What you need to know about being a program manager

Last updated: March 2024

Product managers, project managers, program managers — we have written quite a bit about these roles (and others) within software companies. These days, there is less confusion about the differences between them than there was a decade ago. That said, the distinction can still be murky depending on your organization, its structure, and the products or services you offer.

Typically, program managers spearhead multiple products, projects, or programs — tracking how individual efforts align and help serve company goals. Your responsibilities and purview can vary. For instance, some program managers are responsible for managing budgets and setting project schedules, while others might own an entire product portfolio and look for ways to improve delivery across the organization.

You will find program managers across industries and verticals, generally at large organizations with multiple complex programs and portfolios. In this guide, we will narrow in on the role of a program manager in the context of enterprise software companies.

Build a roadmap for program success in Aha! software. Start a free trial.

The better question might be what is not considered a program manager's responsibility. That is because the role varies a lot depending on the organization's structure and the business's needs. At a software company, for instance, a program manager can lead an agile transformation or manage a multiteam tech stack. Alternatively, your focus could be more external — such as managing customer services or starting a partner program.

At a high level, a program manager's responsibilities can include any of the following:

Project planning

Develop high-level plans, timelines, and budgets for each project within a program.

Risk management

Identify potential risks and dependencies across projects, solving problems to ensure timely delivery.

Resource allocation

Allocate resources within a program, including employees, budget, and tech stack management.

Cross-functional collaboration

Facilitate communication among different teams involved in a program.

Progress tracking and reporting

Monitor project progress, course-correct when needed, and report to stakeholders on status, milestones, and risks.

Change management

Smooth out changes to program scope, schedule, and resources by assessing impacts and making adjustments that minimize disruption.

Process improvement

Continually surface opportunities that will enhance program efficiency and effectiveness over time.

This work culminates in showcasing a program's goals, activities, and milestones on a timeline, typically within a program roadmap. Program managers use roadmaps to share a comprehensive overview of what the team is working on, making sure every project tracks back to companywide objectives.

A Gantt chart made in Aha! software showing progress on releases

Use a Gantt chart in Aha! Roadmaps to visualize cross-team dependencies and track progress.


Program vs. project vs. product manager

Program managers work across a group of related projects, often optimizing workflows for both project and product managers. Conversely, project managers typically zero in on the success of an individual scope of work, whereas product managers are responsible for the lifecycle of a specific product.

Here is a brief summary of the key differences:

A graphic outlining the differences between program managers, project managers, and product managers

Different roles? Definitely. But program, project, and product managers often collaborate on large-scale initiatives — leaning into their own areas of expertise to succeed together.



What skills does a program manager need?

Program managers maintain a deep understanding of the company's strategic direction, goals, and initiatives. The very best find satisfaction in organizational improvement and efficiency. They also have exceptional communication skills, which are necessary when sharing status updates and rallying the team.

Here are some of the most important skills and focus areas for achieving success as a program manager:

Program managers also need to be proficient in managing relationships with stakeholders, including executives, clients, and team members. To see a large-scale, complex program through to completion, you will need the support of the entire organization and community.

Stakeholder map large

Use this stakeholder map template in Aha! software to identify key decision makers for your program.


How to become a program manager

Becoming a program manager requires a blend of skills, experience, and strategic thinking. Here are some tips to help you get there:

  • Education: Consider a degree in business, project management, or a related field.

  • Certifications: Pursue certifications such as Project Management Professional or Program Management Professional to validate your expertise.

  • Experience: Start by working in project management roles to gain hands-on experience. Focus on large organizations with multiple offerings — they will have a keen need for program management.

  • Continuous learning: Volunteer for project or program management tasks to support your team. Look for opportunities to refine processes and make workflows better.

Although the path above seems quite linear, there is no "right" approach for getting into program management. IT, engineering, product management, project management, and product operations — these are all viable entry points. And remember: Landing a role in program management might take time and require perseverance. Stay flexible and open to opportunities, and continue to gain relevant skills and experience along the way.