A program manager manages large-scale programs and supervises the project teams that execute them. The scope of their work can be vast; programs often consist of multiple complex projects. A program manager’s knowledge and expertise constitute a significant factor in determining whether a program reaches a successful outcome.
Program managers play a critical role in a range of industries that include information technology, construction, city planning, architecture, engineering, advertising, manufacturing systems, and marketing—in short, practically any industry with complex functions and goals. Program managers (PMs) occupy the helm of extraordinarily complex projects that make up a program, like the construction of a ‘pencil’ skyscraper, the creation and launch of a new space telescope, or the rollout of a multinational public health campaign.
So what exactly does a program manager do? This article explores that question as well as:
Program managers shepherd large program designs from start to finish, in various fields of industry and levels of complexity. As a result, a program manager’s job description varies among sectors. In IT, for example, program managers might oversee the development of an innovative software product or be tasked with ensuring the functionality of the IT infrastructure and planning back-up, upgrades, and continuity of the tech hardware for an organization. In either case, the position supervises the overall program, marking milestones and guiding the teams of project managers who move each project within the program forward.
Program manager positions are becoming more and more technological and information-based, requiring PMs to possess expertise in IT, information management, data analytics, and systems thinking as well as ethics, problem-solving, and strategic leadership.
I.T. encompasses a vast spectrum of systems and applications. They include common networks most of us use every day, such as telephone and point-of-sale systems. At the other end of the spectrum are comparatively obscure, poorly understood systems like blockchain, used in cryptocurrencies and other transactions. In between lie background systems such as databases and inventory management, crucial to businesses, corporations, and government agencies. (
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the computer and information technology job market should grow by 15 percent between 2021 and 2031, creating more than 682,000 new jobs. Earning a Master of Science in Information Technology builds skill sets in critical areas that include cloud computing, algorithms, big data, business intelligence, cybersecurity, data science, machine learning, and IT management, among others. ( )
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Program managers see the big picture. Their lens is set at a wide angle so that they can oversee the scope of large programs, or project groupings, from the defined start date to their conclusion. Within that continuum, they plan program objectives, manage cross-functional teams, budget time and money, and synthesize individual projects within the larger program design.
A program manager establishes the program goals and facilitates communication among team members who work on different projects coordinated within the larger program. As managers, they are responsible for designing, defining, and setting clear and achievable goals; procuring the resources, teams, technologies, and materials needed to accomplish these targets; and managing the budgeting, timelines, and quality of the program result. It’s a considerable amount of work and requires program managers equipped with distinct skills and training that enable them to troubleshoot and remedy issues as large-scale projects are in motion.
A program manager is like “super” project manager, overseeing the planning of multiple projects and the many teams responsible for successfully delivering new capabilities or products. To do their job well, PMs must possess program management skills and a strong understanding of business administration and risk management.
In addition, program managers review the day-to-day budget, coordinate and communicate with stakeholders, monitor deliverables with an eye to quality control, and align the interdependencies and relationships among project manager roles. Program managers also utilize corrective measurements and monitor an overall program through a program life cycle—from the initiation document to the outcome.
If you look up a program manager’s job description in any career guide, it includes a long list of hard and soft skills required for the role which are acquired through training and experience with complex projects. Technical skills include problem-solving, human resources management, communication skills, and agility in change management. Program managers also must be organized, capable, and inspiring leaders who can solve complex issues in collaboration with their project managers and input from stakeholders—all while assuring that each decision comports with the program’s business objectives and stays within budget.
By defining program controls and governance early on, a strong manager guides project teams through systems and design thinking, implementing cooperative initiatives with cross-functional collaboration and strategic alignment. With practical experience and a solid understanding of the broader program objectives, managers utilize program management methodology and industry techniques to resolve problems and streamline business operations, all while maintaining strong ethical standards.
Program managers work in almost every business sector. Glassdoor lists a number of program manager roles at top companies like Microsoft (salary: approximately $128,000), Google ($151,000), Cisco Systems ($150,000), IBM ($129,000), and Meta ($145,000). As well, the US Department of Defense (DOD) is seeking PMs and pay salaries well into six figures.
A program manager supervises multiple projects within a program, while project managers work cooperatively on various projects within the larger program. Forbes posits that an easy way to understand the difference between the roles is to distinguish the end results: “Whereas project management deals with outputs (products or deliverables), program management deals with outcomes, the final result brought about through the utilization of such outputs.”
Leading information and technology companies expect applicants for senior program manager positions to hold qualifications beyond a bachelor’s degree. Pursuing a master’s degree in information management teaches program managers how to organize and analyze information, recognize and resolve information issues, translate datasets into actionable information, and leverage data to forecast future trends. In addition, they are equipped with the essential analytic and interpersonal management skills necessary to effectively lead complex programs and meet desired goals.
The MSIM student body includes PMs with years of experience in the field as well as early and mid-career professionals who want to earn this degree to connect with new and innovative technologies and methodologies for business and human resources management.
Many schools offer full-time, on-campus programs, as well as online and hybrid tracks designed to fit the schedules of working professionals.
The specifics of MSIM programs vary, but they generally offer foundational coursework in business analytics, information security, strategic IT management, and ethics in management. Electives and information management specializations are also program-specific.
Specialization courses in program/product management and consulting offered at the University of Washington are:
Recommended electives for this specialization are:
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