What Makes a Microsoft Program Manager?

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By Roberto Jiménez

Perhaps you’ve been job searching on the Net, or maybe you’re a student just beginning your career as a technical communicator. Either way, there’s a chance you’ve encountered the job title of Program Manager or Project Manager. If you’re planning to be a technical communicator, take heed, Program and Project Managers are people you will probably want to meet. But what exactly do these professionals do? Cynthia Solomon, former Program Manager for Microsoft’s Excel program says, “within each company (and department within a company) the duties of a program or project manager can vary according to the specifics of a job description for the position, but primarily they are responsible for a project from conception to delivery.”

On the outside, the program manager’s job is defined by the project. A project can range from a single feature in a software application all the way to a whole suite of software products. At Microsoft, a key role of the program manager (PM) is to write functional specifications, or “specs”. The spec describes each function, screen, implementation, or other aspect of a software application or operating system. The PM writes a spec primarily for the developers so they can then implement the feature or product. However, the specs are also important for the marketing department to sell the feature or product, the user education team to define it in Help features, usability testing groups to understand and confirm the correct functionality of it, and of course upper management to understand and okay the feature or product in the first place.

During her tenure at Microsoft, Solomon says there was a Group Program Manager who oversaw an entire project and managed a team of PM’s. The Group PM spread out “ownership” of the upcoming product’s features across all PM’s. For example, one PM got all printing features, while another got all calculation features, and yet another got all charting features.

The PM for printing features would spec out each printing-related feature in detail including screen shots (every button, scroll bar, etc. visible on screen), localization issues, relationship to other functions, and so on. The PM usually spends a lot of time talking with marketing, product support, end-users, localization, and other team members to gather the necessary information for deciding what is required in their target features and/or what features are needed. Then all PM’s combine their specs into one large Product Spec that pretty much defines the entire software product. For Excel the spec can get very, very big since there’s so much in an Excel release.

Furthermore, the PM is usually responsible for usability testing each feature that falls under that PM’s assignment. At Microsoft the PM works with a usability expert to define the tests, schedule them, and conduct them. The PM should be at every usability session and making adjustments to those features throughout the process. This is necessary because the PM is responsible for how useful and usable their feature is for the end-user.

To manage the implementation of all assigned features, the PM works closely with developers, testers, user-education teams, and others. One potential difficulty is that Program Managers may or may not actually have direct reports. Most don’t, actually. They have to get people to do what they want without the luxury of being their manager. Most often, these people are full-time members of a separate team. For example, on Excel Solomon would need to refer to the developers or testers. Generally they are already signed up and motivated to do the features they were working on because they chose to do those features in the first place. However, if they aren’t all on the same page and the PM comes back, say after usability tests, and wants the developer to change some aspects of it at the last minute, they may not get the support they need. A smart PM will involve the developer, tester, et al when they are ‘designing’ the feature. This keeps everyone on the same page and in support of how the feature turns out. A lot of team dynamics come into play. So a good PM’s have a knack for selling their ideas and getting others on board and working together efficiently.

“Once the product shipped we’d start all over with a whole new set of features to tackle,” Solomon says with a chuckle. At a large company like MS the PM’s stick to one product such as Excel. “When I was on Excel I believe I shipped four or five releases over several years before I chose to move on to another product group.” In the Consumer Group, by contrast, which did all the “fun” CD-ROMs, she worked on two or three smaller products at one time.

And what was the highlight of Solomon’s career at Microsoft? “While in the Consumer Group, I worked on a project with Julia Child. My husband and I had Thanksgiving dinner in her home! I consider that part of the payoff for making all of my ship dates when managing Excel.”

Roberto Jiménez is a contributing writer for the Willamette Galley. He can be reached at