Program Management Career Path: What You Need to Know

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Learn how to become a program manager, how this role is similar yet different from project management, and what this career field entails.

[Featured image] A project management team, one female, wearing a white blouse, and a male, wearing a dark sports jacket and white shirt, are working on a laptop in their office.

Program managers direct programs consisting of multiple projects. As a program manager, you’ll oversee different teams, working towards different goals and with separate work schedules. Projects in your program will be connected by overarching organizational objectives or within the same business function. You’ll track project progress, align project managers and project outcomes.

What is program management?

Program management is the process of coordinating, monitoring, and controlling an aligned group of projects. As a program manager, you'll manage a portfolio of related projects that impact the same parts of the organization or rely on each other to be delivered successfully. Program managers must coordinate multiple projects to avoid redundancy, track progress, and meet schedules.

As a program manager, you take a strategic project managing approach. You will have to consider scheduling, scope, cost, and risk dependencies and how each project fits the critical path towards program objectives.

The program management life cycle

The program management lifecycle (PGLC) is a framework that helps you manage large, complex programs. As a program manager, you’re responsible for the success of a program from beginning to end. This means you must ensure that the individual projects within your program are successful and that they work together and support the goal of your program.

The PGLC is a cyclical process with five distinct phases:

  1. Developing the concept or idea

  2. Setting up and defining the program

  3. Planning, scheduling, and organizing the program

  4. Executing the program, including monitoring and controlling 

  5. Closing the program

Within this framework, each project has its own life cycle that consists of initiation, designing, execution, monitoring and controlling, and closing phases. Each program, therefore, involves multiple workflows, all going through their own lifecycles. Some projects may last the duration of the program. Other projects may be opened, completed, and closed in a single program phase. 

Who works in program management?

Individuals who have authority over projects work in program management. As a program manager, you'll work with a number of people while fulfilling your program management duties, some professionals that you make worth with include:

  • Subject matter experts

  • Program sponsors

  • Operations directors

  • Directors of programs

  • Program coordinators

  • Project managers

  • Program budget managers

  • Technical leads 

  • Program office team members (finance, control, administration)

Can a project manager be a program manager?

Program managers are usually project managers who have gained enough experience to manage multiple projects at once. Becoming a program manager requires advanced knowledge of scheduling, controlling, budgeting, and monitoring multiple projects simultaneously. Some program managers manage a program and oversee individual projects within their program. In larger, more complex programs, you’ll normally delegate project management to individual project managers.

Read more: What Is a Project Manager? A Career Guide

Program manager vs. project manager

While the term "program management" may seem like it's interchangeable with "project management," there are important differences between the two.

Working in program management, you’ll usually operate at a higher level than project managers. Program management is managing multiple projects to achieve a common goal and business objectives. As a program manager, you coordinate the duties of multiple project managers, overseeing the entire life cycle of a program from start to finish. You're responsible for ensuring that all projects are on schedule, on budget, and properly resourced. You don’t have day-to-day control over specific projects, but instead, create an environment where individual projects can succeed.

Project managers are responsible for delivering individual projects within a program. Your work may be anything from developing new software to launching a new advertisement campaign. Project managers oversee individual projects while managing tasks and communicating with project owners to ensure their projects are completed as expected.

Read more: Program Manager vs. Project Manager: What’s the Difference?

Responsibilities of a program manager

As a program manager, you are a strategic leader. You’re responsible for delivering benefits related to the program’s goals. You’ll implement program management processes and approaches to planning, managing, executing, and delivering programs.

Your responsibilities will include :

  • Strategic planning: Aligning projects to strategic objectives

  • Program governance: Defining roles, responsibilities, decision-making authority, and policy

  • Stakeholder engagement and communication planning: Identifying stakeholders, engaging stakeholders early in a program, and developing an effective communication plan

  • Risk management: Identifying, analyzing, prioritizing, and managing risks in a program

  • Benefits realization management: Ensuring benefits are identified and planned for; assessing progress towards benefits achievement throughout a program

  • Program lifecycle delivery monitoring and reporting: Reporting on progress against milestones, deliverables, and outcomes at each stage of a program

  • Working closely with project managers: Aligning projects with a program by coordinating, controlling, strategic planning, and communication 

Program manager salary 

According to Glassdoor, program managers in the US earn an average salary of $88,357 as of June 2022.  The salary for this role may vary based on location, industry, and type of experience.  

How to become a program manager

While you can take different paths to become a program manager, most employers typically expect you to have at least a bachelor's degree. You'll also need experience in project management and can seek certifications to strengthen your skills and increase your job prospects.

Education

The majority of program managers have engineering, technical, or business backgrounds, so a bachelor's or master's degree in computer science, business administration, engineering, or another related field may be helpful.

Some program managers have worked their way up through project roles without formal education. This is less common nowadays, as employers look for bachelor's and advanced degree level candidates for project and program management roles. You don’t necessarily need a Master of Business Administration (MBA) or a Project Management Professional (PMP) certification, but they can certainly help. 

Program manager roles are competitive, so it’s worth doing what you can to set yourself apart. Niche programs may require advanced degrees in specialized fields, such as engineering, cloud infrastructure, or construction.

While various program manager certifications are offered, you don’t need to be certified to complete program management roles. You only require certifications if the organization you’re applying to needs them. For example, Microsoft offers Project Management Certifications that are specific to their products and processes. If you work for Microsoft, or plan to in the future, getting certified is normally a requirement. 

Certifications demonstrate your competence. Most program managers have a list of project management and program management certifications on their resumes. Some common certifications held by program managers include the following:

Project management certifications

  • Project Management Professional (PMP)

  • Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM)

  • PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP)

  • Certified ScrumMaster (CSM)

Program management certifications

  • Program Management Professional (PgMP)

  • MSP Practitioner

Earning Project Management Professional (PMP) certification from the Project Management Institute (PMI) is highly recommended to add credibility to your professional profile and demonstrate your knowledge of project management best practices.

Read more: 10 PMI Certifications to Level Up Your Project Management Career

While education and credentials are important to becoming a program manager, to be a great program manager requires more than qualifications and certifications—you need to be able to apply what you know in real-world scenarios. That requires experience and expertise.

Experience

Program management is a complex profession that requires multiple skill sets, including leadership, management, customer focus, and technical expertise. A very common path to becoming a program manager is to work as a project manager and build up experience working within project management structures. 

Most employers prefer to hire program managers who have at least three to five years of experience in project management roles. To be considered for significant programs, you’ll need to have experience managing large-scale projects with cross-functional teams.

Getting started 

There's no single path to becoming a good program manager. Consider building your project management skills to advance to a program manager role. The Google Project Management: Professional Certificate can help you get started. Seek opportunities to manage projects and deliver consistent quality while upgrading your educational credentials, certification, or both.

To discover more about the complexities of managing multiple projects simultaneously, you might want to consider the Project Practicum With Multiple Projects course, which is part of the UCI Project Management Professional Certificate.

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