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The craft of program management: how programs & practices sets Atlassian apart
Strategic thinkers. Trusted advisors. Continuous learners. The program managers and coaches that make up Atlassian’s Programs & Practices team draw from a mixture of disciplines—but all of them are change agents, curating and communicating the practices that inspire and guide our best work.
Program managers (PgMs) are “out in the field delivering great critical programs of work,” says Sarah Atkinson, Atlassian’s Head of Programs & Practices. They bring their learnings back to the team and “continue to iterate our ways of working, because nothing stands still.”
The role of the team may be complex, but their influence is clear and threefold: First, PgMs lead strategic planning for teams across Atlassian, bringing programs to completion and driving results. Second, PgMs bring their experiences back to the group and partner with the Practices folks to collectively hone the craft— and define the way work gets done across the whole company. Third, all of this knowledge makes its way into Atlassian’s products, ultimately transforming work for our customers around the world. And with so many companies now embracing distributed work, the criticality of the team grows every day.
Our experienced, collaborative, and organised team helps us make a difference in highly visible, strategic projects. Atkinson shares: “There’s something incredibly unique about the gnarly but very impactful problems that we’re trying to solve. The reach we have, and the promise of finding the best ways to work internally, and ultimately passing those on to our customers - no one else is doing this the way we are.”
Programs & Practices has a seat at the table—and within a community
Program managers are both leaders and part of a team. They’re working alongside fellow PgMs, product designers and researchers from their sister teams within the Customer Experience Organisation (CXO), as well as other Atlassians’ across the business, from executive leadership to engineers to product managers. And while at other companies PgMs are traditionally siloed into their specific programs, at Atlassian, Atkinson aspires to bring “programs”—the what—and “practices”—the how—together into a cohesive, collaborative community. “We’re bringing in the concept of teamwork, empowering our program managers to have a point of view on how we can continue to improve.”
And because the Programs & Practices group sits within the CXO, the team has a comprehensive view of customer needs, owns a slice of the customer journey, and is commonly across multiple Atlassian products. So when Atlassian ships a new or updated product, the team’s processes and learnings—their craft—are built right in, shaping the way thousands of people work.
What does this look like in action? Atlassian’s scale means that every team member’s day can look quite different—but all of them include crucial decisions and processes that move Atlassian forward. One program manager might be running the day-to-day business for a whole department, helping define and drive strategy for the team and then ensuring the team is staffed with the right people, has realistic goals, and gets everything they need to deliver on clearly-defined objectives. Another PgM might be leading a customer initiative from beginning to end. For example, Senior Program Manager Peter Scobie recently led data center customers through a series of customised solutions that streamlined their instances in preparation for an eventual migration to cloud.
Group Program Manager Cathie Metcalfe, who leads 10 program managers within the Agile and DevOps business, works within a “leadership squad” that includes representatives from Engineering, Product, Business Operations, and Marketing. “Together we’re creating the strategy for a particular project or goal,” she says. “But program managers bring their superpower: they turn visionary ideas into structures and sequences; they build the pieces of the puzzle that make everything come together.” Metcalfe says PgMs answer the questions that define how Atlassian teams work: “How do we put the right team on the right job? How do we communicate the bigger picture so that we inspire and create passion in the teams to drive towards those outcomes? How do we unblock people? How do we bring in other parts of the organisation to help us execute?”
The role of a program manager is agile, strategic, and creative
Atkinson notes, “the nature of the cross-cutting work we’re doing means we need our critical programs to maneuver smoothly so we can help facilitate the scale of Atlassian. Our PgMs stay a few steps ahead by looking holistically at customer needs and applying thought leadership, strategic thinking, and the best tools and ways of working from past experience. Program managers use agile methodology, combining a calm style, creative thinking, and a focus on continuous improvement to ‘be the change you seek’”—one of our ingrained values.
Metcalfe uses a dynamic metaphor to describe the nature of program management at Atlassian: “It’s like we’re a leadership team shining a torch down the path, going ‘Yep, there’s the mountain where we want to go,’ and passing messages back like, ‘Watch out for the river.’ My role is to get the lay of the land and inspire our teams."
“There’s something incredibly unique about the gnarly but very impactful problems that we’re trying to solve. The reach we have, and the promise of finding the best ways to work internally, and ultimately passing those on to our customers - no one else is doing this the way we are.”
Emotional maturity and people skills are key
As Atlassian rapidly scales, so is the Programs & Practices team. This growth requires team members who are not just comfortable with, but excited by, complexity. As Senior Program Manager for Growth - Jasone Zaballa says, as a PgM “you need to have a lot of resilience, and constantly ask, ‘What’s next?’ As you navigate through change, you should have a clarity of mind. You need to say to yourself, ‘OK, we’re resetting now. What’s the new goal?’”
Along with a willingness to jump into complex projects, team members also share an ability to build relationships. Scobie emphasizes the importance of strong people skills. “At Atlassian, program managers aren’t accountable for delivery, which is different from other companies,” says Scobie. “We rely a lot on influence here, and in order to influence, you have to have respect and relationships. You have to talk to the ‘why’ constantly. We don’t call it change management, but most of our programs are basically change management pieces of work, where you have to get that early buy-in and alignment beforehand.”
To achieve that buy-in, Group Program Manager Deepak Murthy says PgMs at Atlassian prioritise direct communication and authenticity. “We want program managers who are able to build great relationships, who have really strong listening skills and can create an environment where people feel safe raising issues. Because when people feel comfortable being themselves, that’s when they’ll give you the information you need in order to influence outcomes.”
Growth opportunities are abundant
“We strongly support internal mobilisation, and going up or going across is very common,” says Atkinson. “The problems you solve can be so varied depending on which area you’re working in as a program manager, and we often have people change roles when they see how big the pond is.”
Regardless of how a PgM wants to grow, in this exciting moment of evolution for the team, Atkinson says the most important thing is that PgMs know the essential role they play. To her, success means that program managers have a “direct line of sight to the impact they’re making. They should see the consequences of their work and be able to take pride in it. When teams are thriving and customers benefit, program managers should know that they make it possible.”
“But program managers bring their superpower: they turn visionary ideas into structures and sequences; they build the pieces of the puzzle that make everything come together.”
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Interested in learning more about the opportunities available in our Programs & Practices team? We’re currently recruiting for PgM roles internationally. Take a look at our Careers page to find your ideal role right now, or join our Talent Community to get notified about future career opportunities that may be the right fit.
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