Make an Impact as a Program Manager Q&A With Program Manager and Instructor Steve Grierson
Make an Impact as a Program Manager Q&A With Program Manager and Instructor Steve Grierson

Like the conductor of an orchestra, program managers are maestros of synergy. Instead of leading musicians, though, program managers lead groups of projects. But their aim is really quite similar: To produce something even greater than the sum of its parts.

As IT program manager and consultant Steve Grierson puts it, “The ultimate goal of program management is to derive the most benefit through an integration of the projects.”

Over his long career in the industry, Grierson has had ample opportunity to play maestro, working on programs like the launch of the first two Microsoft stores and enterprise-wide IT initiatives at companies such as EMC, Premera Blue Cross and AT&T. He brings this wealth of experience to the classroom as an instructor in our Certificate in Program Management.

We recently got a chance to chat with Grierson about program management – the key role it plays in a company’s strategy, the difference between program and project management, and how our new certificate will prepare students to succeed in this growing field.

First of all, can you tell us what program management is exactly?

A lot of people think a program is just a large project, and that’s not the case. In a nutshell, a program is a group of related projects that are managed in a coordinated fashion. The ultimate goal of program management is to derive the most benefit through an integration of the projects.

Let me give you an example from a time when EMC brought me on as a consultant. They had several projects for one client that were related to storage transformation initiatives – upgrading aging technology of storage arrays, which are massive storage devices large companies use; decommissioning the hardware; migrating the data to a virtual platform; and implementing reporting capabilities. They needed a consistent process around project management, communication, stakeholder analysis and reporting. All the projects were related, and to get the best outcome they were best managed as a program.

How does program management differ from project management? What kinds of skills do program managers need?

When I think of project management, I think tactical. When I think of program management, I think strategic. In other words, instead of carrying out a plan for a project, you’re creating the high-level plan for coordinating several projects to work together. You have to think about how one project provides benefits to the overall program.

Soft skills are also important – including the ability to manage up and down the communication channel, from executive-level stakeholders to project managers in the program. With stakeholders, you need to articulate how the program is going and discuss what’s important. With project managers reporting to you, you need to coach and mentor. You have to provide guidance to the project managers, as opposed to actually managing the individual projects. As a project manager, you are executing. But as a program manager, you’re overseeing. You need emotional intelligence and leadership abilities.

You also set the standard for how projects get managed – for example, managing issues, risks, dependencies, finances. You have to be thinking at a higher level to create a standard to best manage all the projects from a strategic perspective.

Strategy, oversight, leadership. It sounds like as a program manager, you’re really in a position to contribute to a company’s direction in a significant way.

Exactly. You’re interfacing with executives and providing guidance on critical business decisions. You’re part of the corporate strategy. It’s rewarding to have a profound impact on the company.

In your career path, if you want to become a general manager or executive, program management is a great stepping stone because you’re doing the same sorts of things – you’re managing risk, profit and loss, resources; you’re prioritizing and overseeing other managers.

In the UW certificate program, how do you help students prepare to be program managers?

People might be surprised to discover that there actually exists a program management process, a strategy and a framework. Students learn about these in the program and how to successfully manage a program through its entirety, including development, launch, lifecycle, support and closure.

Students get hands-on practice creating deliverables such as a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis, a program proposal, program objectives and a program charter. We examine case studies and learn from their successes and errors.

What’s demand like for people in this role? What kinds of companies hire program managers?

Microsoft, Amazon, Expedia, Boeing. IT, hospitals, aerospace, medical, automotive. Demand isn’t industry-specific. It’s across the spectrum. You’ll also find very specific kinds of program managers in different disciplines. Business program managers, for example, focus on the business side and not technology.

You already have a busy consulting career. What inspired you to become an instructor, too?

I have a passion for the craft of program management. It’s in my DNA. But I measure my accomplishments by those careers I’ve touched. That’s why I’m going into the field of instructing. I like coaching, I like mentoring. I like being a positive influence on others as they pursue their careers. The people I’ve helped along the way – that’s what’s most important to me.

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