How to Become a Program Manager
How to Become a Program Manager

Many businesses are challenged when it’s time to convert strategy into outcomes. And as big ideas evolve, sometimes a company’s goals get lost in translation.

Program managers are strategic thinkers who define and implement clear business goals. Their job is to ask questions that help companies focus on what’s most beneficial and valuable for the business. Ultimately, program managers see to it that company strategies lead the way to meaningful actions and outcomes, even when it means making hard choices or taking a less direct path.

“Program managers are focused on doing the right things, versus doing things right,” said Steve Grierson, a Denver-based senior program manager and instructor for UW Professional & Continuing Education’s Certificate in Program Management. “We’re always asking, ‘What are we going to do? What are we going to go after?’”

What Program Managers Do

Program managers must think differently than project managers. The job of a project manager is to efficiently deliver individual projects, with an eye on scope, cost and budget, quality and schedule.

Program managers take a broader view. Their job is to strategically align various projects to effectively achieve corporate goals. Program managers help companies decide what programs to undertake and how to implement them. They define a roadmap of goals and actions the company can follow to ensure programs reach desired business outcomes.

During a program’s lifecycle, they may also suggest new initiatives or advise shutting down ineffective projects.

“As a program manager, your focus has to shift to benefits and value,” Grierson said.

Demand for Program Managers

Jobs for program and project managers are projected to rise over the next decade by 6% nationally, and by 14% in Washington state, according to O*NET. Jobs in program management may have other titles, such as solutions architect, business architect or technical program manager.

    projected job growth

Nationally: 6%
Washington state: 14%

    Average Salary

Nationally: $73,570
Washington state: $76,410

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*NET

In the Seattle area, program managers have long been in demand at established tech companies and major manufacturers, including Amazon and Boeing, Grierson said. Now, he said, even more program managers are being hired locally as startups abound and businesses grow quickly.

“Technology and industries are changing so fast,” Grierson said. “We need an agile approach to address every changing business need — that’s where program management comes in.”

Grierson said there’s local demand for program managers across diverse and evolving industries, such as real estate, criminal justice and nonprofit organizations.

What You Need to Know About Program Management

Program managers are skilled in using step-by-step frameworks to guide organizations from strategic initiatives through actionable projects. Along the way, program managers must engage stakeholders, so these jobs require communication and negotiation skills, as well as integrity, empathy and compassion, he said.

“Every time we enact a program, we’re fundamentally changing the way people engage with the organization,” he said. “The mission is important. However, you cannot forget the people factor.”

Grierson said it can be helpful for a program manager to have an understanding of project management, product management or portfolio management, but the field can be a fit for people from a variety of backgrounds.

UW Professional & Continuing Education’s Certificate in Program Management prepares students to earn the Program Management Professional (PgMP)® certification, which Grierson said can signal to employers that you’re prepared to bring advanced knowledge to your work.

“Does the program align to strategy? And does a project support and fulfill the needs of the program?” Grierson said. “Whether in business, nonprofits or government, we’re talking about benefits and value.”

Further Your Education

Want to build your skills for a career in program management? Explore the Certificate in Program Management or these related programs:


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