Program Manager vs Project Manager – What’s the Difference?

There are plenty of different roles within engineering businesses that are integral to keeping the company running smoothly. Most people think of project managers as one of the most important of these; keeping tasks on track, finding ways around obstacles and ensuring that standards are met throughout the process.

But as well as project managers, many businesses also have one or several program managers overseeing company progress and growth as a whole and ensuring that a larger impact is made outside of individual projects. The two roles sound very similar, and many people think that the job titles are interchangeable, when in reality there are several important differences between the two.

In this article, we cover the roles and responsibilities of a project manager and program manager, explain the key differences between the two, and explain when a business may need to hire each of them.

What is a Project Manager?

A project manager is a role that involves seeing a project through from start to finish. This will involve planning and organising all stages that need to be completed, delegating tasks to those who have the right skills, and monitoring progress throughout to ensure that deadlines are met and standards are maintained.

Project managers are responsible for the success of the tasks they oversee. As part of their role, they will often liaise with clients or senior members of a company to understand a brief or request, and then coordinate a suitable team of employees to complete this project. Throughout a project, they often act as a go-between to provide updates and ensure that the most recent expectations are being met.

The role of project manager is an important part of the engineering industry, whether it goes by that job title or a different name like project lead, technical manager or R&D project manager.

A project manager may not have the same level of experience or technical knowledge as the engineers that they work with, but will instead have key skills in management and organisation that are needed to see a project through to completion.

What does a Project Manager do?

The role of project manager appears in almost every single industry. Whilst the specifics of the work involved will be dictated by the sector and the nature of each project, the responsibilities of a project manager tend to be the same across the board.

  • Planning out each stage of a project before it begins
  • Identifying which employees will be needed at each project stage and what tasks they will need to complete
  • Choosing methodology models to follow to provide a framework for all members of the team to follow
  • Establishing points in the timeline where progress can be measured and documenting the data gathered at each of these
  • Communicating expectations and role requirements to all team members involved
  • Carrying out a risk assessment before the project begins and putting measures in place to reduce or remove these risks
  • Establishing quality standards, and safety standards where appropriate, for the finished product and monitoring progress to ensure these are met 
  • Coordinating the individual work of team members to endure a cohesive final process
  • Staying aware of individual progress to ensure that the project remains on schedule 
  • Managing resources and spending to keep the project within the budget where possible 

What is a Program Manager?

Program managers oversee multiple projects simultaneously and ensure that they all stay on track to achieve a common business goal or objectives. They decide on and define goals for programs that will ultimately drive the business forward, no matter how incrementally, ensuring that each project happening within a company is aligned to overall values and objectives.

A program manager is invested in the long-term growth and stability of their place of employment, and will often be in charge of planning all of the projects undertaken by different teams within an organization. Rather than specifying the details of each of these, program managers will road map multiple projects at once with a ‘big picture’ outlook.

Program managers tend to be senior members of a company who are invested in its future growth and understand the industry well enough to decide how best to keep driving progress and success forwards. They will usually have been part of the business for a while, working in other positions and getting promoted when they know enough about the company, its values and how it operates.

What does a Program Manager do?

Similar to a project manager, the specifics of what a program manager does will depend on the industry they work in, as a wide range of different sectors including those outside of engineering involve program management. However, the general responsibilities and expectations tend to be the same across the board, which we have listed below.

  • Organising company-wide programs and planning the work that goes into each project involved
  • Coordinating projects involved in the program to ensure seamless integration and manage interdependencies
  • Ensuring that all project deliverables are aligned with the program’s intentions and goals
  • Monitoring program progress and updating reports to track efficiency and development
  • Allocating budget to projects and ensuring that the program doesn’t exceed spending limits
  • Managing the resources given to each project across the program
  • Creating risk assessments, managing and addressing risks present across the program and implementing preventive measures
  • Communicating and negotiating with stakeholders or clients to ensure that those investing in the business are happy with its direction
  • Managing and updating program documentation

Project Manager

What is the difference between a Project Manager and Program Manager?

To properly understand the difference between program vs project manager, it’s important to understand the difference between project and program management.

A project is usually a temporary, one-off undertaking that has strong deadlines, a clear endpoint and a tangible deliverable or outcome once it is finished. A program on the other hand is usually made up of several, linked projects that build on one another to achieve an overarching business goal and drive general progress instead of a single deliverable.

The key difference between a program and project manager is the intention behind the work that they are doing. A project manager is focused on ensuring that their team completes all tasks necessary to deliver a finished product or service, whilst a program manager is ultimately motivated by aligning all the work done within a company to its overarching values.

This leads to the next significant difference between the two roles, which is the level of focus each has. A program manager takes a broad view of the progress of multiple projects at once and predominantly looks at how the company is growing and advancing as a whole. A project manager, on the other hand, takes a much more focused view on a single project, keeping track of the progress of each individual and task involved and not looking beyond the work done by their team.

Going into the specifics a little more, a project manager works on tasks that have a specific duration and a set end point, whereas a program manager looks at programs that tend to span an unspecified amount of time and are frequently changing.

A key point of differentiation is that program manager is a more senior position than project manager. Project managers are in charge of their own teams but ultimately may be organised by and answer to a program manager, whilst a program manager will only answer to senior managers and directors of the company they work for.

Finally, success for a project manager is measured in whether their team delivered a finished project by the intended deadline, stayed within budget and produced a deliverable that meets expected standards and requirements. A program manager measures their success by whether the business as a whole is meeting its goals, growing positively and that all projects taking place within it contribute to these overall goals.

Leading a Meeting

When do you need a Program Manager?

If your business has reached a size where multiple projects simultaneously take place, having a program manager can be an ideal way to ensure that all this work ultimately aligns with overall company goals and objectives. If you’ve found that there is a lack of communication or coordination between the different teams or departments working in your company, a program manager will solve this problem by harmonising this work and establishing effective methods of communication.

Program managers tend to be hired by larger businesses within the engineering industry, and are an excellent investment when significant growth is a priority.

Where Can You Find Program Managers?

Program managers can be found across a range of industries, meaning that you can hire candidates from a wide variety of backgrounds. Advertising the role on jobs boards or websites can be an effective method, but because the role requires a certain level of industry expertise and business knowledge, it’s often a better idea to work with a specialist recruitment agency like KO2 to source exactly the kind of manager you’re looking for.

Sometimes, a program manager can be sourced from your existing pool of employees. This is a good method of finding someone to fill the role as they will already have a good idea of how the business operates and what its goals are, making their transition into the job much slicker.

When do you need a Project Manager?

Any project completed within the electronics and embedded systems sector can require a project manager. This is particularly important when a project is large-scale, involves multiple different departments, or is partially ambitious and needs a solid structure to successfully reach completion.

Whilst you don’t necessarily need a project manager for every project carried out within a company, it’s a role that brings a lot of benefits when included as part of a team. Having someone who can take charge of the process, provide a touchpoint for any queries and who has the authority to make key decisions that help the project run much more efficiently, saving time and increasing productivity and success rates.

Where Can You Find Project Managers?

There are project managers across a range of industries, and they don’t necessarily need to be engineering experts in order to successfully manage a project for a company that specialises in electronics or embedded systems. You may decide to hire a project manager (or several) permanently for your business who takes charge of every new project, or you may bring a project manager in on a contract basis where necessary.

The best way to find project managers is by advertising the role on job boards and websites, directly contacting talented project managers in your industry or working with a recruitment agency who can source the ideal candidate for your project needs. The best project managers are in high demand, so ensure that the benefits and working environment you are offering are competitive to ensure your best chances of hiring an exceptional candidate.


The majority of larger engineering companies will employ both program managers and project managers at some point, whether these are permanent roles or as a contract position to handle a sudden increase in workload or a new direction for the business. Understanding the difference between them and when each is required is important when it comes to hiring, as you need to be sure you are advertising the right role and that the individual you hire has the right experience.

If you’re an employer in the electronics and embedded systems industry that is looking for specialist help with project and program managers, get in touch and find out more about how our recruitment agency can help you.

Chris Oddy

Chris Oddy

About the Author

Chris is an award-winning recruitment consultant who has specialised in the electronics and embedded systems sector since 2008. Chris is passionate about technology and customer service.


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