Cybersecurity analyst showing colleague important project information

Program managers plan, design and coordinate the various projects that constitute a program, making them a particularly valuable element within any organization. In many ways, a program manager is often in a position of greater responsibility than an individual project manager.

Given the complexity of wrangling several projects in real time, program managers must possess sterling multitasking, problem analysis, and communication skills. The workflow usually involves updating individual projects and how those projects contribute to an overall program. The ideal program manager resume must reflect all these skills.

As Rajesh Pawar, Director of JAPAC Operations at management and technology consulting firm Yantra, explains: “A program manager… is a fairly serious senior resource who has had the experience of doing individual project management themselves and could be from either a technical background or a business analyst background.”

Program managers often have significant management experience before taking the role. “The job is to ensure the broader management objectives set forth for each of the projects are maintained, managing any escalation, and keeping track of factors like overall profitability, resourcing, timeframes, cost creeps and other things that could impact that defined objectives,” Pawar adds.

In addition to mastering key skills, program managers often obtain certifications such as PMI's Program Management Professional (PgMP) certification, the PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP), and Scrum Master certification. When applying for new positions, these certifications can prove invaluable, as they show recruiters and hiring managers that you have the necessary skills to do the job.

Articulating a Vision

Chris Meyer, director of conferencing platforms and product security at Shure, has been involved in product development for almost 20 years, with roles including bench-level engineer, technical lead architect, and running his own project portfolios.

"First and foremost, you must have ability to create and articulate a vision," he says. "As the program manager, you're responsible for everyone running the projects, for the outcome, the milestones and the communication. It's really hard to do any of those things unless you have everyone aligned on a shared vision."

As his program manager career evolved, Meyer has taken on responsibility for ever-larger teams, which requires vision and planning. “We have a three-year plan or roadmap, but we also have a 10-year vision,” he says. “As a program manager, you need to constantly be thinking about what's going to happen after that—or in the case of security, it's a never-ending program.”

Pawar says there are two main tracks to become a program manager: One is to start off as a business consultant or analyst, somebody who understands the business and bridges the gap between the technical team and the customer. That’s followed by a position as a senior business analyst, then an associate lead, business analyst lead, project manager, senior project manager and delivery manager. From there, it’s a short hop to a program manager position. (This progression, and the experience that comes with it, is a key reason why program managers are paid so much.)

“The second path, from the software services industry perspective, for example, would see someone come up from the ranks of the software development side—you become a developer lead and then you become an architect,” he says. “You go on from being an individual contributor to a people contributor.”

Information Distributor, Communication Master

From the perspective of Nathan Sutter, global VP of engineering at CoderPad, program managers are the glue that keeps everything running, working like the hub in a hub-and-spoke model. Program managers distribute the information needed by various stakeholders to keep multiple projects running.

“The best program managers that I've worked with have a technical background because most program managers are going to be wrangling, for better or worse, some engineering teams,” he says. “The keys to them being successful is really about communication and being somebody who is adept and happy with controlling chaos, because that's really what the job is.”

Pawar also stresses communication as one of the key skills in the role. “I have seen projects go completely haywire and fail because of lack of proper communication between all parties, and that is exceedingly, exceedingly important,” he says. “Program managers must focus very heavily on ensuring that, early on, they are maintaining the right processes and ensuring communication channels do not break down between the leads.”

Sutter agrees, pointing out program managers must be able to communicate both to technical people and non-technical stakeholders (including customers and business leaders). “You need to be able to talk to an engineer who is stereotypically not very good with human interaction. but you also need to be able to talk to VPs, lawyers and be able to communicate technical concepts in a non-technical way. To be honest, that's so difficult.”

Being able to program manage with a remote or hybrid workforce is also important, given the number of companies that have embraced different modes of working. “Somebody who is comfortable doing that mostly asynchronously definitely has a skill that is that is coming around,” he says. “Being able to herd all of the cats in that sense has gone from a 'nice to have' in program management to an absolutely must.”

Learning to Delegate Strategy

Pawar notes it is particularly important for program managers to invest in continuing education and make themselves aware of new management approaches. “Traditionally there was the Waterfall method, which was inevitably sequential, and is still a wonderful method as a traditional way of running a project,” he says. “However, everybody wants to become more Agile so that we get new connections at the module level rather than it happening towards the back-end of the project.”

Learning Agile methodologies can also give program managers a better handle on organization planning and scheduling and what the program strategy should be.

However, because Agile involves small increments of time (i.e., two weeks per sprint), program managers must ensure they can operate at the proper pace. “As you start getting closer and closer to the tactical execution, things change,” Meyer says. “We're trying to point the ship in a certain direction, but in the actual direction of how you get there, there's going to be some changes along the way. That's where Agile really helps."

Looking back at the start of his program management career, he wishes he’d known the importance of delegating strategy. “Typically, when we delegate, we delegate more tactical things: You need to go write this code,” he says. “What I've learned I've had to do to be successful as a program manager is learn to delegate strategy.”


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