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By Joe Darrah

Understanding the Evolving Role of the Technical Program Manager

The role and responsibilities of the technical program manager (TPM) are often misunderstood. At the same time, TPM positions are one of the most sought-after jobs in the technology industry with companies such as Amazon, DoorDash Inc., Facebook, and Microsoft setting a high bar for candidates.

Commonly confused with job descriptions for product managers and engineering managers, the TPM’s scope is broadly defined. The role oversees complex technical programs from creation to completion. These programs vary from developing new products and platforms to performing migration services from legacy solutions and launching new features in existing apps/products used by millions of users globally. In this capacity, TPMs work collaboratively with all stakeholders involved in upstream and downstream tasks associated with product and program development.

Depending on the size of the organization, TPMs will work cross-functionally to ensure success. Also, TPMs are tasked with identifying risks to project completion and maintenance and implementing and following through with any mitigation strategies that might be required.

One industry professional who thoroughly understands the vital functions that TPMs hold and the promising future that awaits these experts is Parul Bharadwaj, senior TPM at DoorDash and a seasoned data expert who has worked with multiple tech giants in her career. “I’m excited about a continuously evolving job description for TPMs, even if there is still room for the tech industry and executives in the C-suite to better understand the nuances of the job and the types of services TPM provide within the organization,” says Bharadwaj. As more professionals become interested in TPM roles, Bharadwaj says she’s eager to advocate for more opportunities and to help prepare peers, especially women who might consider this type of employment.

The Evolving Role of the TPM

The role of the TPM has become more sophisticated as it has evolved. “TPM professionals are typically responsible for managing all aspects involved throughout the lifecycle of technical projects, which are typically defined as a set of activities or processes that contribute toward shared business outcomes,” says Bharadwaj. According to Bharadwaj, examples of projects that TPMs oversee include cost optimization, continuous delivery, incident response, and engineering velocity. From idea generation and establishing the engineering requirements to project deployment and the researching of business analytics, TPMs launch programs, manage process completion, and provide support as issues arise.

“TPMs will also often negotiate the scope of the projects and its related timelines with ancillary colleagues who are responsible for supporting the product and will play a part in the ‘non-functional’ aspects of software delivery, such as application telemetry, performance, reliability, resilience, security, and compliance,” Bharadwaj notes.

Marketplace Changes

As advanced technology leads to more comprehensive and dynamic customer demands, products and platforms are required to scale and adapt to new use cases and consumer types. With millions of daily users visiting websites and using platforms, organizations are required to hire and grow their teams across different divisions such as infrastructure, product, support, etc. This has given way to work becoming more siloed and projects requiring cross-functional team involvement. This increasing complexity, both technical and organizational, has paved the way for a growing need for TPM professionals to counterbalance these forces to maintain the velocity of product development and to continue producing high-quality, secure, and performant software for customers.

For example, consider an imaginary security program with an objective of ensuring all customer interactions are secure while using a company’s website as a standard protocol. “Partnership with engineering and data teams would be essential to define and track security metrics,” Bharadwaj explains. “Alignment with user feedback teams would be necessary to troubleshoot issues, such as how to communicate potential security risks. Similarly, marketing teams need to be roped in to create a customer outreach plan. In addition, other departments like finance and legal would need to be involved to talk through negotiations, contracts, and other behind-the-scenes nuances.”

From the perspective of the traditional organizational chart, only someone in the C-suite would have visibility into all these aspects. Instead, it has become more useful to rely on others to create, own, run, and optimize such company-wide programs holistically. That is where the need for TPMs, professionals who are empowered to work cross-functionally and to disintegrate silos to achieve best results is most evident. “You’d be hard pressed to find a Fortune 500 company today that does not employ a TPM or is not planning to hire one,” says Bharadwaj.

Examples and Qualifications of TPM Roles

Bharadwaj says, essentially, the job description of the TPM can be broken down into the core elements that define the position:

  • Technical: TPMs must be capable of making decisions of strategic value based on their expertise. A technical background is preferable.
  • Program: TPMs focus on establishing and executing technical business programs, from new product launches to software compatibility improvements.
  • Management: TPMs are managers that lead end-to-end delivery of programs/ products to meet an organization’s business goals.

A key point is that TPMs don’t generally have direct managerial power in the hierarchy over the multiple cross-functional teams with which they collaborate.

“And while on the surface this may seem like a hindrance,” Bharadwaj says, “this is actually a positive because it provides the TPM with an opportunity to influence without authority. TPMs must understand user requirements, stakeholder’s business objectives, and company goals and utilize these to get buy-in. This often enables large scale programs for success and organizations for sustainable growth.”

Additionally, TPMs add structure, not red tape. “In fact, competent TPMs are mostly disinclined to redundant red tape, and instead they excel in determining the right amount of structure or process required to increase engineering efficiency without introducing more bureaucracy.

“TPMs are most likely to report to fellow TPMs who are staffed in management positions or the head of engineering. TPMs seldom manage their own staff,” adds Bharadwaj, “but those who do choose to seek a manager’s title will likely qualify to manage engineers, engineering managers, and/or contracting workforce. While there isn’t a standard job description or profile of the ‘ideal’ TPM, common background traits include software engineering, data science, finance, product management, engineering management, consulting, and site-reliability engineering. Also, an ability to work cross-functionally, strong communication skills, and keen attention to detail are important,” Bharadwaj says. In the end, each organization’s requested skillset for the TPM will depend on company size, maturity, and composition.

Inspire others

Bharadwaj encourages young professionals early in their careers to invest in understanding the technical details of the industries, companies, or products that interest them. This will be key to establishing themselves as owners and influencers when they become a TPM. “It is very important to be technically savvy to be successful as a TPM because TPMs are required to work across different horizontals and verticals and to understand multiple initiatives that are running in their organizations that might cross paths with their projects. Also, TPMs are required to effectively work with people who are from both technical and non-technical backgrounds,” Bharadwaj says,

Mapping the career path

Determining one’s validity for a TPM position begins by gathering information from industry professionals and volunteering. “Educational opportunities, such as “boot camps” and online courses can provide a foundation to identifying roles that could support career goals,” Bharadwaj notes. Certifications such as Scrum and Project management Professional are also options for gaining the appropriate skills and hands-on experience. Those who feel confident in their qualifications should tap into their professional network for referrals and attend industry events, she suggests.

Room for growth

Despite the added value that TPMs have brought to many successful organizations, investing in these positions is generally deprioritized because TPM initiatives tend to focus more on infrastructural matters than they do hands-on product development. However, more executives are increasingly recognizing that executing the work of the TPM is critical to achieving desired corporate outcomes. “Organizational culture today is changing rapidly, and as more companies recognize the importance of benefits of making early investments in the TPM as part of organizational structure, the professionals in these roles will gain traction throughout the technology industry,” Bharadwaj says.

About the Author:

Joe Darrah is a freelance writer who specializes in a variety of topics, including the technology industry. For further information, please send email to jdarrah17@yahoo.com

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Understanding the Evolving Role of the Technical Program Manager

August 3, 2022
By Joe Darrah

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