What Does a Program Manager Do, Anyway?
April 7, 2020

What Does a Program Manager Do, Anyway?

by Brian de Haaff

Program manager vs. project manager. I recently wrote a blog post describing these roles. Several folks took the time to thank me for digging into the differences between the two. But many of you wanted more. Specifically, for me to go even deeper into what a program manager does and how the role functions in different scenarios.

Program managers think strategically about how many different types of initiatives should be managed and coordinated.

When you have many big strategic efforts, teams are also working on many products and projects simultaneously. So you need someone to pay close attention to how those individual efforts are tracking within the broader company view. This is where program management comes into play. Having a high-level view of how work is aligning with company goals makes it possible to identify ways to streamline delivery and improve the quality of work across the organization.

Like any discipline, program management can vary dramatically depending on the structure of the organization and the needs of the business. But typically you find program managers at large companies with multiple complex, cross-functional, and dynamic initiatives.

Usually program managers are part of a formal project management office (PMO), a group that standardizes processes and improves efficiency. But you can increasingly find them in product management, IT, services, and even marketing groups. The role also springs up in companies that have (or are implementing) centers of excellence to improve processes or scale growth.

Our Customer Success team at Aha! interacts daily with program managers. To better understand the details of what our program management customers are responsible for, it helps to think about who they serve (internal or external customers) and what they are responsible for delivering (for example, a portfolio of products, client services, or technology stack).

It would be impossible to deeply examine every permutation because, as I have noted, it entirely depends upon the specifics of the organization. But here is a basic overview:

Who are the customers?

Program managers (just like product and project managers) can be focused on serving internal teams or external clients.

Internal Some program managers focus on a variety of initiatives aimed at internal stakeholders. Let’s use IT as an example. A program manager might manage the consolidation of the tech stack catalog after a corporate merger. Supporting these internal customers requires an understanding of both IT needs and how to guide the organization through a transformation.

External Other program managers focus solely on initiatives that serve customers or third-party partners. Responsibilities include understanding how decisions directly impact clients, whether that involves negotiating a contract or even modifying the scope of work. A program manager may even serve as the customer interface. This is in addition to broader program efforts such as hiring (as well as training and managing) new project managers.

What is being built?

Program managers can be oriented around what the company is building — infrastructure, products, or services.

Infrastructure As noted above, some program managers focus on supporting an organization’s internal initiatives. Using the IT initiative example from above, a program manager would ensure good communication between the engineering teams, identify conflicts in capacity for shared technical resources, and establish standards for reporting on initiative progress. Although infrastructure typically refers to technology, it could also refer to broader business operations as well.

Products Program managers in companies with a PMO are often heavily involved in the product planning and development process. They are experts at coordinating delivery across multiple releases or projects. Their focus is on scheduling phases of work, managing dependencies, identifying bottlenecks to delivery, and recommending process changes to drive efficiency.

Services A program manager in a services organization oversees new offerings, improves existing ones, and reports on results. To ensure that company goals are met, they track and present results to the company’s leadership team as well as clients. They share many of the responsibilities of a product-focused program manager, but they may also train and manage the teammates who are responsible for actually delivering the service.

It is easy to see how the confusion arises — program management is multifaceted. By now it should be clear.

Program management is best suited to larger organizations — this role is most valuable in dynamic environments with many complex projects. But no matter what type of broad initiative they are responsible for delivering or improving, program managers are important to the success of the business. And they deserve to be understood and acknowledged for all that they do.

What types of program managers have you encountered?

Program managers really, really love our software — find out why.


Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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