Understanding the Modern TPM

Understand the role of a modern technical project manager.

The role of a Program ManagerA "program manager" is a professional responsible for overseeing and coordinating a set of related projects, aligning them with strategic goals, and ensuring efficient resource utilization and collaboration among project teams to achieve broader organizational objectives. has been around in some form for as long as humans have organized to accomplish a goal, and the Technical Program Manager (TPM) naturally followed as a result. The TPM plays a powerful role in any technical project or program and has carved its way into the tech industry culture as a mainstay position alongside software and hardware developers, development managers, and product managers. Even with its ubiquitous role in the industry, the question of what a TPM is and how to be an effective TPM is still asked on a daily basis. This course aims to answer this question.

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Who this course is for

This course is meant for TPMs at every stage of their career, including those considering transitioning into the role. To get the most out of this course, there is an expectation that the reader will have some basic knowledge of project management.

The course will cover some basic software development topics, although very little code is used (except for illustrative purposes in the chapter "Code Development Expectations"). Most concepts are explored using figures and text, as that fits the audience of the course the best.
There are no specific technical proficiency requirements for this course. This course will guide you through the technical skills that are prerequisites for most TPMs.

Chapter overview

In this chapter, we’ll start by discussing how the TPM role became what it is today. We’ll do this by exploring the roots of the TPM, the generalized program manager role, and the skills and traits that the roles share. We’ll round this out by exploring the basic requirements that are specific to our specialization—the systems development life cycle.

With the fundamentals under our belt, we’ll explore the specific attributes that help a TPM thrive at their job. With a better understanding of the TPM role, we can widen our perspective to look at the roles adjacent to the TPM to see how we complement one another and how we can fill in the gaps that our team needs us to fill.

Lastly, we’ll look into the industry to get a grasp of how the TPM role is defined holistically by exploring job postings as well as interviews we conducted with fellow TPMs from various companies.

To summarize, we'll come to understand the TPM role in this chapter by:

  • Understanding the historical origins of the TPM

  • Learning the fundamentals of the TPM role

  • Exploring what makes a TPM thrive

  • Comparing adjacent job families

  • Exploring functional competencies across the industry

Understanding the historical origins

The 1967 book The Technical Program Manager’s Guide to Survival by Melvin Silverman defines a program as an organization created to accomplish a specific goal. This organization was a group within a company that existed for this sole purpose and that was dissolved once the goal was realized. You can see where the computer definition of a program gets its origins—a bit of organized code that executes to accomplish a task. Once the task is complete, the program terminates.

Silverman’s book was one of the first books that used the term technical program manager, though it only shows up on the title page—the rest of the book just talks about program managers. Elsewhere in the 1970s and 1980s, the term pops up in various United States government papers, listing someone as the TPM for a given project at NASA, the Department of Energy, or the Department of Defense, to name a few. However, there wasn't any TPM role or definition that was recognizable as the TPM role of today. So, since Mr. Silverman only defined program, the following definition of technical is taken from the Oxford English Dictionary:

technical (adjective).

  1. relating to a particular subject, art, or craft, or its techniques, and

  2. of, involving, or concerned with applied and industrial sciences.

What we commonly refer to as a TPM—where technical denotes a background in computer science—is actually just one of many instances in which the term technical denotes using a specialization.

As far as the technology industry is concerned, the use of the term TPM goes at least as far back as 1993, though we suspect it has been in use in the industry as long as the industry has existed given its prevalence in other industries from the 1960s onward.

Old title, new meaning

While researching the origins of the term TPM, we utilized Google’s Ngram Viewer, which indexes word usage in books and government publications by year between 1800 and 2019. Using the Ngram Viewer results as a starting point, we researched dictionary definitions, half-century-old books, and US government publications from NASA, and found that the TPM title has been around for a while. However, as we are sure many readers are thinking, it feels as though it’s a very recent addition to the workforce.

Author’s experience: I remember when I was first approached to interview at Amazon for a TPM role, I was confused about what it was. I asked, and sure enough, it was roughly what I was already doing professionally but the company I was at simply didn’t use that term. In fact, very few companies seemed to be using the title in 2013, let alone the 1990s.

The figure below shows the Google Books Ngram Viewer results for “Technical Program Manager” from 1955 through 2019 in the English (2019) dataset with smoothing set to 3.

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Visual representation of the Google Ngram Viewer results
Visual representation of the Google Ngram Viewer results

The figure shows that there is a very large uptick to the highest vertex for the term TPM in the year 1995—the early days of the World Wide Web and the mad dash of startups rushing towards the year 2000. With these technology companies sprouting up, the need for specialized program management arose—people with a background in and knowledge of the systems being developed so they could be better facilitators and drivers of these new programs and websites. As is the case in the technology industry, trends that start within the few companies at the top slowly make their way down through the rest of the industry until they become common. In some cases, this trend is still working its way down in the industry because some companies are still not fully aware of the position and its benefits. We believe this explains the lag in the term being seen in publications and being more commonly used in the industry.

Now, here we are today with a title used to denote a specialized form of program management being wholly taken over by the tech industry to mean a program manager with a background in computer science or engineering—thus, an old title and a new meaning.