As more companies look to better manage costs and align strategy across multiple tech projects, the role of program manager is gaining notice and becoming better-defined. And for some project managers, the job seems to be a logical next step.
Program managers are responsible for overseeing a number of project teams at the same time with the mandate of meeting client and company needs. Making the leap isn’t for everyone, especially if you’re a long-time project manager more interested in the tech side of things, and not thrilled with the idea of regularly reporting to upper management.
“Program managers have to understand the impact their programs have on other business areas,” says Jim Lawlor, a Centreville, Va., IT consultant with experience as both a project and program manager. “In most cases, they act as a traffic director, ensuring the project manager has everything needed to successfully meet the requirements of the project.”
While project managers are generally much more technically focused, program managers are “big picture” thinkers, Lawlor observes. “Depending on the company and the position, program managers needn’t be extremely technical, but they do need to understand the concepts and processes of the software development life cycle,” he says. For the most part, project managers follow one or a few projects at a time, while program managers must stay on top of multiple start dates and think about “synergies and quality of scale,” adds Bob Witkop, a director in the quality management office at CTG Health Solutions in Dallas.
Despite the differences in the jobs’ scope, soft skills are a common denominator between the roles. Leadership and communication skills especially are must-haves for both. That can sometimes pose a challenge for developers, software architects and other technology-centric professionals who want to move into a program manager’s job, suggests Witkop.
To move from being a project manager to a program manager requires a change in perspective, says Fara Levine, director of Atlanta-based Jabian Consulting. “It means understanding the strategic and financial objectives of the company and aligning them with many different projects happening tangentially or not,” she says. Project management is largely a tactical role, while program management is concerned with risk, strategy and financial objectives. “You have to show you understand change management and the interdependency of all of your teams,” says Levine.
If you’re looking to make the leap from project to program manager, it’s smart to work on getting a more well-rounded background. That means learning more about IT’s business side and involving yourself in projects that may be taking place outside of the department, in areas like accounting, sales, marketing and the C-suite.
In terms of opportunity, there’s good news: Demand for program managers seems to be increasing, says Eli Halabu, managing director of Miami-based executive placement firm Ascendo Resources. Their salaries range from about $110,000 to $165,000. And unlike project managers, who often work as contractors, as “captains of the ship,” program managers are almost always full employees.
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