How to become a Program Manager

Program managers are commonly found in the high technology, government or construction fields where they initiate and oversee related projects. This may include but is not limited to corporate communications, supply chain management and research and development. They are hired to oversee and direct project managers both internally and externally in order to meet corporate level objectives and produce ongoing outcomes such as increased profit, improved efficiency or growth in market share.

According to Wikipedia, program managers may also be labeled as systems engineers, which reflects the refining and maintaining aspects of their position vs. project managers who deliver to set one-time objectives on a per project basis. Project managers focus on delivering to completion within scope and budget whereas program managers determine whether the project should continue at all and how it fits in relation to other ongoing projects and changes in the marketplace.

Program managers almost always develop some sort of professional business background be it a BS or MBA in addition to multiple years of industry and on the job experience. It’s the type of position that one is usually promoted into and not hired directly unless they are hired away from a competitor. Experience may come from being a long time project manager within a corporation or as a strategic partner and supplier of said organization. In some cases, such as real estate development, an independent developer may be qualified to jump from managing their own company or set of projects into an official program manager position with another firm.

Currently I work for a high technology consulting firm at a coordinator and project manager level and report to other project managers and a program manager. In order to reach the program manager level myself, I would most likely be expected to work for several more years, in addition to my current three, and possibly earn an MBA. While my deliverable are often limited to producing one outcome at a time, such as an updated website, my program manager is responsible for identifying how when and why we should be updating the website and what role it plays in making the company successful. The website may be just one of several channels for communicating with customers that is a part of the corporate communications program she is responsible for.

In addition to developing experience on the job and in business school, the Project Management Institute offers a Program Management Professional (PgMP) certification that can be achieved through personal study and documentation. This type of certification process can help boost a project manager up to the program manager level and may be worth considering as a way to develop perspective and exposure.

For those interested in becoming a program manager or improving at an existing role, consider the following tasks a program manager may be responsible for:

  • determining ways to leverage economies of scale
  • connecting internal and external resources to save money, one example would be creating a program to let external suppliers benefit from an internal corporate shipping discount so that both companies could save money
  • gathering statistics, financial information and historical records in preparation for a merger or acquisition and then integrating those external teams and projects with existing internal projects
  • launching and maintaining just in time delivery systems and delayed payment programs to improve accounting efficiency and interest return

Depending on the organizational structure, program managers will report to a company director, vice president or CEO.