Product Management vs. Software Engineering
When comparing product management vs. software engineering, it’s clear that while related, they involve distinctly different functions.
Software engineering is typically a long, multi-step process that relies on a variety of team members—including those who identify what a product should include and those who design the product’s software accordingly. It’s an important process for businesses and customers alike, helping to ensure that businesses can integrate services and manage data to identify and meet consumer needs.
Product management is the process of leading a product’s development, launch, and ongoing support. Product managers analyze consumer data and determine what a product development team should create, and then oversee efforts to develop and maintain those products. Software engineers then design the software to include features that improve a product user’s experience.
Understanding the specific roles of product managers and software engineers—and their relationship to each other—can help ensure a smoother software development process. This understanding also is helpful for anyone considering education and training for product management or software engineering roles.
What Is a Product Manager?
A product manager gathers consumer feedback and needs, then consults with a variety of business and technical personnel to build or modify products. They collect input about what features a product should include by working with individuals such as:
- Product marketers
- Customer success managers
- Customer researchers
Then product managers share their findings with various members of the product team, explaining the importance of this input and how the product can benefit customers. They determine the features to implement in the product that will meet customers’ needs and wants, and create a plan for development. Among those who help product managers in this effort are:
- Software engineers
- Other product managers
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Product Manager Responsibilities
In developing and monitoring plans for products, product managers have a range of key responsibilities. Among the tasks of product managers are:
- Identifying customers’ needs
- Analyzing competitors’ performance
- Making a business case for new products and enhancements
- Creating a product’s road map
- Prioritizing the implementation of a product’s features
- Managing the product’s life cycle
- Providing input on a product’s pricing
Product Manager Skills
Understanding the skills required for the job is another important facet of learning about the product manager role. To perform the duties typically required of product managers, they should have skills and expertise in areas such as:
- Data analysis, to uncover market trends and customers’ preferences
- Communication, to engage with a number of stakeholders and business units
- Strategic planning, to guide the development of a product so that it aligns with customers' preferences
- Project management, to guide the process for meeting product goals
- Market research, to understand how and where a product might be successful
- Negotiation, to advocate for market-based and customer-driven changes
- Prioritization, to emphasize the most critical features of a product in planning
What Is a Software Engineer?
Another step when evaluating product management vs. software engineering is examining the role of software engineers.
Software engineers design, implement, and maintain software, ensuring that it performs according to customer-driven specifications. While they interact primarily with other engineers and designers to develop software, they also work with product managers to gain an understanding of the product strategy and road map that drive the software’s development efforts.
Their work follows the software development life cycle (SDLC), which includes:
- Analysis—Reviewing user requirements for the software
- Design—Determining how to create software that meets the product’s requirements
- Development—Using the plans from the design phase to create the product
- Testing—Checking for issues with the software
- Deployment—Making the product available to users
- Maintenance—Developing product updates and ensuring that the software is operating properly
Software Engineer Responsibilities
Bringing the product manager’s vision for the software to life involves a variety of responsibilities. The responsibilities of software engineers include performing the following tasks as part of the SLDC:
- Designing a product’s software
- Writing code to develop the software
- Implementing the software
- Offering recommendations for improving the product
- Investigating potential issues with the software
- Providing product support and maintenance
Software Engineer Skills
Many skills that the software engineer role relies on are technical in nature, allowing these professionals to complete the coding and analysis required for the job. Some critical skills for software engineers are related to:
- Problem-solving, to develop solutions that address customers’ needs
- Programming, to use programming languages, organize data, and follow sequences of steps
- Creativity, to consider the ways users might interact with a product
- Teamwork, to work with others and communicate about the progress of production
- Attention to detail, to watch for mistakes in the code and carefully monitor the product’s performance
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What’s the Difference: Product Management vs. Software Engineering
Product managers and software engineers both play a critical role in software product development, and they rely on each other to perform their jobs. Product managers count on software engineers to power the creation of products that meet customers’ needs. Software engineers turn to product managers for descriptions of the features most desired in the marketplace.
Additionally, product managers and software engineers share many of the same skills. For example, both jobs call for strong communication, teamwork, and analysis capabilities.
But distinct roles and responsibilities between the two set the functions of product management and software engineering apart from each other. Generally, product managers focus on what to build and why to build it, and software engineers’ main concern is how to build it. Specific differences include:
For product managers, the priority is identifying the features to include in a product and the ways those features will benefit customers—and the company. They work to ensure that the development team addresses product gaps.
The main concern of software engineers, on the other hand, is selecting the right technology and systems to implement the desired features and then striving to meet product specifications.
Product managers are accountable for the delivery of the completed product. Software engineers typically have various deliverables they’re responsible for throughout the product’s life cycle, from completing tasks within a specific phase to fixing an identified bug in the software.
Frequent collaboration with a number of stakeholders is a cornerstone of the product manager role, as they seek input on desired features and guide the development process. While software engineers do work with each other—and with team members like the product manager—they often work individually to complete their own assigned engineering tasks.
Product managers consider a forward-looking view to achieving results, with their timeline focused on the overall outcome. For software engineers, the development process typically includes shorter intervals, called sprints, during which they complete specific tasks.
Comparing Salaries: Product Management vs. Software Engineering
Another factor to review when considering product management vs. software engineering is the salary potential for jobs in each field.
The median annual salary for entry-level product managers (those with up to two years of experience) in June 2022 was $81,900, according to the labor market analytics firm Lightcast™. For software engineers at that level, the median annual salary was $83,000.
Salaries can vary according to several factors, including experience and location. For example, when including more experienced professionals in each role, median salaries shift. The median annual salary for all project managers nationwide in June 2022, reports Lightcast™, was $102,470. For software engineers, it was $98,936.
Geography also plays a role in earnings potential. The following examples show how location can make a difference in salaries (with data from Lightcast™):
- In the Cleveland area in June 2022, the median annual salary for entry-level product managers was $75,300. For entry-level software engineers, it was $70,000.
- In the Jacksonville, Florida, area, the median annual salary for entry-level product managers was $90,800. For entry-level software engineers, it was $77,300.
- In the San Francisco area, the median annual salary for entry-level product managers was $100,300. For entry-level software engineers, it was $97,100.
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Transitioning from Software Engineer to Product Manager
Software engineers seeking broader responsibilities and the potential for higher salaries might be interested in shifting to project management roles. In fact, software engineering provides a good foundation for making the change.
Becoming more familiar with the project manager role—through training, research, and networking—can put software engineers in a good position to pursue the new role.
Transitioning from Product Manager to Software Engineer
Product managers can shift to the more technical role of software engineering as well. Their product manager role requires them to be knowledgeable about the development process, and they can build on the software engineering aspect of that work through steps like:
- Finding a mentor who can help define the role and expectations
- Identifying a position to pursue to determine the necessary qualifications
- Completing education and training to enhance their technical skills
Advance Your Skills to Build Software Customers Love
Product management and software engineering are both integral to the product development process, and professionals performing these functions rely on each other for their work. However, there are clear differences between these two roles that make them unique. If you’re ready to explore a career as a product manager, you can start by learning about workplace strategies and technology tools that can prepare you for the career.
Fullstack Academy’s online Product Management Bootcamp is a 25-week, part-time program that provides hundreds of hours of content to develop your product management skills. You can learn from industry professionals, use in-demand tools and techniques, and join a broad alumni network. Discover how Fullstack Academy’s online Product Management Bootcamp can help you pursue your professional goals.