In an increasingly digital landscape, many companies are seeking technical program managers, or TPMs, to drive company strategy, align team members, collaborate with cross-functional stakeholders, and deliver on multiple complex projects and other initiatives.
The most successful TPMs have a sufficient degree of technical expertise to give them street cred with their staff, leadership and management skills to make them good at managing others (often through influence, rather than direct reporting relationships), and the business savvy to communicate with executives.
In this article, we’ll cover the differences between program managers and TPMs, the skills that make someone an effective TPM, and how to prepare for a TPM career.
- What is a Technical Program Manager?
- What Does A Technical Program Manager Do?
- What Skills Do Technical Program Managers Need?
- What to Expect in a Technical Program Manager Interview
- A Typical Technical Program Manager Career Path
- Average Salary for a Technical Program Manager
What is a Technical Program Manager?
Simply put, TPMs oversee technical project delivery. That means that the technical program manager role is responsible for keeping software development teams:
- Aligned on key decisions
- Accountable to team, project, and company goals
- Executing high-quality work in an efficient manner.
Program Manager vs. Technical Program Manager
Program managers should possess leadership skills and have the business savvy to be able to execute complex cross-functional projects. TPMs also need these skills, but they bring an additional layer of technological expertise that lets them engage with software engineering teams on the details of project execution.
But, wait, you may be wondering—don’t program managers also require a degree of technical fluency to be able to engage with their stakeholders? I would argue that, yes, that’s also true. So what qualifies a program manager as a TPM?
I typically characterize a program manager as someone that knows enough to be “dangerous.” For example, they should be able to push back against a flawed engineering estimate and suggest an alternative solution.
Conversely, TPMs may have previous development experience and/or possess coding skills that lets them discuss and debate key architectural decisions for the product alongside the engineering team. The expectation is that a TPM brings a higher degree of technical knowledge than a program manager.
What Does A Technical Program Manager Do?
Now that we’ve explained the core responsibilities of a TPM, how does that translate into their day-to-day job functions? Here is a summary of TPM job duties and how they align to each of the core TPM skillsets of technical knowledge, leadership skills, and business acumen:
- Lead technical design and architecture discussions across cross-functional teams
- Oversee software requirements (including design, architecture, and testing) and hardware assets (system design, hardware selection, etc.)
- Manage through agile methodologies, such as Scrum
- Decipher technical needs of other departments within the organization and translate them across stakeholder groups.
- Act as a communications liaison between technical and non-technical audiences
- Develop and maintain productive internal relationships
- Facilitate cross-collaboration and understanding between IT and other departments
- Generate targeted reports for different internal and/or external audiences
- Stay current on the latest news, information, and trends about program management and the organization’s industry.
- Organize and track jobs, clarify project scopes, proactively manage risks, deal with project escalations, ruthlessly prioritize tasks and dependencies, and problem solve
- Meet specific business objectives and metrics
- Support the roadmap planning process
- Develop strategies and implement tactics to follow through on those strategies
- Solve complex business problems within allocated timelines and budget
- Represent company management to technical teams and vice versa
- Influence others across the company to remain focused on desired outcomes without direct authority.
What Skills Do Technical Program Managers Need?
A significant part of a TPM’s job functions involve building and maintaining strong stakeholder relationships. Communication skills, including active listening skills, are essential to be able to convey information to diverse groups of stakeholders across a variety of different formats, including translating technical information for non-technical audiences.
TPMs require emotional intelligence to work effectively across leadership and staff, particularly in environments where they may lack direct reporting authority but must achieve project outcomes through influence.
Finally, TPMs also benefit from critical thinking skills to be able to solve complex business problems. These skills are important for processing and integrating information from cross-functional groups, thinking on their feet when interacting with stakeholders, and holding their own in a dynamic environment where few of their tasks may be repeatable.
What to Expect in a Technical Program Manager Interview
TPM job expectations often depend on the seniority of the role itself and the size of the department or organization. Despite the potential variance, TPM candidates should prepare to respond to the following types of questions:
- “Can you describe a time when you made a decision that affected the architecture of a system?”
- “Can you walk me through the process of designing an e-commerce platform?”
- “Share your best experience with regard to problem solving. What was your involvement?”
- “How would you define milestones and communicate them to stakeholders?”
- “How would you identify risk, and how would you mitigate it? What are the different ways of identifying risks?”
- “What would you do if a specific project is failing or if it won’t meet the deadlines?”
- “How would you update 10,000+ servers in a real-world scenario without impacting the end customers?”
- “What are the important elements of each project phase?”
- “How would you kick off a new project?”
What’s the Typical Technical Program Manager Career Path?
Most TPM job descriptions stipulate a bachelor’s degree in a technical field, such as computer science (although some jobs are starting to move away from mandating these types of potentially exclusionary requirements.)
Regardless of degree, TPMs are also expected to have a technical background and both project and product management or new product development experience (or else a basic understanding). Some positions require in-depth knowledge of particular technology domains, while others give more weight to having a broad understanding of the tech world.
Despite the need for a broad understanding of business, it’s not likely that every organization would require a TPM candidate to have an MBA. Still, an MBA or a Master of Science in information technology is often preferred, as is a Project Management Institute certification (typically a Project Management Professional, or PMP.)
Common positions one might have held before becoming a TPM include:
- Product manager
- Software or hardware engineer
- Engineering manager
- Program manager
- Business analyst
What’s an Average Salary for a Technical Program Manager?
The TPM role usually originates when a company perceives the need for structure and discipline within its IT ranks and responsibilities. As such, TPM positions are less common in small to midsize companies.
As with other positions, TPM salaries reflect the demands—and location—of the job. A salary survey by Levels.fyi shows that the national median salary for TPMs in the United States is $210,000 in total annual compensation.
Since Levels.fyi typically caters to big tech firms, such as Amazon, it’s worth looking at other sources for additional data points. Indeed puts the average annual base salary for TPMs in the United States at $142,000, while Payscale indicates it may be just under $130,000.
For more salary data on other project roles, check out our project manager salary guide here.
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