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What is a Technical Program Manager?

Part of the Introduction section.

Imagine a skilled conductor leading a diverse orchestra, harmonizing the distinct sounds of each instrument to create a masterpiece. In the realm of technology and product development, the Technical Program Manager (TPM) plays a similar role, orchestrating the many moving parts of complex projects and guiding them to successful completion. Like a conductor, the TPM doesn't play an instrument (write the code, design the site, market the product) but they contribute in important ways. In this section, we will explore the role of a TPM, their responsibilities, and the skills and qualifications required for success in this fascinating and challenging profession.


Photo by Felicia Montenegro on Unsplash

Role definition

A Technical Program Manager is a multifaceted professional who sits at the crossroads of technology, business, and leadership. With a keen understanding of both technical and strategic concerns, TPMs are responsible for leading and managing multiple projects within a larger program, ensuring that they align with the organization's objectives and are executed effectively.

What's your definition of a TPM? Let me know with a suggestion or feedback.

Efficiency is getting things done quickly. Doing things at speed. Effectiveness is doing the right things quickly. Doing things with velocity. Efficiency is speed regardless of direction. Effectiveness is speed plus direction. We prefer to be effective -- moving in the right direction -- even if it means our speed is a little lower.

Responsibilities and duties

A TPM's duties are as diverse as the projects they manage, encompassing a range of responsibilities that include:

  1. Strategic planning: Defining program goals, developing road maps, and identifying project priorities that align with the organization's objectives, mission, and vision.
  2. Resource management: Allocating and managing resources, such as personnel, budgets, and equipment, to ensure projects are delivered on time and within scope.
  3. Risk assessment and mitigation: Identifying potential risks and devising strategies to mitigate or manage them, ensuring the program remains on track.
  4. Cross-functional collaboration: Collaborating with various stakeholders, including product managers, engineers, and designers, to ensure projects are executed effectively and with minimal friction.
  5. Communication: Facilitating communication among project teams and stakeholders, ensuring transparency, and fostering a sense of shared purpose and accountability.
  6. Monitoring and control: Tracking project progress, adjusting plans and resources as needed, and ensuring the successful delivery of program objectives.

Let's get grounded

So what do TPMs actually do? What does a day or a week in the life of a TPM look like?

We attend and lead effective meetings. Meetings are where some work gets done, decisions are made, and information is communicated. TPMs help ensure that even meetings they don't directly lead are still valuable.

We communicate. We communicate until we are sure that everyone who needs to know something has confirmed they know it. This involves repetition. And saying the same thing over and over again. We are at the risk of over-communicating, but the alternative is worse.

We think. We think about risks, opportunities, execution, team members, industry trends, and anything else that might affect or programs positively or negatively.

We plan. We make plans. We work in a project management tool, a ticket management tool, spreadsheets, wikis, word processors (do those even exist any more?) and in diagrams. And then we get feedback, re-plan, and communicate the plans.

We learn. We'll encounter new things, new ideas, new ways of doing things, almost every day. Learn from those around you. Be humble and learn. Validate what you've learned with others. Ask an expert. Teach a novice.

We observe. A TPM is often at the center of things. Or at least they should be. Due to the cross-functional nature of our roles we often have the opportunity to see and hear and read things that others might not. Think about what is going on around you. Pay attention not just to what is said or written, but to to the non-verbal or non-visual clues too.

We take responsibility. While we might not do the "work" of coding, testing, designing, marketing, or selling, we take responsibility for that work getting done and the quality of that work.

We set expectations. We set quality levels. We define what is good enough, what is great, and what isn't. Others look to us to know when something is done, when it's ready, or when it needs more.

Skills and qualifications

The role of a TPM requires a rare blend of skills and qualifications that draw from both technical and management disciplines. Some of the key skills and qualifications include:

  1. Technical expertise: A strong foundation in technology, with the ability to understand complex technical concepts, systems, and processes.
  2. Project management: Knowledge of project management methodologies, such as Agile or Waterfall, and experience managing large-scale projects.
  3. Leadership: Strong leadership skills, with the ability to engage and guide diverse teams towards a common goal.
  4. Problem-solving: The ability to identify and address challenges, make data-driven decisions, and navigate complex situations with grace and poise.
  5. Communication: Exceptional written and verbal communication skills, with the ability to effectively convey complex information to various stakeholders.
  6. Adaptability: A flexible and resilient mindset, with the capacity to adapt to change and maintain focus on program objectives.

In the ever-evolving world of technology and product development, the Technical Program Manager is an indispensable asset, responsible for driving the successful execution of large-scale, complex programs. With a rare blend of technical expertise, management acumen, and strategic thinking, the TPM is poised to make a lasting impact on the organizations and projects they serve.