Examining the Career Paths of a TPM

Discover the diverse paths to becoming a technical program manager (TPM).

In this chapter, we’ll look into the paths someone might take to become a Technical Program Manager, followed by an overview of the different career paths that are available to a TPM. Because the tech industry is large, the paths described here represent a generalized view of these career paths based on the interviews that were conducted and the job descriptions that were examined for this course.

We’ll also get a close look at two professional TPM journeys that showcase the different paths we can take, which will reinforce that no two journeys are the same, nor are they ever straight paths.

We’ll explore the available career paths by doing the following:

  • Examining the career paths of a TPM

  • Exploring the Individual Contributor (IC) path

  • Exploring the people manager path

Let’s dive right in!


The career paths of a TPM are as varied as the paths to becoming a TPM in the first place. Each person has their own story and path they follow, and the timing from step to step is just as variable. This course combined job postings, interview notes, and personal stories of TPMs at different stages of their career to get to these career path outlines. What the data only hints at, however, is where you start. How do you become a TPM?

The path to becoming a TPM

The TPM role is highly technical in most instances across the tech industry, as well as in industries needing technical expertise. A key component to a successful start as a TPM is having a strong technical foundation. This is traditionally in the form of a technical degree, such as computer science (CS), information technology (IT), or informatics, with CS being the most traditional. Regardless of the name of the degree, the knowledge you gain from the degree and your experiences is what matters both in the interview process and the job itself.

Some TPMs start out their careers in various roles such as software development engineer (SDE or SE), development operations engineer (DevOps), and business intelligence engineer (BIE). On occasion, a TPM will start their career as a TPM out of college, though this is becoming a rare occurrence because many companies are removing entry-level roles for TPMs, opting instead for people switching to TPM after obtaining real-world experience. This experience helps grow your depth of knowledge by working directly on solving real problems. Depending on how far you go down the pre-TPM path, you’ll begin to work on your breadth of knowledge with system and architecture designs and possibly strategic product planning.

Some TPMs start out via an SDM role or other people management role, which usually stems from a software development role or another IC role. In these cases, they may see a product, project, program, or situation that suits them as they switch back to an IC TPM role. In other cases, they found that they prefer honing their IC skills instead of people management skills.

The paths of a TPM

Once you're a TPM, you’ll begin to progress in your career, strengthening your core competencies and stretching both the depth and breadth of your knowledge. Each company defines its own career paths, which can vary depending on size and available opportunities. Within the tech industry, there is a general trend toward two distinct paths we can take to further our career—the IC and the people manager. Both are equally valid and have their own unique traits that may fit our style and aspirations.

The figure below explores some of the traits that are both shared and distinct between an IC and a people manager:

Get hands-on with 1200+ tech skills courses.