Hackernoon logoThe Riddle of the Role: A Perspective on Program Management by@malgosiakacprzak

The Riddle of the Role: A Perspective on Program Management

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@malgosiakacprzakMalgosia Pack

Immovable object meets unstoppable force

In the children’s riddle,’ What am I?’It is really tough to guess the answer from the clues. Lately, I’ve been thinking about this in my role as a Program Manager. Am I a leader or a facilitator? A planner or implementer? A negotiator, mediator, problem-solver — or something else entirely? I am smack in the middle of a riddle.

The PgM role is one of the fastest growing in technology, with thousands of job openings in the Bay Area alone. Responsibilities and expectations vary widely and change quickly — a dual-edge sword for ambitious go-getters (good) who also want well-laid-out duties and a clear path for success (not so much).

I’ve been a PgM at Google for 5 years, and in the past several months, have had many conversations with PgMs about the yin and yang of this role. It’s a great opportunity to solve problems and make things happen. There’s variety, flexibility, and autonomy. It is these traits that create uncharted territory where ambiguity and stress creep in.

During technical discussion with my team, I would ask myself, “Should I be getting all of this”? Early on, I thought knowledge was the key. I thought if I just understood the technical aspects of each project and could make sense of the Engineers’ comments in meetings, I’d be more confident about my decisions. I read every PRD. But that didn’t help.

Eventually, I woke up to the fact that my place in the program wasn’t well defined, and my job was to identify the gaps, find the edges, and define my position to best drive success for the program ROI. Once I understood that, I was able to recognize what I could uniquely bring to the program, and that would be my focus going forward.

My PgM reality

As a PgM, my role is to fill the gaps and smooth the rough edges that limit execution of the business objectives and maximize the return on investment of the program and its smooth execution. Often, the unpredictability of the job is where the stress kicks in: your co-workers have submitted their CLs and bugs and gone home for the evening and you’ve not closed one open task all day. For others, it’s where entrepreneurial qualities shine: you’re sketching out solutions, making judgment calls, reaching out across teams to solve a problem. The beauty of the role is that you can shape it and take it in the direction you want, but the downside is the responsibility that accompanies the unpredictability. This is where the right blend of knowledge and confidence is essential — and one without the other will sink you.

By nature, the PgM’s role is amoeba-like, changing from one day to the next. Because the role has so many different aspects, it can be shaped in many ways. While the creativity of the role can be exhilarating, it may also lead to a low-performing team and missed project expectations. The PgM role is to bridge the contributions of many experts, understand the impact of decisions, and be comfortable with judgment calls. Because the PgM’s job is so fluid, and perceptions of the role are still evolving, there’s an opportunity to lead.

Program manager tips

By the very nature of the PgM, there is no recipe for success. However, there are a few things that work for me. I offer them out of my own experience; use them for what they are worth in yours.

  1. Own your role

I’ve learned to look at my skills and expertise realistically, and focus on what I can uniquely contribute. For myself, and my team, there has to be a clear, mutual understanding of what each contributor can do. As a PgM, I work with many senior Engineers, yet I am not on the team to be an Engineer. I’m there to contribute my expertise as the PgM and to steer each project to the best possible outcome.

2. Focus on product not producer

We are here to build things and solve problems. When I focus on work, I’m less concerned about my possible shortcomings. If my mind is on the tasks in front of me, the program results, and my role in the success of the program, self-doubt recedes. At the end of the day, it’s about solving problems and getting the job done.

As a program manager, my job is to maximize the ROI. When I am stressed, I stop adding that value. For me, the hack was to remind myself why I was doing this job. Returning to a focus on the product, recognizing my contribution, and being realistic about my performance let me get on with the important work to be done.

3. People have vulnerabilities too

I’m a generalist working with many specialists, connecting all the elements of a program. I may be dealing with unstaffed positions, unanticipated bugs, new legal hurdles, and full day meetings. Some things, at some times, are going to give, and I have to understand what is sabotaging my effectiveness. This is where I can focus on specific remedies as these vulnerabilities occur, whether with a coach, a course, or a manager.

Managing a major program, I work with teams of engineers, lawyers, and sales people. Often, I’m the only PgM in the room and that can be isolating. For me, the key is to understand my role and build a support system of other PgMs, mentors, and coaches. I use them strategically when I need a reality check, fresh perspective, or to tap into their expertise. Finally, I find that I can be on the supportive side of a network as well, using my experience to help others.

Back to the riddle: What am I? On any given day (perhaps any given hour) I get a different answer. Embracing the constant change helps me navigate the PgM role and succeed at it. With this in mind, I’m planning to write about specific PgM areas — leadership, execution, technical expertise, and more — to empower the PgM community. Do you have thoughts to share? If so, ping me to collaborate.


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