Program Management Career Path: What You Need to Know

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Discover how you can start a career in program management, overseeing programs through every stage of their lifecycle, including education and salary.

[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 other 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 and align project managers and project outcomes.

What is program management?

Program management coordinates, monitors, and controls 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 management approach. You will have to consider scheduling, scope, cost, and risk dependencies and how each project fits the critical path toward program objectives.

The program management life cycle

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

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 a life cycle of initiation, designing, execution, monitoring and controlling, and closing phases. Each program involves multiple workflows, all going through their life cycles. Some projects may last the duration of the program, while others 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. You'll work with many people as a program manager while fulfilling your program management duties. Some professionals you may work 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 usually have enough experience to manage multiple projects simultaneously. Becoming a program manager requires advanced knowledge of scheduling, controlling, budgeting, and monitoring various projects simultaneously. Some program managers manage a program and oversee individual projects within their program. You’ll typically delegate project management to individual project managers in larger, more complex programs.

Program manager vs. project manager

While "program management" may seem interchangeable with "project management," the two have important differences.

You’ll usually operate at a higher level in program management than project managers. Program management manages multiple projects to achieve a common goal and business objective. As a program manager, you coordinate multiple project managers' duties, overseeing a program's entire life cycle from start to finish. You're responsible for ensuring all projects are on schedule, budget, and properly resourced. You don’t have day-to-day control over specific projects; instead, you 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.

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 and engaging them 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 Canada earn an average salary of $91,151 [1] as of July 2024. 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 ask candidates 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.


Program managers can work in tech industries, construction, business, non-profit, etc. Most employers require a postsecondary or university degree in a related field to the industry in which you will be working. A business program manager could have a bachelor's or master’s degree in business management or information systems.

Some program managers have worked through project roles without formal education. This is less common nowadays, as many employers prefer 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. Still, they can help you gain a role requiring more advanced program management skills. 

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 like engineering, cloud infrastructure, or construction.


While various program manager certifications are available, you don’t need to be certified to land program management roles. You only require certifications if the organization you’re applying to needs them. 

For example, Microsoft offers Project Management Certifications specific to its products and processes. Getting certified is usually required if you work for Microsoft or plan to do so. 

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 a Project Management Professional (PMP) certification from the Project Management Institute (PMI) adds credibility to your professional profile and demonstrates your knowledge of best practices.

While education and credentials are important to becoming a program manager, being a great program manager requires more than qualifications and certifications. You must apply what you know in real-world scenarios, which requires experience and expertise.


Program management requires multiple skill sets, including leadership, management, customer focus, and technical expertise. A common path to becoming a program manager is working as a project manager and building experience within project management structures. 

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

Getting started 

There are many paths 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, consider the Project Practicum With Multiple Projects course, which is part of the UCI Project Management Professional Certificate.

Article sources

  1. Glassdoor. “Program Manager Salaries in Canada,,6_IN3_KO7,22.htm.” Accessed July 8, 2024. 

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