Program Manager vs. Project Manager: Know the Differences and How to Become Either One

If you’re confused about the difference between these two titles, that’s likely because their fundamental differences are often ignored. Companies will sometimes refer to these positions interchangeably, which can cause confusion around role responsibilities and expectations. Understanding the differences between the two is key to landing your ideal job.  

Let’s start with an example. As an avid Lean consultant, perhaps you’ve decided you want to organize a Lean strategies conference for start-up company executives. One project that’s part of this process would be coordinating the speakers. Another project might be to plan and order catering. In both instances, the project is limited by several measures, including budget, time, and resources. In addition, both projects serve the overarching goal of developing a strong conference: the program.

While this example highlights the top-level differences between the two roles, we’ll dive deeper into the difference between a program manager vs. project manager to help you decide which one is right for you. 

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What Is a Project Manager?

Project managers are responsible for individual projects that contribute to the overarching goals or programs. These projects are often specific and short-term, with precise deadlines to keep the momentum moving forward. While this position reports progress to the program manager, they’re also in charge of their own team and responsible for the smooth execution of their assigned projects. 

What Is a Program Manager?

In contrast to project managers, program managers are responsible for overseeing the entire program. In our example about the conference, the program manager would be responsible for ensuring that the conference in its entirety is a success. This position requires a deep understanding of the program goals and objectives and how each project’s completion will impact the bottom line for the business. Oversight of project managers is often a critical element of this role to ensure that each project is consistently and effectively executed. 

The Role of a Project Manager

A project can range in scope from something as simple as planning a one-hour webinar to something as elaborate as a 12-day Lean strategies training for several hundred staff members at a Fortune 500 company. Regardless of scope, a project is bound by deadlines, resources, and budget. And, at any given time, a company can have dozens of projects running simultaneously, each with specific short-term goals and limitations – all in service of the broader business goal.

A project manager’s job is to oversee the operations of a singular project, which includes five key roles:

  1. Team and timeline management
  2. Team organization
  3. Technology integration
  4. Leadership
  5. Performance tracking and measurement

Depending on the company and size of the individual projects, project managers may oversee more than one project, which requires fine-tuned skills and experience. 

Project managers schedule meetings, track timelines, manage budgets, and delegate smaller tasks to one or more coordinators. This means that project managers should have effective leadership acumen and demonstrate practical communication skills to effectively manage their team’s needs. As progress is made, project managers update the program manager, often using them as sounding boards for continuous project improvement. 

Salaries for project managers vs. project managers typically start around $50,000 but can top out at over $100,000, especially if the project manager comes with additional qualifications and certifications

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The Role of a Program Manager

A program consists of several projects, each providing value and progress to a long-term goal or outcome. These projects often build on one another until this goal has been achieved, enabling the company to determine a new set of larger goals. This is how organizational growth takes place. 

A program manager’s job is to oversee not only the operations of each project, but also how the completion of each project contributes to the bigger picture. Think of a program manager like a pilot. It’s their job to make course corrections, strategize direction based on potential threats or obstacles, and keep the flight on track to meet its destination on time. Each project’s potential success or failure will have an impact on a company or business, and it’s up to the program manager to assess this impact and adjust. 

Program managers also schedule meetings, track timelines, manager budgets, and delegate tasks, but they do so from a larger vantage point, often involving project managers in the process. It’s their job to put the appropriate teams together, measure ROI, and serve as a liaison between the various project leaders to see the full program goals to fruition.

Salaries for program managers vs project managers typically start around $80,000 but can top out at over $120,000. With advanced training and specialized certifications, program managers can advance to the higher end of the salary range. 

Which Role Do You Choose?

Both project and program management are great roles for natural leaders. In fact, the critical attributes for both roles overlap quite a bit, making both positions equally attractive to similar candidates. Both program managers vs project managers require gifted communicators who have mastered the art of concise and thoughtful idea narration. Though the details are slightly different depending on the scope of the role, it’s equally important to be detail-oriented and analytical in both roles to help keep projects moving forward. Folks who fill both roles are often strategic, decisive, and looking for new ways to further advance the mission and goals of either the project or the program. 

With so many overlapping attributes, it’s no shock that many project managers work their way up through the ranks to become program managers later in their careers. Good program managers often have advanced training and experience, enabling them to be effective coaches for the project managers they ultimately lead.

Enroll in our PMP Certification Course today and develop a strong foundation in the principles of project management.

Gain a Competitive Edge in Project Management

Knowing the key differences between a program manager vs. project manager will help you choose which path is right for you. If you’re ultimately looking for a position in program management but lack the experience or skills required of those roles, consider starting your career in project management. 

If you want to accelerate your career in either of these fields, sign up for our PMP® Plus Master’s Program so you can maintain your PMP certification and earn 60 PDUs.

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Simplilearn is one of the world’s leading providers of online training for Digital Marketing, Cloud Computing, Project Management, Data Science, IT, Software Development, and many other emerging technologies.

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