So, what’s the difference between a Product Manager (PM) and a Technical Program Manager (TPM)? While Product Managers and Technical Program Managers often work closely together and share project ownership, they generally have different sets of responsibilities that require different skill sets and ultimately, different strategies for interview prep. In this article, we’ll illuminate some of these similarities and differences.
Product Managers are expected to define the Product Vision. This includes researching user pain points, defining metrics to optimize that will represent success, and identifying / outlining product solutions and requirements that will address pain points. Product managers are responsible for the “what” and the “why.”
Technical Program Managers are responsible for the execution of the requirements defined by the PM. TPM’s often work closely with Engineering Managers and Team Leads to iron out implementation details and resourcing, and with other stakeholders across the company to create project timelines. TPM’s are responsible for the “when”, and work with Engineering leads on the “how” and the “who.”
Both are generally measured by the timing and success of a product launch, with late releases falling more on TPMs and incomplete releases falling more on PMs.
Product Managers should talk to product users and pour over data to determine what problems to solve. They’ll likely spend most of their days in meetings with stakeholders across the company discussing product requirements. Their main output is usually product requirements, often in the form of Product Requirement Documents (PRDs).
Technical Program Managers should be building and maintaining engineering delivery timelines, unblocking engineering teams, defining and streamlining cross-functional dependencies, and increasing efficiency and velocity of project execution. They’ll likely spend most of their days in Agile, Kanban, or other project planning tools, and scheduling meetings with relevant stakeholders to make sure projects keep moving forward. Their main output is usually a program execution strategy and timeline, as well as project health reports sent to stakeholders throughout a project’s life cycle.
Both will likely spend most of their days in meetings, documents, and email, as both PMs and TPMs are responsible for making sure all parties involved in a project are aligned on the same goal.
Product Managers are the bridge between tech, business and design. They are expected to pair business needs with potential solutions, prioritizing solutions that will deliver the biggest benefit to end users. They should be both creative and analytical, using both sides of the brain in tandem.
Technical Program Managers are expected to be technically savvy, as they must have educated discussions with engineers about costing of various features in order to generate accurate timelines. They should also have a proven track record of dealing with competing priorities, resolving ambiguities, and delivering complex projects on-time and within budget.
Both should have very strong communication skills, as well as team building / leadership skills, as they are both tasked with keeping everyone excited about the project and socializing important projects elements.
Product Managers are expected to demonstrate creativity, user empathy, strategic thinking, and prioritization of solutions / needs. These interviews are more theoretical than experiential, as you’ll rarely be asked about previous work. Interviewers want to see that, given a new or unique problem, a PM can consistently identify the “right” problem to solve, break that problem down into digestible pieces, and synthesize those pieces into an executable solution. PM’s should be technical enough to understand technical challenges and have an idea about solutions, but will not be expected to execute those solutions.
PMs should expect the following interview types:
- Product Design
- Product Strategy
- Technical: General
More details on these interview types are included in Exponent's PM Interview Prep Course.
Technical Program Managers are expected to demonstrate expertise in Project / Program Management and enough technical proficiency to discuss complex technical requirements and trade-offs with engineering leadership. These interviews are more experiential than theoretical, as you will likely be asked questions about prior experience and how to apply that experience in new and challenging situations. Interviewers want to see that a TPM can get things done in a world where needs exceed resources. TPM’s should be technical enough to understand engineering’s implementations.
TPMs should expect the following interview types:
- Project/Program Management
- Partnership (collaboration and influencing abilities)
- Technical: Past experience
- Technical: Problem solving, usually system design challenge
- Leadership/Cultural fit
- Basic coding: LeetCode easy (only applicable for some companies)
Both should be prepared to address case scenarios in an interview context and apply their knowledge accordingly. Both should also be prepared to demonstrate success in working on teams and effective communication.
While PMs and TPMs are both responsible for a project’s success, their goals and responsibilities are different, and therefore the preparation for their interviews should be different. Both are leaders and expert communicators, but PMs are generally responsible for “ideas” and TPMs for “execution.”
Interested in PM or TPM 1:1 coaching? Reach out directly to firstname.lastname@example.org to get connected with an expert PM or TPM coach.
Co-authored by Liana Gevorgyan, Exponent TPM Coach and Senior TPM at WeWork.