Information Technology

How to Become a Program Manager

How to Become a Program Manager
Also known as solutions architects, technical program managers, and business architects, program managers typically work in large organizations across several fields, including manufacturing, information services, healthcare, and finance. Image from Unsplash
Lucien Formichella profile
Lucien Formichella August 30, 2022

Many program managers—especially those in senior positions—hold a master's degree, but succeeding in this field requires more than formal education. Developing the leadership skills necessary to become a program manager can take years.

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Program managers are big picture thinkers; they look at how a group of projects fits together in service to their organization’s overall goals. Their job is essentially to build a puzzle without looking at the box.

While not always executives, program managers frequently help shape organizational strategy. They come from many educational backgrounds but are always efficient, organized, and excellent communicators.

Program managers must view the forest through the trees while simultaneously evaluating individual branches. Also known as solutions architects, technical program managers, and business architects, these professionals typically work in large organizations across several fields, including manufacturing, information services, healthcare, and finance.

According to a 2017 report by the Project Management Institute (PMI), the demand for skilled project managers (a related position focusing on individual projects) is higher than ever. The current workforce is retiring just as businesses start to prioritize project management even more, creating more opportunities for aspiring program managers.

It can take years to become a program manager. Professionals can spend five or more years as project managers—but their hard work is handsomely rewarded. says the median program manager earns over $150,000 per year (including incentives). This article on how to become a program manager covers what it takes to land this job, including:

  • How to become a program manager
  • What is a Master of Science in Information Management?
  • Top Master of Science in Information Management programs

How to become a program manager

Most program managers garner experience as project managers, who oversee individual projects to completion. Honing your project management skills is an excellent way to prove you’re ready for more responsibility.

Project managers can also earn a good wage. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median income for all project management specialists (including program and product managers) is nearly $95,000.

Necessary program manager background/experience

“Get experience” is a broad directive; the field you start in can drastically alter your career path. One Quora commenter claims their experience as an Air Force lieutenant colonel helped them land a product manager job in the defense industry. The commenter believed their military experience allowed them to gain clients’ trust in a way other program managers could not.

If you want to take on a program management position in healthcare or computer science, consider gaining work experience in the sector. A bachelor’s degree in health administration or computer science and a few years in an entry-level administrative or software development position can provide a leg up on your peers who work only in business.

Program manager skills

Program managers need a diverse skillset to coordinate team members and high-ranking stakeholders to meet program goals. Top program manager skills include time management, leadership, organization, resource management, and risk management. Excellent communication skills are critical.

Program managers depend heavily on soft skills; they need them to manage project teams and negotiate deals. They rely on advanced budgeting skills to prioritize essential deliverables and realize complex projects at the right price.

Program managers also need strong technical skills, especially in information management—the process of gathering and utilizing information for decision-making. They understand data management and how to leverage emerging technologies like artificial intelligence to develop project plans and overall strategy. For this reason, program managers frequently have a background in information technology or computer science.

Paths to becoming a program manager

It can take years to develop the leadership skills and gain the management experience necessary to become program manager. How quickly you progress along the path also depends on your organization’s size. Program managers for small companies may not have many years of experience, while those at large companies have a master’s degree and project management certifications. Job descriptions can differ significantly.

Many program managers earn at least one certification. Popular options include Project Management Professional (PMP) and Program Management Professional (PgMP) from the Project Management Institute (PMI), Certified Scrum Master (CSM) from Scrum Alliance, and Master Project Manager (MPM) from the American Academy of Project Management.

How an MSIM will prepare you to become a program manager

Experienced professionals looking to make the jump to program management or earn a senior position at a large company may benefit from a Master of Science in Information Management (MSIM)—or another degree like a Master of Business Administration. According to University of Washington, an MSIM offers education on information and system management methodologies, preparing graduates to become leaders across multiple fields.

Program manager isn’t the only position you can get with this degree. Depending on their specialty, University of Washington graduates can pursue roles like metadata analyst, senior system analyst, IT service manager, UX designer, and information architect.


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What is a Master of Science in Information Management?

MSIM programs can differ drastically among schools and specialty track. Options for University of Washington students include data science, business intelligence, and overall program management. Knowing what you want to achieve with an MSIM can help narrow your search and improve your career prospects.

Master of Science in Information Management program admissions criteria/prerequisites

MSIM programs mostly follow the standard graduate admissions criteria. Applicants can expect to submit official bachelor’s degree transcripts (programs may set a minimum GPA requirement), standardized test scores (typically GRE or GMAT), letters of recommendation, their resume, a personal essay, and English proficiency exam scores (for international students).

If you’re attending a computer science or information technology-focused program, you may need to prove your proficiency in a subject like programming or statistics or complete bridge coursework. Those with computer science, math, data management, engineering, and information technology undergraduate backgrounds typically do well.

What will I learn in a Master of Science in Information Management program?

Again, this depends on the program you choose. University of Washington offers several specialization tracks, including program/product management and consulting, information and cyber security, information architecture, user experience, data science, and business intelligence. Each program track comes with a unique set of core requirements and elective options so students can customize their educations to fit their career goals. For instance, business intelligence students may step into six-figure business consulting or computer system management positions after graduating. Data science graduates may become data science managers. Aspiring program managers can benefit from the corresponding specialization.

You don’t need to decide on a specialization before entering the program; the core curriculum offers good exposure. Common core subjects include business analytics, data analytics, database management, IT project management, software engineering, user experience, and organizational design and implementation.

Top Master of Science in Information Management programs

The program you ultimately choose should be one with a curriculum that reflects your career goals and situation, not just a top-ranked program. Those who value flexibility should consider an online program. Top schools for information management (or a related subject) include:

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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