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

Program managers and project managers are often assumed to be similar roles — in fact, they’re sometimes mistaken as two titles for the same job. While both positions share some common skills and responsibilities, they are quite distinct from each other. The difference between project manager and program manager lies in their respective focuses; project managers focus on single, specific projects (e.g., the release of a product or the completion of a study), whereas program managers focus on how various projects align with an organization’s high-level objectives in more of a managerial and operations-based role.

To be successful in their role, program managers have to keep tabs on multiple projects that serve a similar goal. In doing so, they work with the project managers running those projects, who are involved in the details and day-to-day tasks required to complete them. So, while individuals in these positions often work together, their jobs are quite different.

What Does a Program Manager Do?

Program managers oversee a variety of projects that share a common goal — this group of projects is commonly called a program. Each project will have its own timeline, team and budget; and the program manager works with the project managers on each individual team to ensure that the projects are tracking to fulfill the organization’s overall goal.

Beyond their work with project managers, program managers also coordinate with key stakeholders like executives and C-level teams to track the organization’s goals and develop new strategies. Some of the specific factors they need to communicate to stakeholders are project strategy, risk assessment, quality control and performance. All high-level information must be communicated to the individual teams to ensure that everyone — from executives to analysts — is on the same page and working toward the same objectives. Lastly, they need to assess projects from a high level by measuring ROI or assessing how the project has fit into big-picture success to better manage future programs.

What Does a Project Manager Do?

As the person who manages a project’s day-to-day tasks and milestones, project managers are in charge of planning, executing, monitoring, controlling and ensuring a project’s completion. They must assemble a team, come up with and articulate a plan, manage the project as it progresses and communicate that progress to program managers and other key stakeholders. They are in charge of setting and managing a budget and timeline — and of making sure key deliverables are completed and submitted accurately and on time.

While project managers, like program managers, need to have strong managerial skills so they can effectively manage their teams, they also need to manage the minutiae of a project. This means they are responsible for working in any project management software or methodologies that their organization might use. They also need to assess the success of their projects, both within their team and across key departments.

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Program Manager vs. Project Manager Skills

Project managers and program managers share many skills. They both need to be able to manage teams, assess the success of projects, communicate well with stakeholders and work across teams to achieve goals. That said, project management skills are more detail-focused, whereas program managers need more high-level, managerial and organizational skills. Project managers need to be able to write and balance budgets, create and manage schedules, manage a team and implement project management tools like Asana, GANTT charts and burndown charts. Program managers also need significant organizational and business knowledge; they must manage large teams successfully and assess and analyze the business success of a variety of projects.

Program Manager Skills

Program managers need to hone a wide array of skills in order to be successful at their job. Not only do they need to understand the work of project managers, they must also take a 30,000-foot view of a program to understand the larger picture. On a given day or week, they may need to check in on project budgets, conduct high-level strategy meetings with key stakeholders and develop company-wide risk management plans while constantly communicating with multiple individuals and teams.

Communication is key in program management; managers must communicate confidently, authoritatively, clearly and persuasively to individuals below and above them. They need to be in constant conversation with the project managers that they oversee, while also communicating their findings to higher-ups.

Program managers also need strong leadership and management skills, as they need to guide and advise the project managers they work with. They also need to be good at big-picture thinking and understanding business operations from a macro perspective, so they can strategize on their company’s goals and objectives.

Risk management is another important skill for program managers to have. Managers should be constantly aware of the risks facing their program and know which steps they are taking to mitigate those risks.

Lastly, program managers need to have strong project management skills. These skills will help them understand how to better support their team and understand the struggles and successes that their project managers are facing.

Project Manager Skills

In addition to honing a similar skill set to program managers, project managers need a variety of technical skills. They need to be excellent communicators, as they are in charge of communicating the project plan to their team and key stakeholders and program managers; and they need to be able to clearly communicate the goals, progress and results of their project through verbal communication and well-formatted documents.

Scheduling, time management and budgeting are also important project management skills. Project managers are in charge of creating schedules and budgets — and then ensuring that their team sticks to these schedules and budgets as closely as possible. They should therefore be able to realistically predict the needs of their team, and stay abreast of how their team is tracking with these internal goals.

There are a variety of project management methodologies, software and tools that companies use. Project managers need to be educated in all of these fields, and they should become experts on the tools and methodologies used by their organizations. They should be well-versed in the five phases of project management, as well as other methodologies like Agile, Waterfall and Scrum, as well as data analysis skills for understanding and synthesizing their team’s learnings.

Lastly, project managers need strong critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Each project has its own unpredictable set of challenges that inevitably arise, and project managers need to be able to manage them swiftly and strategically.

Program Manager vs. Project Manager Requirements

When you’re considering the question of program manager vs. project manager, a key difference is that program managers must understand business operations at a high level. As a result, they must be able to communicate with, and command respect from, high-level stakeholders. They also need to be able to manage large teams — strong management experience is often a requirement for individuals pursuing these roles. Project managers, on the other hand, need technical training in project management software, budgeting and schedule-making in order to successfully lead their teams and projects.

How to Become a Program Manager

The program manager career path is different for everyone, and many program managers have vastly different backgrounds and even areas of interest.

That being said, many program managers have completed a four-year degree. According to Glassdoor, 84% of program managers have at least a Bachelor’s degree — this is common in high-level management positions. However, a degree isn’t always necessary to get started in this role. A combination of work experience and other educational pathways, like a project management boot camp, can offer the foundational training you need to become a successful program manager.

If you do choose to pursue a traditional degree in the hopes of becoming a program manager, you may want to consider courses in business administration, management, communications or computer science. All of these routes will prepare you for the career in different ways, so if you do go this route, choose a topic that resonates strongly with your interests and goals.

Many program managers begin as project managers, and many entry-level positions track toward program management. If you’re curious about how to become a program manager, this is a great place to start. Not only will you learn skills that are indispensable to program managers, you’ll also likely work with program managers and may identify with a mentor who can teach you about the job as you make the jump from project manager to program manager. As you consider this jump, you may also want to volunteer as a project coordinator to gain some additional experience.

How to Become a Project Manager

The first step on the project manager career path is deciding which educational route you want to pursue. As with program management, many project managers have four-year degrees, but it’s not always a job requirement. If you do choose to pursue a bachelor’s degree, you may want to consider finance or business administration.

If you’ve already completed an unrelated degree and want to upskill for a job in project management, or you’ve decided that a traditional degree isn’t for you, consider taking a project management boot camp. These flexible, intensive courses can help you develop the skills you need to land a job in project management without requiring years of your time. A boot camp will also offer career counseling to ensure that you have access to the best professional opportunities once you’ve completed the course.

You may also want to consider getting certified in project management. There are a number of certification programs available, so it’s a good idea to do some research on which option fits your professional goals and interests. Project management jobs span many industries, so consider which types of projects you’re most interested in working on. Some of the most popular and useful project management certifications are:

Once you’ve prepared yourself for the project manager career path through education and certification, you’ll want to hone your resume and begin applying for jobs. It’s important to focus your resume on any and all experience that might have prepared you for a job as a project manager, and underscore the educational opportunities you’ve taken to pursue this career.

You may also want to find other project managers to speak to — these professionals can offer valuable advice as you begin your career, and even serve as mentors as you develop your project management repertoire.

Program Manager vs. Project Manager Job Outlook

As we’ve mentioned, program managers often begin as project managers, so these jobs and their outlooks are inextricably linked.

Program Manager Jobs

According to Burning Glass Technologies (Source: Burning Glass Technologies: Labor Insight. 2020.), program manager positions are currently in high demand, with around 191,722 new job openings in the past 12 months alone. The field expects a projected growth of 3.6 percent in the next decade, with particularly high growth expected in professional, scientific, and technological services.

Project Manager Jobs

Project managers are in-demand workers, thanks to their flexible skill set. According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), jobs in project management will grow 33 percent between 2017 and 2027, which is significantly higher than the national average of 7 percent. The PMI claims that this is due to the fact that project managers contribute significantly to a company’s productivity.

Entry-level project management roles include project coordinator and project scheduler, while higher-level roles include senior project manager or technical project manager. These higher-level roles require more management skills, while the lower-level roles are more task-focused.

There are also companies that offer specific project management services. According to Airiodon Global Services, the top project management firms are:

  • Anser Advisory
  • Bechtel
  • Boston Consulting Group (BCG)
  • Brailsford & Dunlavey
  • CSL Consulting
  • EPMA
  • Mott MacDonald
  • PMAlliance
  • Point B
  • Bloom Consulting and Project Management

Program Manager vs. Project Manager FAQs

A program manager manages a group of projects (i.e., a program) that all serve a common organizational goal. They oversee and coordinate these projects to make sure that they are serving the stated goal, and they work with the project managers involved, offering strategic guidance when needed. They also communicate the status of these projects to key stakeholders in their organization and often assist in high-level organizational planning.

Some of the top consulting companies that work in project management are Anser Advisory, Bechtel, Boston Consulting Group (BCG), Brailsford & Dunlavey and CSL Consulting. That said, there are a variety of companies of all sizes that hire project managers across industries.

A program manager’s job is to oversee various projects that all share a common goal that serves their organization. Program managers work with project managers to ensure that all projects are going according to plan, and they also communicate their findings with management and executives to help with high-level strategic planning and analysis.

Project managers always have their hands on many tasks. Within a given day, they might be meeting with their team, managing budgets, keeping an eye on schedules or working on deliverables to share with key stakeholders. Their job is to make sure that the project is running smoothly, and tracking to meet its goals.

Summary

Project management and program management are both exciting and growing careers that offer opportunities for collaborative teamwork, critical thinking and strategic planning. If you’re interested in taking the next step to pursue these careers, consider a project management boot camp, which will give you the tools and professional guidance to start your career in project management or program management.

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