Are you interested in making the leap into becoming a technical program manager (TPM)?
You may be intrigued by the exciting job descriptions and lucrative salaries. But you also want to learn a little more about what it means and what it takes to be a technical program manager before you dive in headfirst.
We've covered all the bases in this article concerning the roles and responsibilities that come with technical program management.
Not only that, but we had the opportunity to interview Liana Gevorgyan, a senior technical program manager at WeWork, and formerly at Facebook (Instagram) as a senior technical program manager. She gave us an insider's look into the world of technical program management, and we're more than happy to share.
So let's get to it.
What is Technical Program Management?
T - Technical:
The position is unsurprisingly a technical one. TPMs must be capable of making strategic technical decisions.
P - Program:
The position is centered on developing and executing technical business programs.
M - Management:
TPMs are managers and must be able to manage from start to finish!
Now, before we continue, let's clarify what the term program is actually referring to. A 'program' is defined by BusinessDictionary as a "plan of action aimed at accomplishing a clear business objective, with details on what work is to be done, by whom, when, and what means or resources will be used."
So how does a program compare to a project?
Well, programs are much larger in scope and are actually composed of several related or interconnected projects. Whereas projects are usually more temporary and focused on a single, specific deliverable.
For example, imagine that a CTO is looking to develop and bring to market a software product. They would then formulate a program charged with the software delivery, of which a TPM would manage.
This program would be made up of several projects with similar goals at every phase of the program's lifecycle, from strategy creation to execution to delivery to completion.
TPMs handle all aspects of these programs. And, as a result, they're often tasked with working through every phase in the program's life cycle, from the very beginning idea phases all the way to the closure or post-closure monitoring phases.
But why do companies need TPMs anyway? Well, this is the digital age, after all. Today’s organizations are heavily dependent on modern technologies. As such, companies are handling more technical projects than ever before.
More often than not, modern companies need skilled technical program managers to develop and direct the various technical programs that are necessary for success in the modern economy.
Ultimately, TPM's help make complex program delivery faster by creating and driving the strategy behind it. This additionally efficient delivery can support the day to day increasing of scope for technology companies.
A Complex Role
It should come as no surprise that a technical program manager is a very complex and multifaceted position in a company. Several interdisciplinary skills are necessary for any successful TPM. These include, but are by no means limited to:
Strong Technical Aptitude
Every TPM must have a strong aptitude and understanding of the technical aspects and capabilities of their organization. Their technical knowledge will be indispensable when it comes to developing and executing their programs. It will also be invaluable to their overall ability to lead their different teams. Having solid technical skills yourself will, then, ensure you are an effective and inspiring leader to those highly technical members of your teams. This will directly translate into a better execution of your technical programs.
Planning & Strategic Thinking
Program Management positions are deeply strategic in nature, with their focus being on long-term, big picture initiatives intended to meet an organization's business goals. TPMs must be able to develop programs that can accomplish some aspect of a business's larger strategy. And, as such, an enthusiasm for high-level planning and strategic thinking is the cornerstone of being a technical program manager.
Risk Management skills are also necessary when developing various business programs. Because of a TPM's focus on an organization's long-term, strategic goals, a successful TPM must have the ability to recognize, measure, and mitigate the many risks that come with any particular approach. They must be able to make prudent decisions when it comes to how to best apply an organization's time, resources, and personnel to achieve some end.
Deep Understanding of a Business Goals
It shouldn't be a surprise that a successful TPM must have a deep understanding of the goals and objectives of their company. Otherwise, the TPM would not be in the position to develop and deploy programs that would actually result in success and create an impact. TPMs must be prepared to have an intimate understanding of their organization's particular goals, both big and small, to be most effective in their role as a technical program manager. Along similar lines, domain expertise is also a crucial piece of successful strategy definition and execution. Aspiring TPMs should always be sure to gain deep knowledge in their company's particular domain to best prepare themselves for the role.
Project & Personnel Management
All TPMs must coordinate several interrelated technical projects across the many teams that are involved. They must develop their program's roadmaps and strategies while also leading all the teams that ultimately execute them. This is where great people skills come into play, allowing TPMs to work with various teams, influence and get buy-ins in various situations, make strategic decisions, and to be able to get the team's trust. Previous experience managing people may be very helpful in this regard.
Communication is the foundation of the position, as TPMs must communicate the strategies, roadmaps, issues connected with their programs to all the principal stakeholders involved. Therefore, exceptional communication skills are essential for all program managers but are especially critical for technical program managers. TPMs are tasked with communicating complex technical ideas to both technical and non-technical members of their teams alike. In doing so, they must keep everyone on the same page. This can be a rather unique communication challenge that potential TPMs should keep in mind.
And last, but certainly not least, TPMs must have strong leadership. Generally speaking, technical programs tend to be long-term business objectives made up of several interconnected projects. Numerous employees may work extensively on a project within the TPMs program. As such, much of their day-to-day workflow is determined by the strategies and roadmaps that are defined by their TPM. These employees rely on the strong leadership skills of their TPM to successfully guide them through the successful execution of the program.
A TPM's Responsibilities
So what are some of the typical responsibilities of a technical program manager? Now, obviously, the overarching responsibility is directing all aspects of their technical programs, but what exactly does that entail?
Primarily, TPMs are responsible for the initiation of programs, from strategy creation to execution to delivery to completion while monitoring and reporting their status to the program stakeholders and all involved parties throughout the program's lifecycle. They play a critical role during various phases of the program such as analysis, development, and implementation. They also play a key support role in mitigating any problems that may arise.
TPMs also work across multiple teams to coordinate all the dependencies involved. This may entail responsibilities such as, negotiating scope, timelines, and roadmaps with the business owners, stakeholders, and the engineering teams. They may also support the product decisions necessary for the company's larger goals.
What Teams Do TPMs Work With?
Now, we've mentioned a few times that TPMs must collaborate with several teams in the course of their duties.
So what teams do they usually work with then? Primarily, TPMs work extensively with the engineering teams in their organization. It's what puts the 'technical' in technical program manager, after all.
A typical TPM works alongside the VP of Engineering, the directors of engineering, and their engineering managers to establish and execute their technical programs. Sometimes, TPMs may also work with their CTO, as all technical programs fall within their portfolios.TPMs also coordinate a program's milestones/objectives and key results with the tech leads and the principal engineers responsible for the delivery of the program.
But engineering isn't the only team that TPMs must work with. Technical programs often require the help of various product managers.Given the fact that technical programs are composed of several, interconnected projects TPMs naturally rely on many project managers to assist them throughout the execution of their programs.
Not only that, but TPMs often work alongside other TPMs and program managers, especially at larger organizations. Depending on the nature and requirements of the program, TPMs may work with various other teams, such as the marketing, legal, operations, and vendors teams.
Interview With Former Facebook TPM, Liana Gevorgyan
We had the opportunity to speak with Liana Gervorgyan. She's currently a Senior TPM at WeWork and has previously held Senior TPM positions at Facebook(Instagram) and provided consulting to MIO Partners.
She has over 15 years of experience working with Fortune 500 companies and tech startups with all-around expertise in program management, technical project lifecycle, and value-added leadership.
We asked her a few questions about her background, why TPM is important, and who is best suited for a TPM role.
Why is technical program management important for today’s companies?
As companies are growing, the need for cross-functional programs and cross-functional collaboration is growing fast too. It's bringing a lot of dependencies that engineering managers/product owners need to spend additional time on while still keeping everything aligned. So TPMs are equal partners that help balance, drive, keep control, and track cross-functional program's, streamline cross-team dependencies while making sure that the overall delivery remains smooth and efficient.
Also, there can be multiple stakeholders within complex programs where each team is responsible for certain milestones or certain parts only. TPMs help to create a big picture and to update stakeholders on the overall program health instead of each engineering team taking care of their responsible part..
In general TPMs are helping to move fast!
What types of programs does a TPM generally lead?
TPM’s are more needed for cross-functional cross-team dependent programs. Like migrations, integrations, systems decommissioning, disaster recovery, capacity planning, performance optimization, DC/AI solutions integrations, software projects delivery are all examples of technical programs a TPM could lead.
What kind of person is best suited for a technical program management position?
While the TPM title itself clears all key components of the role that are important as T-Technical, P-Program/process execution , M-Management/Leadership, I will also add strategic thinking, great communication, and people skills as a best fit for this role.
Leadership and people skills are the key points for success because of the nature of the job. TPMs have to work with many people. They need to be really good listeners and exceptional communicators. They need to be concise and to the point. That's really important.
TPM should also be a strategic thinker and should be able to evaluate and measure program impact that can help in prioritization and alignments toward the company goals. In a lot of cases it may include hard decisions, but prioritization and healthy judgement are a key to success for fast paced environments.
How did you get your start as a TPM?
I was in the Quality Assurance side of the technology in the beginning of my career, and then at some point I started to execute several programs on a bigger scale, not just within QA focus. I was partnering with our engineering teams, product managers, making efficient processes of delivery, partnering with the customer support and delivering product releases to a market.
In one of my management positions I was running three different projects within a program, and I really liked that cross-functional leadership, partnership and collaboration. So, at some point in my career I just changed my title to be more aligned with what I do and what I am passionate about. So this is a story about how I became a TPM.
What’s the most surprising aspect of a TPM job?
It's not necessarily surprising, but the value that the program is generating and the impact that it's making is very cool. Maybe you make some positive changes for your customers. Or you can save a lot of money leading the program because you can improve some infrastructure. So, TPMs can add an impact for employees, can add happiness and satisfaction on how people do things,can increase customer satisfaction, can monetize successes for the company through revenue generation, cost-saving or new streams generation and many more ways. All of which is really empowering.
What’s the best part of being a TPM?
You get the chance to work with a lot of smart people. You really need to learn fast, and you're in a continuous learning process. Being a TPM you need to move fast, collaborate, and you're striving to be the best at whatever you're doing. The level of Impact that I make and that continuous growth is what really inspires me.
And that about sums up the TPM role. If you have a knack for managing both a company's people and its technology, then technical program management may be a perfect career for you.
The role is complex, requiring a collection of both soft and hard skills in terms of leadership, management, communication, technical expertise, and strategy. A TPM may have several responsibilities in their portfolios while working alongside several teams.
If this sounds like something you'd be interested in pursuing, check out Exponent's technical program management interview course to learn all about TPM interviews and land your dream job as a technical program manager!
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