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Program Manager Career Guide

What is a program manager?

A program manager oversees multiple related projects within an organization to ensure they align with the company’s strategic goals and objectives. Unlike project managers, who focus on the success of individual projects, these professionals take a more holistic view, coordinating various projects to ensure they work in harmony and deliver overarching benefits.

Managers in this role are necessary for maintaining alignment between organizational strategy and execution. They work across departments and project teams to ensure coherence, efficiency, and effective resource utilization. Their work contributes to the realization of strategic initiatives, fostering innovation, growth, and competitive advantage for the organization. By providing a bridge between individual projects and overall organizational strategy, they ensure that projects do not operate in isolation but contribute to broader business goals.

Duties and responsibilities

The role of a program manager encompasses a wide range of duties and responsibilities, all centered around guiding and coordinating multiple projects to meet strategic objectives. They define program goals, develop detailed plans, and oversee the execution of those plans across different projects. This involves aligning project objectives, coordinating project teams, managing interdependencies between projects, and ensuring that resources are allocated effectively.

These managers also play a key role in risk management, identifying potential challenges and developing strategies to mitigate them. They monitor progress, evaluate performance, and implement necessary changes to keep the program on track. Communication is an essential aspect of their role, as they must keep stakeholders informed and foster collaboration among various teams. This includes regular reporting on program status, budget, risks, and overall alignment with strategic goals.

Work environment

Program managers typically work in an office environment, whether in a corporate office, governmental agency, or non-profit organization. Their role is highly collaborative, and they often work with cross-functional teams, including project managers, executives, technical experts, and other stakeholders.

Given the complex nature of their work, these professionals often rely on specialized software tools for planning, tracking, and reporting. They may also find themselves in meetings frequently, facilitating communication and alignment across different projects. Travel may be required, especially if managing programs that span multiple locations or require interaction with various clients, suppliers, or partners.

Typical work hours

Program managers generally work full-time, adhering to standard business hours. However, due to the complexities and interdependencies of managing multiple projects, overtime may be required, especially during critical stages of a program or when unforeseen challenges arise. Meeting tight deadlines, coordinating with different teams, and aligning various project elements can sometimes lead to extended hours or weekend work.

Despite the demanding nature of the role, it offers a stimulating and rewarding experience for those interested in strategic planning and cross-project coordination. The ability to see the broader picture and contribute to the realization of significant organizational goals can be deeply fulfilling for these managers.

How to become a program manager

This career guide section outlines the process of becoming a program manager. It explores the educational, professional, and personal development steps required for this role.

Step 1: Earn a bachelor’s degree

Typically, a bachelor’s degree in management, business, or a related field is required to start a career toward becoming a program manager. These undergraduate programs usually include courses in finance, project management, organizational behavior, and operations management. These courses are designed to build a foundation in business guidelines and principles.

Step 2: Gain work experience

Before advancing to a program manager position, individuals often start in entry-level business or management roles. During this time, it’s crucial to gain a broad understanding of business operations and sharpen skills in people management, negotiation, and problem-solving.

Step 3: Get an advanced degree or certification

After gaining work experience, aspiring managers can increase their marketability by earning a master’s degree in business administration (MBA) or a similar advanced degree. Certifications like the Project Management Professional (PMP) from the Project Management Institute can also distinguish you as a highly skilled and knowledgeable professional in program management.

Step 4: Develop essential skills

Soft skills like critical thinking, excellent communication, and leadership abilities are key to a successful career in this role. These skills can be enhanced through various training workshops, mentorships, and even on-the-job situations.

Step 5: Apply for program manager positions

Once equipped with the required degree, relevant experience, and developed skills, you can now start applying for program manager jobs. It’s recommended to tailor your resume and cover letter to highlight your relevant achievements and skills suitable for the role. A well-planned job search strategy and readiness for job interviews will increase your chances of landing the role.

Step 6: Continue professional development

Even after becoming a program manager, it’s advantageous to continually enhance your professional skills and stay updated with industry trends. Regularly attending professional seminars and conferences or getting additional certifications can benefit career growth and performance in the role.

How much do program managers make?

Program manager salaries vary by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. Compensation can be significantly influenced by factors such as the complexity of the programs they manage, the industries in which these programs operate, and the number of individuals on the teams they oversee.

Highest paying industries

  • Software Publishers – $140,220
  • Company and Enterprise Management – $138,850
  • Securities and Commodity Contracts Brokerage – $137,960
  • Data Processing and Hosting – $136,390
  • Computer Systems Design – $134,310

Highest paying states

  • California – $143,630
  • Washington – $142,140
  • New Jersey – $138,850
  • New York – $135,180
  • Virginia – $133,690

Browse program manager salary data by market

Types of program managers

Below, we explore common career types and areas of specialization for program managers. This section provides a comprehensive overview, helping you to understand the range of roles within this profession.

Program management officer

These professionals ensure consistency and coherence across various programs. They operate at a strategic level, managing resources and coordinating different projects to realize organizational objectives. This role usually requires expertise in strategic planning and oversight.

IT program manager

Professionals in this role focus on managing information technology projects and initiatives. With a deep understanding of digital systems and software development, they ensure that all IT-related projects are carried out smoothly and fulfill the organization’s technical requirements.

Engineering program manager

In the engineering realm, these individuals oversee the successful execution of multiple engineering projects. With a solid background in engineering principles, they collaborate with engineers and stakeholders to streamline processes, ensure quality, and deliver projects on time.

Nonprofit program manager

Working within nonprofit organizations, individuals in this role oversee various programs to serve the community or fulfill the organization’s mission. They manage resources, processes, and volunteers to achieve program objectives and positively impact society.

Healthcare program manager

In the healthcare industry, these professionals manage numerous programs to improve medical services and patient care. They work with healthcare professionals and administrators to plan and implement these programs while ensuring compliance with healthcare regulations.

Top skills for program managers

This section highlights the skills and traits that will lead to career success as a program manager. Below, you’ll discover the fundamental elements that make an effective person in this role, ranging from interpersonal skills to organizational abilities.

Effective communication

Effective communication is at the core of a successful manager. Interacting with various stakeholders, from clients, team members, and top management, necessitates the ability to clearly express ideas, procedures, and expectations in a manner that leaves no ambiguity. Written and verbal communication proficiency will serve one well in this role.

Leadership qualities

One cannot overlook the need for leadership skills in this role. Stewarding teams toward collective goals, managing conflicts, negotiating when necessary, and leading by example are necessary aspects encompassed by this trait. Effective leaders inevitably guide their teams to the successful completion of a project.

Risk management

In every project, there will be risks and unexpected hitches. The ability to anticipate, identify, and mitigate such risks is integral to keeping a project on track. This means possessing problem-solving skills and a proactive mindset to manage problems as they arise.

Strategic thinking

Understanding and creating big-picture strategies is essential for carrying out successful programs. It allows one to set realistic objectives, outline steps to achieve them, identify potential roadblocks, and keep the team in alignment with the overall goal. This requires a thorough understanding of the organization, its mission, and its broader context.

Organizational abilities

Last but certainly not least is strong organization skills. Juggling numerous tasks, managing multiple stakeholders, and keeping track of deadlines all require rigorous organization. Establishing clear protocols and providing the right resources at the right time ensures that all pieces of the project puzzle fit together seamlessly.

Program manager career path

As a program manager, your career path is filled with numerous opportunities for growth and development. This journey commences from being a project coordinator or project manager, which then progresses to the role of a program manager, orchestrating multiple projects and ensuring alignment with organizational goals.

Moving up the ladder

In the program management hierarchy, the next natural elevation is the role of a senior program manager. At this level, you’ll handle larger and more intricate programs, often integrating projects across different business units. Following this, the journey may lead to the position of a portfolio manager, responsible for managing a selection of projects and programs and ensuring alignment with the company’s strategic objectives.

Branching out

Those wanting a change of scenery can consider branching out into executive leadership roles such as chief operating officer or chief executive officer. In these roles, you would be at the forefront, leading and orchestrating across the entire organization. Having experience as a program manager can be invaluable as it provides a strategic and big-picture understanding of the organization.

Cross-functional opportunities

Given the cross-functional nature of the role, there are numerous opportunities within different business divisions. Program management skills are highly applicable to general management or business unit managers, where the person will oversee a specific business division or function. This vertical shift will require the same skill set of streamlining processes, managing teams, and driving outcomes.


Another potential path is to transition into more specialized roles focusing on areas of interest or expertise, such as IT program manager, senior technical program manager, or director of operations. These positions allow for in-depth involvement in specific aspects of the business, utilizing the insight gathered from the broad view previously held.

Examining shifts in the industry, technological progress looks to play a critical role in program management. Automation of routine tasks leads the list of these changes. This enables professionals to dedicate more time to complex problems, aligning strategy and implementation. Big data analysis is another significant trend that affects how projects are managed. The ability to rapidly collect and analyze vast amounts of information presents the opportunity to make data-driven decisions and foresee potential risks or issues. Digital tools and software, such as project management platforms, are also on the rise, making coordination and communication between global teams easier.

While the industry’s digital transformation continues, human skills are still highly valued. Leadership remains an integral aspect of the role, often determining the success or failure of a project. Distinctive abilities such as effective communication, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence can set successful managers apart. A move toward Agile methodologies in various industries has also been observed, indicating an increased need for flexible, adaptive managers capable of leading in a fast-paced, changing environment.

Employment projections for program managers

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, management occupations are projected to grow 6% through 2031, as fast as the average for all occupations. Specifically, the ongoing expansion of software and products means project managers with a robust understanding of project management standards are projected to be in high demand. While the growth rate varies by industry, increasing digital transformation and project-oriented work can be expected to fuel demand in this sector.

Program manager career tips

Understand your role’s impact

Being a program manager is no small feat. Your job involves steering the wheel for multiple projects, ensuring their coherence with the company’s goals. Essentially, you are the link connecting various teams with the management. By understanding the pivotal role that you play, you will be able to approach your responsibilities with greater conviction and perform better.

Build a professional network

In this role, it’s important to ensure that you have a strong professional network. The following associations provide a great opportunity to connect with like-minded individuals:

  • Program Management Institute (PMI)
  • International Program Management Association (IPMA)
  • Association for Project Management (APM)
  • American Management Association (AMA)

Emphasize continuous learning

Professions are continually changing, evolving with the times and the needs of industries. This makes it essential for you to keep up-to-date with the latest methodologies, project management software, and best practices. It’s a good idea to:

  • Attend webinars and workshops focusing on project management
  • Keep up with relevant literature, such as the Project Management Journal or the International Journal of Project Management
  • Consider getting certified; the PMP certification from PMI or the Certified Program Manager from APM can give your career a big boost

Use software tools

Project management software is an often-underutilized resource that can save you time and energy. Programs such as MS Project, Basecamp, or Asana can help you keep track of project timelines, manage resources, and facilitate team communication. Learning and effectively using these tools can significantly increase your productivity and effectiveness.

Measure and showcase success

In roles that require leading projects and teams, it’s important to measure and showcase your success. Key performance indicators (KPIs) can help you track your projects’ performance and success. Being able to effectively communicate these successes not only demonstrates your effectiveness in your role but also helps build trust with your team and stakeholders.

Where the program manager jobs are

Top employers

  • Google
  • Microsoft
  • Apple
  • Amazon
  • Facebook

Top states

  • California
  • New York
  • Washington
  • Massachusetts
  • Texas

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • LinkedIn
  • Monster
  • Simply Hired


What are the primary skills necessary for a program manager?

It’s essential to possess strong leadership skills, as you’ll often coordinate multiple project teams. An understanding of risk management and excellent problem-solving abilities are key as well. Being able to effectively communicate with both team members and stakeholders is paramount. Good organizational skills, a knack for strategic planning, and the ability to make informed decisions quickly will also serve you well.

What type of education is beneficial for a program manager?

A bachelor’s degree in business administration, management, or a related field is usually a minimal requirement. However, many employers prefer a master’s degree, especially an MBA. Additionally, certifications such as the PMP can be beneficial in demonstrating your competence and commitment to the role.

What level of experience is needed for a program manager?

Most positions require several years of experience in project management or a related field. It may be advantageous to start your career path as a project coordinator or a project manager to gain the necessary exposure and experience before stepping into a program management role.

What is the difference between a project manager and a program manager?

While both roles involve management and leadership, a project manager focuses on singular projects with precise goals, timelines, and budgets. In contrast, a person in this role oversees multiple related projects (a program) and takes a broader view, considering the strategic alignment of those projects, benefits delivered, and change management aspects.

What kind of industry could I work in as a program manager?

This role is a universal job title and can be found across various industries. Some common industries include technology, healthcare, construction, financial services, and consulting. However, any industry that involves complex projects could need a professional in this role.

What does a normal day look like for a program manager?

A typical day might involve meetings with stakeholders, reviewing project progress, managing risks, coordinating with project managers, and other day-to-day operational tasks needed to keep the program on track. However, the specifics will largely depend on the industry, company, and the nature of the program.

What are some of the challenges faced by program managers?

One of the biggest challenges you could face is managing the various parts of a complex program, each with its unique hurdles. Misalignment between projects, resource allocation issues, and changing organizational priorities can also pose challenges. Managing stakeholder expectations and dealing with high-stress levels are other aspects of this role that can be demanding.

Are there professional development opportunities for program managers?

Yes, continuous learning and professional development are highly applicable to the role. Industry certifications, such as the PgMP certification from PMI, are a way to enhance your skills and demonstrate professional growth. Attending training, webinars, seminars, and conferences are also useful for keeping up with the latest trends and best practices in project and program management.

What tools and software should a program manager be proficient in?

Common software tools include Microsoft Office suite, particularly Excel for spreadsheets and PowerPoint for presentations. They should also be comfortable using project and program management software like Microsoft Project, Basecamp, or JIRA. Knowledge of data analysis and visualization tools like Tableau may also be beneficial depending on the specific program and industry. Familiarity with collaboration and communication tools such as Slack or Microsoft Teams is usually expected as well.