I started to work with an actual (and much more experienced) Product Manager that I finally understood the difference between all these roles.

Pro*** Management Roles

Let me help you avoid the same mistakes with some self-informed, partial and unofficial definitions:

Product Managers. Product management is a function that guides every step of a product’s lifecycle, from development to positioning and pricing, by focusing on the product and its customers first and foremost. Product managers are orchestrators. They inform their product roadmaps working backwards from their customers (whether internal to the company or external), and then partner closely with technical teams (software development managers and their teams of engineers) to build the right products and features. In short, they worry about everything needed to build, launch, and maintain a product – form user experience, to user interface, to product bugs, to ongoing feature requests, to go to market and more.  

Project Managers. Project managers make sure that their projects get delivered on time, on budget, and to the satisfaction of their customer/s, whether internal or external to the company. They are mostly Individual Contributors (ICs) and they often work with a pool of stakeholders across all parts of the business. Two things are unique about project managers: first, they usually have a very clear and specific, time-bound project (a goal basically) to achieve. Picture the launch of a new production plant by EOY, the offshoring of certain activities to a third-party provider by Q3, the transformation of the tech stack within a specific department by wk50, etc. Second, budgeting and resource management are often (always?) big parts of their job – which does not always apply to Program and Product Managers.

Program Managers. Theoretically, program managers should operate at a more strategic level than project managers as programs should encompass various projects, and it would not be uncommon for project managers to report into a program manager. In practice, I am yet to come across an example where this structure is rigorously followed. However, program management remains the most versatile, most strategic, and most cross-functional profile amongst all of the “Pro*** Management” roles. Often, Program and Product Managers work very closely too, with the two splitting the responsibilities within a larger space. For example, in Amazon Shipping I owned everything to do with Customer Experience and Customer Support from a programmatic standpoint, and I was working very closely to a Product Manager who owned the delivery of new technical products within the Customer Support space. He would come to me to know the long-term plan for the charter (i.e. we want Customer Support to look like this in the future) and he would then build the product vision to get us there (i.e. for Customer Support to look like that, we need so and so product feature and this is how we will go about building and launching everything). However, in Amazon Web Services, I led teams of Program Managers that did not pair up with any Product Manager as their scope was go-to-market motions and internal strategic initiatives (e.g. we want X team to own Y initiative to achieve Z result, and this is everything we need to do to get there).  

Navigating the Transition

Navigating the transition from Finance to Program Management was a challenging but rewarding journey. I could tell you that “it required a lot of self-reflection, learning, and persistence as well as understanding my own strengths and weaknesses, aligning my career goals with my personal passions, and continuously seeking out opportunities to develop new skills”. But in reality, none of that is true. I did not network as I should have, I did not dive deep on each of the roles, and I did not spend time studying the nuances of the path I was so sure I wanted to undertake.  

However, there is a key lesson I took away and that remained through for my career thus far: the importance of adaptability. The business landscape is constantly evolving, and being able to adapt to new challenges and opportunities is essential for long-term success. I also realized that taking calculated risks is necessary for growth and that moving horizontally in a company that allows you to do so is the greatest (non-monetary) benefit you could ever hope to get.

Looking Ahead

For those who find themselves at a career crossroads, unsure which path to take, my advice is to stay curious, be proactive, and seek out learning opportunities. Above all, ask ChatGPT or Google and make sure you understand the nuances of each of these Pro*** Management role.

Best yet? Ask a mentor who’s been there and has done that!! #ShamelessPlug 

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