Master juggler: The art and science of program management

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This feature first appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

Editor’s Note: The Program Management Professional (PgMP) credential offered by PMI was the top-salaried cert in the recently issued Salary Survey 75 list from our annual Salary Survey. Some of you may have been wondering, “What is the PgMP, and what can it do for me?” Here’s your answer.

Program Management Professionals have to keep a lot of balls in the air.Originally formed as a nonprofit in 1969 by working project managers to promote best practices and techniques for project management, the Project Management Institute (PMI) has certainly come a long way over the past 47 years. Since the group released its first project management certification — the Project Management Professional (PMP) — in 1984, PMI has risen to the top of its industry.

Today PMI is almost certainly the most globally recognized project management certification sponsor in the world, and serves almost 3 million project management professionals worldwide. Today, PMI is a global leader for portfolio, program and project management professionals.

After more than 30 years, the PMP cert remains one of the most respected, coveted and sought-after project management credentials in the world, with more than 670,000 PMP practitioners worldwide. As the industry has evolved, so has the face of PMI’s certification portfolio. PMI now boasts a robust certification portfolio.

That includes an entry-level project management credential, Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM), and also four certs that address various specializations with project management: Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP), Risk Management Professional (PMI-RMP), Scheduling Professional (PMI-SP), and Professional in Business Analysis (PMI-PBA).

PMI also offers two very senior level certs — the Portfolio Management Professional (PfMP) and the Program Management Professional (PgMP). While any of the PMI credentials are a career booster, today, we’re going to focus our spotlight on the Program Management Professional credential and discover just what makes the PgMP so exciting.

Is the PgMP just a PMP on steroids?

Is the PgMP just a PMP for people with a greater depth and breadth of professional experience? Absolutely not! While it’s true that PgMPs need to possess extensive project management experience, the PMP and PgMP differ in several fundamental ways.

First and foremost, a PMP’s primary job responsibility is executing a project. Projects, by definition, are temporary in nature, produce a unique service or product, and have a defined beginning and end. Project managers draw on a set of defined project management processes (initiating, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, and closing) to ensure that project activities successfully meet project requirements.

Successful project managers are also responsible for managing the project’s “triple constraints” of scope, cost and schedule. To accomplish project goals, project managers must frequently work with and direct cross-functional teams within an organization.

While fairly autonomous, project managers typically work under some type of general supervision. The net is that project managers ensure the individual project goals meet the needs of the organization, and that projects are delivered ontime and on-budget.

A subtle distinction

The responsibilities of the PgMP extend far beyond those of the average project manager. One of the major differences between a project and program manager relates to how program managers interact with and relate to the project itself. Project managers execute a project. On the other hand, program managers are integrally involved with the development of the actual project itself.

Program managers both initiate and define the scope of projects. They also lead in ensuring that projects are developed which align to an organization’s business objectives, and that all projects selected for execution further the organization’s vision and strategy. The distinction between execution and initiation/ definition may appear subtle but the implications on the scope of the job role between project and program managers is far-reaching.

Program Management Professionals have to keep a lot of balls in the air.In addition to initiating and defining projects, program managers are generally responsible for the successful implementation of a portfolio of multiple, concurrent projects which are frequently interrelated (collectively, such projects may be referred to as programs, hence the designation of program manager).

Program managers frequently manage or direct a team of project managers who implement the various projects. While the project manager executes the project, ultimately it’s the responsibility of the program manager to ensure that the project was successful and accepted by the client.

Part strategic analyst, part business executive and part finance guru, the PgMP is charged with oversight of an entire batch of projects. He or she must be constantly vigilant to ensure that the various projects continue to further organizational business objectives and reflect corporate strategy.

Keeping everything on track

When projects vary from corporate objectives, the program manager must provide analysis, insight, and recommendations for corrective action to the stakeholders, often on an iterative basis. The program manager must also take on the often very unpopular task of dividing up finite resources between individual projects.

Deciding where and how to allocate such necessary items as funding, key personnel and access to project supplies requires continual awareness of concurrent and often competing projects. As the keeper of the overall corporate vision, it’s the program manager or PgMP who either promotes, delays, or withdraws projects based on corporate directives.

While a solid understanding of the technical issues facing projects is essential, one of the most important skills a PgMP needs to possess is the ability to lead and inspire others to follow: stakeholders, owning execs, project managers, subject matter experts and more. Managing programs is complex at best and frequently spans multiple disciplines, functional areas, and geographies.

Program managers lead in communication and set the tone for the corporate climate under which projects are managed, regardless of geography or local cultures. Inspiring trust, both vertically and horizontally, is key.

How do I obtain the credential?

Obtaining the PgMP isn’t easy and is reserved for the crème de la crème of the project management industry. There are two paths to obtaining the PgMP credential and both require a combination of education, project management experience, program management experience, peer review, and exam. The amount of experience required varies depending on the education level of the candidate.

Candidates who possess either a high school diploma or associate’s degree (or global equivalent), need to have a minimum of 6,000 hours (roughly three years’ full-time employment) of prior project management experience plus an additional 10,500 hours (a little more than five years’ full-time employment) of direct program management experience to apply for the PgMP.

Candidates with a bachelor’s degree or higher (or global equivalent) need 6,000 hours of project management experience with an additional 6,000 hours of program management experience. PMI requires that all experience be within the last 15 years (must be consecutive years). While a bachelor’s degree isn’t required by PMI to obtain the credential, it is likely that most practitioners at this level will hold at least a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

In addition to experience and education, a formal application documenting experience is required. The application must be reviewed and approved by a panel before a candidate is allowed to attempt the rather rigorous exam. The review process takes approximately four weeks after the application is submitted.

Once approved, candidates may sit for the PgMP exam. The exam is an exhaustive four hours, and consists of 170 multiple-choice questions. Candidates are tested over five program management domains which include:

Domain 1 — Strategic Program Management (15 percent)
Domain 2 — Program Life Cycle: Initiating, Planning, Executing, Controlling and Closing (44 percent)
Domain 3 — Benefits Management (11 percent)
Domain 4 — Stakeholder Management (16 percent)
Domain 5 — Governance (14 percent)

The PgMP exam fee for PMI members is $800 (U.S.) and $1,000 (U.S.) for non-members. The credential is valid for three years from the date it is awarded. To maintain the credential, candidates must earn 60 PDUs in every three-year renewal cycle. Payment of an annual fee is also required.

Is the PgMP right for me?

Program Management Professionals have to keep a lot of balls in the air.The PgMP isn’t for everyone. It requires not only expert-level project management skills, but competencies in multiple disciplines including finance, business analysis and strategy, and risk management. PgMPs need superior leadership and related soft skills such as excellent communication, the ability to influence others and inspire trust, conflict resolution, and negotiation, plus an awareness and understanding of the intricacies required when working with global, cross-cultural teams.

It also requires an extensive time commitment, generally 9-to-15 years just to gain the requisite project and program management experience, before you can even apply for the credential.

Is the PgMP right for you? Consider the following: Are you an experienced project manager looking for the next logical step in your career ladder? Do you thrive on creating order from chaos? Do you love to see strategy become reality? Are you able to see the “big” picture?

Do you inspire trust in others? Do teams willingly follow and accept your leadership? Do you enjoy managing multiple, competing projects and leading teams? If you answered “yes” to these questions, then the PgMP is worthy of your time and consideration.

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Mary Kyle


Mary Kyle is a full-time freelance writer, editor and project manager based in Austin, Texas. Formerly employed in various positions at IBM, Mary has more than 10 years of project management experience in IT, software development and IT-related legal issues.

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