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Advice for Program Managers: 3-Program Management Career Skills

Summary: Career path thinking for Program Managers including skills and behaviors that develop Program Manager capabilities and leadership and pave the way toward advancement.

This Series, “Advice for Program Managers”: Modern Program Management requires skills and methods specialized to characteristics of its industry; to technologies of its produced products and services; and to management of its organization. In execution, Program Management envisions, creates, organizes, and rationalizes information and leadership across all these domains. The leadership and information created make Program Management an integral part of management of a majority of work flowing through an organization.

BACK to Series Start — Advice for Program Managers: 1-Program Management Opportunity

The Series also solicits contributions to this Blog site, to extend coverage of PM Best Practices and Core Program Structure to a broadening set of industries and technologies.

Primary Mission

Product/Service Delivery: Of course, you must first be proficient at accomplishing your primary mission: deliver your organization’s product or service on time, on budget, and with quality. Post Advice for Program Managers: 4-Program Management Specialization: System Programs Phased Methodology and Post Advice for Program Managers: 6-Quantified Agile for Hardware give “technical” examples of that. What follows are intrinsic behaviors and skills.

Soft Skills, Actionable Presence

Lead: in every dimension. Be open to contribution from others and give credit where due, but you must establish and maintain direction, set Program objectives, and lead the Program to achieve them. Work to make yourself respected for your vision and capabilities.

Leadership cannot just be given; it must also be earned. The PM’s relationship within the organization is essential, as noted in topics following.

On Deck: Be very visible. Find a way to always be obviously on deck. I suggest you show up for work even if others are WFH – if not that, then find another way to assert presence, availability, support. Be the central pillar. Establish and maintain program cadence. Your hard workers are likely to show up if you do. Conversely, if your team members are at work, you be there too. You’re the leader – don’t ask any team member to do more than you are doing. And when you hit a rough spot, when Program schedule is slipping away, then when it’s recovered you and the team will be proud that you established work discipline.

Work Ethic: Serious Program Management requires serious engagement by the PM. Work very hard. Be very focused on completion of the effort, make that your principal business. Feel that particular focus inside. If you do these things, a lot of things will take care of themselves. There are people throughout the organization who will focus on tasks. But you as PM are the one who will supply the drive and actionable plan that harnesses that toward business result. Others will strive to keep up with you, and from this you identify your team. See to it that they are rewarded. Respect work. Thank people who are pulling their weight. Be sincere, make it personal, thank them in an attended venue.

Create Original Thought: Create content and propagate it everywhere via presentations, forums, meetings, media et al.

Present: Create and lead presentations to team members and other workers, to leadership, to partners, to peers. Aggregate from others (give credit) but don’t stop there: add value by integrating, adding perspective and context. Keep material well thought-out, succinct, organized, visionary.

Talk: Get out in front. Stand up if appropriate. Lead your discussion topics and contribute visibly to discussions led by others. Add content and perspective. Be continuously creative and contribute that with focus. Inject that into discussions and presentations. Do your homework and be right – your Program planning and monitoring inform you. Leaders talk, and talkers lead.

Network internally: Bridge everything via your presence, presentation, tools, and talk. Interact across technical skills and levels. Interact with line managers and with contiguous program managers. Interact with all leadership roles: thought leaders and management at all levels including senior management. Know the members of the Program team. Maintain an ongoing agenda of topics with each leader on methods, improvements, status, direction. Talk about subjects you know and learn from them subjects you don’t know.

Learn the Business: Get acquainted with managers, thought leaders, and Execs from Product Management, Sales, and Support. Learn company cashflow – where do they make money, how do cost centers work? Where does your Program’s product fit? How can you help the product to maximize sales cashflow?

Get invited to a few sales calls for prospective Lead Customers for your product. Show competence of your organization and of yourself to the customers, and to Sales. Validate your product capabilities and priorities. Attend an early adopter installation, and a 2-week later follow-up. But remember! Only Sales can make commitments to customers.

Network Publicly: Attend events, and comment publicly. Present at internal and external conferences. Publish to a blog site, website, Wiki, internal publication. Attend professional forums. Internal name recognition can translate later to corporate sponsorship into forums with broader public recognition. This helps your organization, and yourself. Don’t disclose proprietary information please!

Social Media Presence: You’re not going to publish a book, speak at conferences, become a successful YouTube Creator, or a well-known consultant unless you make yourself famous. Start internally, but also go to social media. Don’t disclose proprietary information please! Create a presence on social media. Manage your SEO. Comment on existing forums. Post to platforms; created material is best. Comment intelligently on posts by famous people to gain visibility and link to your own public work. Get your company to sponsor you for conference speaking and Standards groups and alliances.

Predict the future path to success of your Program, and make that future happen. Spot opportunities, and spot and fix problems. Focus on mitigation minimizing impact to critical path. Find “three ways” to fix or bypass any problem, the first one you try may not be sufficient. Predict and focus on problems on and near critical path (you’ll have to know the critical path! Yet another reason to have a plan.).

Watch Apollo 13 Movie when you need inspiration on Program Management and Mitigation. Those people came back. Google “Apollo 13 Program Management” for more sources.

Manage Risk: Actively foresee risks and monitor for their actualization, particularly those that endanger critical characteristics of the product or service produced, or that endanger critical aspects of the Program plan such as safety, critical function, schedule, spending, or funding. Monitor key product and plan characteristics to be aware of those that approach critical variance and be prepared with several ways to mitigate the variance. See “It’s Never All or Nothing” comments following. If possible, create alternate operational plans ahead of failure, that can be smoothly adopted. Adapt.

If possible, take the failing item off the Program critical path by substituting usable temporary alternatives – many tasks won’t need perfection from all elements; developers on call management don’t need perfect audio. Fix the problem in parallel with continued operation using alternatives adequate if not perfect and re-integrate the fix back into the Program. Re-integration can often be limited to support just tasks that require the perfection of the fixed element, thereby limiting cost of backfilling the temporary alternatives used.

Do the homework: When a topic or problem comes up that you’re unfamiliar with, read the specs. Buy a book on Amazon. Check stackoverflow. You’re never the first person to have the problem you encounter – Google it.

It’s never all or nothing: When confronted by a big topic, or need to mitigate a big problem, break it down. It’s never all or nothing. Frequent examples include Product Requirements, Schedule, and problem mitigation. Break a big topic into sub-topics, and then detail points for those sub-topics. Break down sub-topics further where needed. Decide within sub-topics which points need to be achieved first, which can be achieved differently if necessary, and which can be achieved later. Get started and get points on the board, when you work on a problem it teaches you about its structure.

For example, the classic tradeoff among function, schedule and quality is a false choice. Each of those has detail defining itself. Modern Requirements from Product Management are a long list within multiple categories that include function types, schedule, quality and more. Choose the key elements in each of these categories and accomplish at least those for first release. Then plan and complete more in subsequent releases.

Another example: this is a powerful principle with many uses. You’ll see how it was applied to create the development process described in the next post, Advice for Program Managers: 4-Program Management Specialization: System Programs Phased Methodology building a core process structure and layering more detailed processes onto it.

Be Respected for Program-Related Hard Skills

Hard Skills demonstrate thinking ability, and capacity to excel. Hard Skills are thinking tools, literally tools that add leverage to thinking in more powerful ways, enhancing insight and creativity. This includes trainable specialized knowledge to be used in operational critical thinking, judgement, and creativity. Hard skills affect how you think about solutions to problems, and the tools you can bring to bear on them. They are integral to your branding, whether implicit or explicit. Their leverage to your Program Management and your career is proportional to their closeness to the company business. Generalized skills like Mathematics are broad high leverage: math hones your ability to organize, to engage in abstract thought, and to formulate problems in solvable manner.

A PM’s reputation for critical thinking, judgement, and creativity, and for knowledge and accomplishments from mastery of relevant hard skills, is needed across all the staff in the organization. Those people have skills in their own specializations. A PM will interact with many organizations and functions and won’t have hard skills in all of them. Nevertheless, known mastery by a PM of one or more hard skills, with reputation for accomplishment, is needed for respect. Accomplishments should be sufficiently significant to show on the PM’s resume. The broader the set of hard skills, the more respect, seniority, opportunities, and choices will be available to that PM.

Be conversant in topics of key developers and functional area thought leaders by knowing what they’re talking about, their concerns and opportunities. Learn from thought leaders, they’re usually anxious to tell you what they do. Develop BS repellant, opportunity detectors. Know your industry players, major products and services, technologies, and standards.

Add value important to the program that nobody else will offer. Often this is the cross-functional plan (schedule, integration sequence, logistics, cashflow etc.) and its consequent execution.

Hard Skills: PMO should hire for existing Hard Skills as well as soft skills. Actual use shown on resume is best, familiarity is required at least. These should be program-related skills. Each PM should continuously develop new or deeper hard skills.

Delegation: At the same time, PM must not become a substitute developer; that is delegated to organizations responsible. PM may fill in to mitigate shortage in an organization; but must preserve line-level responsibilities going forward.

Examples of Demonstrated Program-Related Hard Skill Expertise Key to Your Program.

Be visibly good at some of these, or others like them. Get better at more of them over time.

PM Core (mandatory)

  • Phased: Project GANTT, Formal Reviews, Project meetings, Agenda, Action Items, Minutes
  • Agile: Agile Stories, Backlog, Scrum, Retrospective, Kanban, Scrum Master, Product Owner, ACP, SAFe, LeSS, et al.

PM Advanced

  • Development cycle: Ability to describe and quantify complex programs in plannable detail (schedule, logistics, finance et al.) using Phasing, Agile and Scrum cycles where appropriate, into a tangibly quantified plan integrating segments using multiple development cycle types.
  • Scheduling: Quantification of Full-Program function-schedule dependencies, sequencing, time quantification estimating, Program planning and control grasp.
  • Hardware logistics quantification and management: Full plan cycle, Allocation, Build, Acquire, Distribute, Finance. BOM, MRP, Oracle, SAP et al.
  • Quantification Tooling: Excel, Project, JOIN, PowerQuery/SQL Server/MS Access. VBA, Pivot, Structured Tables, INDEX/MATCH/XLOOKUP, GANTT. Visualization. Personal and distributed tools.

Partner management: HW/SW/IP Supplier, Embedded code, Open Source, function/module/IP development, Layout, CM/JDM/OEM, business partner. SOW, Contract, RFQ/PO.

Finance: Project and organization. Budgeting. General Ledger, Balance sheet, Expense Statement. Material order lifecycle. Expense and capital logistics execution. Mitigations on budget calamity.

Design: Prior product work, local tools, etc. develop your “Design” thinking skills: they will shape your thinking about how to organize and solve problems. Tools you develop might come into common use within your organization’s Programs.

SME: Subject Matter Expert for product component such as Kernel, transport, CODEC / DSP, GPU, Audio, Messaging, Video stream, System management, TCP-IP/Router/Switch, PCIe/RDMA/NVMeof, AI/ML, TensorFlow, et al.

Technical design: EE, ME. JavaScript/TypeScript/React/Vue/Angular/Svelte, C/Python/PERL/VB, SQL, Power Query, M, HTML/CSS/PHP, Kubernetes, TCP-IP, Verilog/HDL, Physical Design, DDR, Flash application, management, addressing, refresh, retention etc.

Math: Beyond common algebra and geometry. Statistics, Calculus, Linear Algebra. Quantum Math/QuBit/Dirac, Fast Fourier.

Statistics: Statistical Process Control (SPC), AQL, proto sampling/acceptance, Design of Experiments (DOE).

Security: Cryptography, Encode/decode, key management, TPM, Secure boot, GSA.

A/V encoding H.265, file formats, stream management.

Semiconductor physics, circuits, element design, chip architecture, clocks, power, Fab, ASIC design, Physical Design, JTAG, Boundary Scan, ATPG.

DevOps: Branch management, Version Control / config management, containerization, Jenkins, tools.

Branch management: dev branches, project branch, release branch, Version Control, branch and merge tools, GitHub, CVS, ClearCase, Perforce, et al.

Integration sequences: Create useful and practical integration sequences and focus on integration points for schedule achievement. Coordinated Software functionality and modules, hardware assembly levels.

Software QA: methodology (CI, white box, automation, et al.), Jenkins, and hardware compliance practices (physical test, test header, ICT, probe, Optical inspection, PVT qual, clock skew).

Triage: Cross-functional bug triage and release planning.

Software and Hardware Compliances, Certifications: mechanics and execution logistics, relationships to dev and release cycles. Safety, Environmental, Regulatory, Financial, Privacy, Compatibility, international/regional.

Operations: MRP, Oracle, SAP, Balance Sheet.

Need more for other program types: Pharma, Construction, IT et al. Please comment and contribute!

Skill Stacking: Some great advice from another source:

How To Become The Best At Something (from Coding Tech channel, on YouTube)

Short Summary:

There will always be someone who working harder, or more gifted, or both.

So instead of being the best at one thing, master a combination of complementary skills.

Find what skills you need, to set unique direction. Find your own skill stack.

Be passionate about each.

My Perspective:

Be visibly good at at least one important thing.

It’s not enough to be good at something – you need to be known for being good at it, too!

NEXT POST — Advice for Program Managers: 4-Program Management Specialization: System Programs Phased Methodology
BACK to Series Start — Advice for Program Managers: 1-Program Management Opportunity

Further Reading: Core Program Quantitative Structure for System Programs

Advice for Program Managers: The Blog Series

1-Program Management Opportunity
Introduces a vision and framework for development of Program Managers and PMO, for Program Management specialization to its environment, and for improved effectiveness and integration of PM with organization
operational management.

2-Program Management Career Path
Describes career path thinking for Program Managers including sourcing, progression, advancement, and connection with organizational management.

3-Program Management Career Skills
Career path thinking for Program Managers including skills and behaviors that develop Program Manager capabilities and leadership and pave the way toward advancement.

4-Program Management Specialization: System Programs Phased Methodology
PM Best Practices and Core Program Structure for Hybrid integrated system programs using Phased HW – Agile SW, mixed-technologies. Full-Program agility via automated plan tools with continuous plan update.

The Series also solicits contributions to this Blog site, to extend coverage of PM Best Practices and Core Program Structure to a broadening set of Specializations.

5-PMO Role
PMO behavior to achieve Program Management effectiveness specialized to its environment managing PM practices in the organization, including PM development and advancement and connection with organizational management.

6-Quantified Agile for Hardware
Program Quantification applied to Phased and Agile methodologies to deal with organizational quantitative requirements.

More Articles by this Author

Three Levels of Program Management
Guiding Principles for Program Management Action, Program Quantification, and Leverage Through Tooling.

Organizing Program Communication
Program Management depends on effective communication. Design Program communication paths for everyone throughout the Program.

Database Platforms for Program Management Logistics
Logistics Tool extended, using SQL Server and MS Access with MS Excel and PowerQuery.

PowerQuery Tool
Logistics Tool using MS Excel Power Query.

Quantitative Management
Tool methodology for agility with continuous plan update: Program BOM, Tie to Dates, Builds, Element data.

Complex Programs: Structure
Structure Program with Parallel Phasing. Describes coordination of EE/ME, FW, Test, Supply/CM, Driver/Kernel, Transport, Management. Scheduling, Integration points, scaffolding, and starting work. Hybrid Program Cross-Domain Coordination of dev frameworks, including Phased and Agile/Scrum where appropriate, via integration points and scaffolding. Software Integration Sequence and Dependency Planning.

Managing Complex Projects
Problem Statement. PM responsibility for Program Management drive throughout an organization, also includes schedule, budget, integration, critical path, logistics.

Link To Free Tools To Manage Schedule, Logistics, And Finance

Author’s website with articles on Program Management and Program quantification tooling using Excel, MS Project, and MS Visio with SQL databases PowerQuery, SQL Server, and MS Access. Articles describe how you can use tools available from the website, or develop these capabilities yourself using commonly available tools.

Tools available from this website are free. They can handle small to large programs, limited only by your imagination. Using the included Program Template to envision, organize, plan, and run a large program puts me in mind of unleashing a Roman Legion to a sure outcome. Veni, Vidi, Vici! – Julius Caesar.

Sam Josimovic: Reviewing and Editing
“Gear_Mesh” Image licensed from
My website:
Copyright © 2021 Richard M. Bixler
All rights reserved


2 thoughts on “Advice for Program Managers: 3-Program Management Career Skills”

  1. User Avatar

    Hello Richard,

    Thank you for your informative post. I appreciate that you cover both soft skills and hard skills necessary for a successful program manager. Program management is one of the most complex jobs I have encountered. There are many roles that a PM must fulfill, and these roles are vastly different from each other.

    I agree that the PM must be respected for program-related hard skills. This has many benefits because it not only (1) improves the flow of the project but also (2) provides assurances to the team that the PM knows what he/she is doing which (2) fosters confidence within the group and (3) improves the team’s dynamic. In addition, new tools and technologies continually emerge, and the PM must continue to stay abreast of these developments to remain relevant within the organization and in the industry.

    Soft skills can be more challenging than hard skills. The PM must be the communicator, leader, motivator, facilitator, negotiator, conflict manager, etc. Some (including myself) would rather learn a new software than negotiate with a senior manager who must realize that the “old way” is no longer the best way. Nevertheless, these are situations that a PM faces, and the PM must have the skillset to navigate through these situations effectively.

    Your post has such valuable information and advice that I am inspired to make a checklist of some kind to supplement your post. It will be a useful tool for new and existing project management professionals. I will reach out to you to discuss a possible collaboration!


    1. User Avatar

      Hi Lalaine – Thanks for your comment. Your thinking on this is right in line with my intent. I’ve experienced management who ask each PM to annually design their own self-development plan. I thought PMs or PMOs might choose to include a couple of subjects mentioned here, in those plans. No doubt there are more scenarios as well. I’d welcome collaboration! – Richard

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