A New Kind of Program Manager

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A new role emerges at organizations where technology is at the core of products.

As more organizations seek to build the latest and greatest tech advances, many of them are seeking a new type of program manager: a technical program manager (TPM). Though this is a relatively recent role in the tech industry, TPMs have gained significant prominence over the last five years.

The role is not a program manager in the traditional sense. It replaces the typical project or program manager job with another, it’s a marriage of two distinct responsibilities, software architect and program manager. The reason for the evolution and growth of this role is simple: Project and program managers are more effective when they thoroughly understand and can communicate effectively about the underlying technology they are responsible for building.

The TPM’s core responsibility is to lead the buildout of complex software products. Large tech companies now have disparate teams that need to enable each other so they can effectively deliver on their common goals. This means that the people leading these project teams must understand the underlying software they are building, and they must also be able to interact effectively with the many other teams across the organization. Technical know-how and expert communication skills are both necessary to articulate the inner workings and finer points of the software being developed.


TPM in Action

Take, for example, a tech company developing a ride-sharing app. The company likely would have more than 30 teams focusing only on the various end-user use cases. Each team would be responsible for building various pieces of the app, including user account creation, setting up payment methods, uploading profile pictures, getting riders’ location info, estimating the fares, sending push notifications to drivers, facilitating communication between users and drivers, and calculating and settling the payment for the rides. As you can see, even a cursory look at the use cases brings multiple teams into the picture.

This is where a TPM becomes so important. Every team building a technology product is working on multiple projects, and the team’s TPM aims to drive his or her pieces of the puzzle to excellence. But the TPMs also are constantly working to understand and bring to life the vision of the product manager, who is engaging with cross-functional teams to manage both upstream and downstream dependencies. Because they are negotiating to unblock and help speed up the team’s delivery, TPMs are like a CEO or COO of the software development program. They are ready to do whatever it takes to enable the team.

In addition, the dawn of microservices—in which applications are built as a suite of modular services, each supporting a specific business goal—has added to the overhead of communication. For example, a mobile application that has several features, each having its own microservice for users to sign in, search and process payments, raises the need for skilled communicators.

If you are building a product or service with technology as its backbone, you are likely going to have many dependencies across teams, which means someone needs to be responsible for all the back and forth—the TPM.

As a principal TPM at Oracle, I work across several teams to drive programs that span multiple business units. Since Oracle is a technology company at its core, it is essential that the people managing its programs have a solid base of project management skills as well as sharp technical acumen to effectively communicate and resolve issues.

While the new role is mostly found at tech organizations, I believe that will change because traditional organizations tend to follow the trends that start at tech leaders. As tech becomes the core of a growing number of products and services—at both tech companies and nontech companies—demand for TPMs will rise. Eventually, I expect it will be a cornerstone role in tech and non-tech organizations alike.

Mario Gerard, PMP, is a principal technical program manager at Oracle, Seattle, Washington, USA.


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