Roadmap to TPM jobs: how to become a technical product manager

Apr 06, 2021 - 8 min read
Ryan Thelin
editor-page-cover

Becoming a Technical Program Manager (TPM) is a dream for many developers. TPMs are leaders who handle all technical projects for an organization. They are tasked with initiating programs and providing support for those who see it to completion.

A TPM differs slightly from a product manager (PM) in that TPMs work more closely with the development team. This is a great role for those interested in software who want to lead, manage, or use their creative skills. Today, we will introduce you to the role of TPM and show you how to get started.

This guide at a glance:


Learn how to pass the TPM interview

Written by a FAANG TPM, this course walks you through the most common interview questions asked in a TPM interview and learn how to thrive in this role.

Hacking the TPM Interview


What is a Technical Program Manager?

The Technical Program Manager works closely with engineering and other stakeholders to drive large, and complex technical programs. TPMs are essentially a figurehead that manages and represents a specific product team within the company.

They communicate up the chain of command with administrators and other product managers to ensure they’re informed and that any applicable information gets to their team.

TPMs are also responsible for making the final call on problem resolution for their given product. Often, this involves analyzing previous usage data and developer proposals to choose the best fix for a given problem. It’s also their job to ensure that the development team has the resources they need.

Summary: Overall, Technical Program Managers are an advocate for their team and make sure they have the structure, resources, and information they need to perform at their best.

As a Technical Program Manager, you’ll be expected to:

  • Create project plans that document the scope, business justification, resources, and timeline for the project or program.
  • Track the progress of current projects and allocate additional resources to areas that have fallen behind.
  • Communicate the progress, direction, and any blockers with appropriate stakeholders through frequent meetings. Some common stakeholders are your product team, company administrators and other project managers.
  • Create visual representations of your tracking metrics such as burn-down charts or customer adoption graphs.
  • Analyze potential risks that may affect the project and create processes to alleviate those risks.
widget

How does it compare with other roles?

You may be wondering how a TPM compares to roles that have similar functions. Let’s examine two common points of confusion.

TPM vs. Developer

While Technical Program Managers often started out as developers, their role is now more about administrative leadership. They’ll often draw on their experience and education on technical topics to provide context to their decisions, but now delegate the hands-on work to their subordinate developers.

Most of your day will be spent in communicating with others either over email or one-on-one conversations and running meetings with various stakeholders.

TPM vs. PM

Some companies will have both Technical Program Managers and Product Managers, which can seem confusing. The difference is that Technical Program Managers work more closely with the development team and focus on driving productivity to meet deadlines. Product Managers set the strategy and vision for the entire project and often oversee several Technical Product Managers.

PMs don’t always have technical expertise and may be focused purely on business and management. TPMs on the other hand must have enough technical skills to allow them to understand their team’s project and make informed decisions.


Why become a Technical Program Manager?

Faced paced: Many Technical Program Managers enjoy the fast-paced environment of this role. Every day feels different because you’re constantly reassessing, adjusting priorities, and finding solutions to new problems.

Larger impact on company: You also get to have a larger impact on the company’s success overall. By leading a development team, you’ll be more inspired by their successes and can enjoy your part in their success.

Social/interpersonal aspect: Finally, it’s a much more social role than a developer or Product Manager. You’ll form close ties with your team and become a resource to improving their work life. The social aspect of the job makes TPM a great fit for workers who excel in both technical and interpersonal skills.


Learn how to become a TPM

In this course, you will work through the most common interview questions that are asked in a TPM interview. Written by a TPM who has worked at multiple FAANG companies, you will get the inside scoop on what it takes to pass this difficult interview.

Hacking the TPM Interview


Technical Program Manager salaries

Another factor to consider is higher compensation. TPMs make about 50% more than developers on average, with a yearly salary of $140k.

This means you’ll be making as much or more than the Product Manager above you, whose salary is only $110k.

Smaller tech companies or startups often don’t need TPMs, so the top companies hiring TPMs tend to be large tech companies that want to stay agile. Most of the biggest employers of TPMs are FAANG companies:

  • Facebook: Average salary of $168k, starting salary of $108k.
  • Amazon: Average salary of $118k, starting salary of $113k.
  • Apple: Average salary of $146k, starting salary of $111k
  • Netflix: Average salary of $153k, starting salary of $193k
  • Google: Average salary of $156k, starting salary of $110k.
  • Microsoft: Average salary of $143k, starting salary of $73k.

Microsoft has a higher max salary at around $230k.


How to become a TPM

A common track for TPMs is to start out as developers, seek promotion to Senior Developers, and then move to an administrative position. You can take steps to reach your management goals as early as a junior developer. Here are some general steps to keep in mind if you’re hoping to transition to a TPM role.


1. Gather the prerequisites

Most TPM jobs share similar prerequisites. Look out for opportunities to join teams that will help you amass these experiences. Here’s some of the most common skills you’ll see on TPM job listings:

  • Bachelor’s Degree (or equivalent bootcamp) in CS
  • 3 to 5 years of experience as a software developer (system design preferred)
  • 1 to 2 years of experience in the field of the specific product
  • 1 to 2 years of experience delivering consumer facing tech products
  • 1 to 2 years of experience in IT Operations or other risk assessment position
  • Strong communication skills
  • Attention to organization and scheduling
  • Extensive leadership experience

Cloud engineering experience is a “highly preferred” skill to have for TPMs as more companies adopt cloud technologies.


2. Seek opportunities to lead

Look for opportunities to take on responsibilities as a developer. That could be taking the lead on solving a particular problem or as proposing new feature ideas to your manager.

You should also take any opportunities you can to lead a group of people. After all, successful leading is the most direct way to signal your potential as a leader.

Even if these actions are small, they’ll demonstrate your willingness to take on new challenges and problem solve. Over time your managers will start to notice your drive and may offer you a more administrative role.


3. Stand out for your organization and communication skills

Like the previous suggestion, you’ll also want to build your reputation as a well organized and disciplined worker. Some easy ways to do that are to:

  • Show up to your meetings on time and ask questions
  • Take notes during meetings.
  • Bring up previous conversations to show that you were listening
  • Mediate conflicts between co-workers/teammates
  • Prioritize brevity and provide actionable takeaways in your meetings and emails

4. Build your LinkedIn presence

Companies don’t want to hire TPMs that haven’t already been thinking about problem solving, leadership, and operations. Even if you don’t have a leadership role now, post about leadership articles you’re reading, write a paragraph about what you think on popular concepts like Agile Development, or link to certifications of online courses you’ve taken.

These demonstrate to employers that you’re interested in a more administrative role and that you’re already taking the steps to get there.

widget

Types of TPM interview questions

TPM interviews are tricky, and the questions can be very open-ended. If you land an interview, you can expect a wide range of questions, some more technical than others. According to a TPM we spoke to, generally, you can expect questions that fall into these categories:

  • Behavioral: How would you handle a conflict between team members?
  • Program Management: Given a development roadmap, how would you identify and address risk?
  • System Design: Given a malfunctioning system, how would you design a plan to find and fix the problem quickly?
  • Process Design: You need to introduce a new process for your team, but you know it will be unpopular. How would you go about rolling out this process?
  • Metrics: Define the metrics to measure your team’s performance and how you’d gauge success.

To get some practical examples of TPM interview questions, check out Educative’s course Hacking the TPM Interview. In this course, you will work through the most common interview questions that are asked in a technical program manager interview.

Written by a TPM who has worked at multiple FAANG companies, you will get the inside scoop on what it takes to pass this interview and thrive as a TPM.

Happy learning!


Continue reading about leadership


WRITTEN BYRyan Thelin

Join a community of 270,000 monthly readers. A free, bi-monthly email with a roundup of Educative's top articles and coding tips.