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

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

While project managers oversee individual projects, program managers preside over the strategy and success of multiple connected projects.

[Featured Image] An aspiring program manager confirms the difference between project managers and program managers on a tablet.

Program managers and project managers have related and often intertwining roles. While a project manager orchestrates the success of individual projects, a program manager oversees the strategy of all interrelated projects, collectively called a program. Here's a closer look at each role and its distinctions.

Program manager vs. project manager: What do they do?

Project managers lead individual projects to completion, while program managers ensure groups of projects are carried out effectively. But how does the day-to-day work of each role differ?

A program manager oversees groups of projects linked through a common organizational goal—collectively called a program. The program manager ensures the program aligns with the organization’s larger strategy. They might:

  • Work with project managers to plan project schedules, budgets, and goals

  • Collaborate with executive management to help achieve an organization’s goals and come up with new strategies

  • Facilitate communication across different projects and cross-functional teams

A project manager ensures individual projects are carried out on time, within budget, and aligned with goals. They assemble team members, plan project costs, manage risks, and make sure team members are on schedule. Specific tasks can include:

  • Planning and acquiring project resources like budget, teams, and tools

  • Communicating with stakeholders (including program managers) and project team members to ensure alignment around goals

  • Maintaining progress on projects by motivating team members, addressing pain points, and leading quality assurance

Program managers vs. project managers: How are they different?

The differences between project managers and program managers break down into three main points:

  • Program managers oversee groups of projects, while project managers lead individual projects. This makes the program manager more strategic than the project manager.

  • Program managers tend to have more managerial duties than project managers, as they can oversee multiple projects. This can lead to more responsibilities and higher salaries for program managers.

  • Projects have limited timeframes, and programs can run without fixed ends. This means a program manager can stay with a program indefinitely, while a project manager is in charge of a project from beginning to end. A project manager will move from project to project, while a program manager will usually stay with the same program.

How do these positions work together in practice?

Suppose you’re a program manager on a company’s design team. In that case, you might ensure project managers on the design team have the resources to execute their projects and that their project goals align with the team’s larger goals. 

If you were a project manager, you might oversee the projects themselves. For example, you might try to redesign the website or update the company’s branding.

Which should I choose?

Project and program managers organize teams to meet a larger goal. However, because project managers generally move from project to project, this role can be a good choice for those who prefer variety in their work. Becoming a program manager can be rewarding if you have dedicated expertise to bring to a program.

Program and project management require many of the same skills, and it’s not rare that project managers become program managers. If you’re unsure where to start, consider project management positions that can lead to program management positions.

Program manager and project manager salaries

Program and project manager salaries can depend on many factors, including industry and experience. According to Glassdoor, the average salaries between the two are similar. In Canada, program managers earn an average base salary of $91,032, while project managers make $87,606 per year on average [1, 2].

Job growth

Program management and project management are both growing fields. The Project Management Institute (PMI) also found that globally, project management-related jobs are expected to grow by 33 per cent from 2017 to 2027 [3].

In Canada, Job Bank Canada predicts the job outlook for project managers as “Moderate” to “Good” in all provinces through 2025 [4]. 

Program vs. project manager skills

Project managers know how to manage risk, balance budgets, implement project management tools, and have leadership qualities and good communication skills. More specifically, they can include:

  • Project management approaches and methodologies, such as Agile, Waterfall, or Scrum

  • Budgeting

  • Risk management

  • Using and implementing project management tools like Asana, GANTT charts, and burndown charts

Program managers often have strong managerial skills and familiarity with business operations and project management skills. These can include:

  • Operations and business knowledge

  • Leadership and management

  • Project management    

Project managers and program managers should have the following:

  • Industry experience

  • Communication

  • Cross-functional collaboration

  • Organization

Program and project manager certifications

Project manager certifications can solidify your expertise in project management or get you started on a path to becoming one.

  • Project Management Professional (PMP): The PMP is the world's most commonly acquired project management certification. The PMP is administered by the Project Management Institute (PMI).

  • Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM): The CAPM is for candidates who hope to land entry-level project management positions. PMI also administers it.

  • Scrum Master certifications: Getting a Scrum Master certification often means becoming a Certified ScrumMaster (CSM) or Professional Scrum Master (PSM I), though other Scrum Master certifications exist.

Review program manager job postings, and you’ll find organizations less frequently request program manager certifications than they do for project managers. Still, program management certifications can be helpful for those who want to skill up to take on more complex program management assignments.

  • Program Management Professional (PgMP): Offered by the PMI, the PgMP is for experienced program management professionals.

Get started with Coursera.

The first step to becoming a project manager is acquiring the necessary skills. Even if you’re an aspiring program manager, you’ll want at least a basic understanding of project management. 

You can learn the essentials of project management through an online Course on Coursera, such as the Google Project Management: Professional Certificate. This option allows you to learn job-ready skills from top industry experts in six months or less.

Article sources


Glassdoor. “How much does a Program Manager make in Canada?,,15.htm?clickSource=searchBtn.” Accessed March 1, 2023.

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