Definition: A program manager oversees multiple products across a company and coordinates across departments to guide product managers.
They’re often the manager who communicates plans to other business areas to keep everyone in the loop.
Each product management team works separately but together. They are part of the bigger picture. A program manager makes sure each team is still working towards the end goal and has a high-level view of everything. Think of them as the manager of product managers, helping them do their jobs and keeping the entire product portfolio cohesive.
A typical day in the life of a program manager could look like:
Setting objectives for the latest product
Coordinating with each team and monitoring each product
Communicating with stakeholders on progress
Managing the budget of each product
Managing multiple managers and their teams
Signing off on decisions made
A product manager is in charge of one team and one product. They are involved in the day-to-day running of their product and often have a hands-on approach, especially in smaller teams.
Their role is very specific to that product, and they are charged with selecting a team of experts to make products that users want. That involves organizing market research and feeding back that information to their product team. They are also expected to discuss this feedback and strategy with the program manager.
A program manager is in charge of multiple products at any one time. They always look at the bigger picture for every product team in their department.
A large part of a program manager’s job involves communicating the progress of each product to various stakeholders, including higher management, investors, and other departments.
They may not have the technical expertise for each product, but they are expected to know details about each. This is why it’s recommended they hold regular meetings to discuss progress and timelines.
Program managers need a mixture of hard and soft skills. People often transition to a program manager role later in their career, but that doesn’t mean you can’t prepare early. Here are the top skills needed to become a program manager.
Most program managers have a business degree. A business degree gives you a broader look at the overall operations of a business rather than a specific department, like accounting or marketing. However, many of these department-specific degrees have students complete a business-based first year and undertake modules from other departments during their studies.
Successful program managers need to have experience managing a team. Don’t forget that you’ll be managing managers, so you have to understand a manager's role first. Leadership skills vary from team to team, so it’s essential to recognize that different teams may require different approaches.
Because program managers oversee multiple products, you need excellent organization skills. Some program managers have a notebook per product and a diary to collate everything together. Others use online project management tools to share information between team members and product managers.
Program managers also create reports so they need analytical skills. You must be able to read and interpret quantitative and qualitative data and write formally. Numeracy and literacy skills are paramount to program management roles.
Working across products and departments and with stakeholders means you need to communicate details in various ways to a wide range of people. Hone those skills early and keep working on them throughout your career to learn how to effectively communicate with different individuals.
It is simple but not necessarily apparent how to distinguish a program manager from a project manager. A program implies multiple projects that are linked to one another.
The program manager’s challenge is to strategically assess the benefits and impact of the individual projects with the superordinate goal in mind.
Hence the mission is long-term in nature and is operated on a meta-level, while a project manager’s concerns are rather technical and short-term.