What Is the Role of a Technical Project Manager?

Technical Project Managers (TPMs) are viewed differently by different people, according to Andi Blackwell, Lead Director of Project and Product Management at Works. The demand for TPMs has increased dramatically in recent times, and to meet this demand, Works has taken the initiative to connect organisations seeking specialised professionals for specific projects with highly skilled project managers in their freelance network. Blackwell heads the team leading this initiative.

According to Blackwell, there is a significant discrepancy in the technology industry regarding the definition of the term ‘Technical Project Manager.’ He further explains that several people who have worked with engineering teams or supervised technical teams from a project management perspective are identifying themselves as Technical Project Managers, even though they don’t meet the qualifications for the role.

Works’ definition is more accurate, as all project managers possess a robust understanding of traditional project management skills such as budgeting, outlining, and timeline management, as well as Agile software development methodologies including iterative deployment and continuous improvement. Furthermore, they have a vast experience of collaborating with engineers and can offer coaching and mentoring to a Scrum team when needed.

To be effective, Team Product Managers (TPMs) must possess more than just expertise in managing Agile processes and collaborating with developers; they must also have previous experience in software development. This experience is critical for TPMs as it provides them with a comprehensive understanding of the technical aspects of development, enabling them to better support teams and anticipate potential challenges that may arise.

An Invaluable Pairing

Organisations of different sizes are exhibiting an elevated interest in this distinct skill set. Blackwell notes that “Most start-ups cannot find a candidate who can handle only one responsibility”, and more extensive companies require an applicant’s resume to include “developer” or “architect” if they are looking for someone to work on an engineering project.

Even if a client does not make it evident that they are looking for a project manager with technical skills, having a background in development is a significant advantage. Being able to design and implement a software project, as well as the ability to enhance Agile processes and coding, is an invaluable asset.

On the other hand, TPMs are not anticipated to code, as many of them have not done so in years. So, why is coding experience necessary?

Blackwell insists that Technical Project Managers (TPMs) must possess the necessary technical expertise to make informed decisions, especially in relation to contemporary technology stacks, software development kits, architectures, and automated testing platforms. Without some level of practical experience in these fields, the TPM could make incorrect decisions, which could damage their credibility with the client.

Collaborating in Teams

To win clients over, it takes more than credibility alone. A Technical Project Manager (TPM) must not only establish their credibility but also demonstrate their ability to earn the trust and respect of the technical team assigned to the project. This necessitates a certain level of proficiency and expertise in order to effectively manage the project. Establishing a positive relationship with the technical team is crucial for the TPM to ensure the project’s successful completion.

At just sixteen years old, Michael Poythress began his foray into computer programming when he co-founded a property advertising company with his father. This marked the start of a thriving career as an entrepreneur, as he founded several startups and was appointed as CEO of each. In 2018, he became a Technical Project Manager (TPM) at Works, where he currently works closely alongside engineering teams. He believes that his experience in coding has been an asset in this position, enabling him to earn the trust and rapport of the programming teams he collaborates with. “If I didn’t have any coding experience, the programmers would notice”, he explains. “They wouldn’t be honest with me. But when I challenge them and speak to them as a peer, there’s respect and rapport.

Allen Takatsuka, a Technical Project Manager located in Orange County, California, asserts that the skills acquired from working with technology are more valuable than the job title itself. Takatsuka has observed that engineers do not always place weight on the “T” in Technical Project Manager, as they typically view it as nothing more than a project manager who organizes meetings and asks for spreadsheet completion.

Although understanding each other’s perspectives can pose initial difficulties, once both parties reach a mutual understanding, the conversation dynamic completely transforms. It is no longer a one-sided discussion but rather a collaborative effort between engineering and other departments. According to the speaker, this collaboration has a different tone than the initial conversation.
Mr. Takatsuka has been leading engineering teams for many years throughout his career. He believes that this experience has helped him to refine his soft skills. According to him, “It requires a different kind of empathy, where one must be able to effectively communicate in a technical language. For example, one can say, ‘I understand why you are facing these issues, given the technical problems that are taking place.”‘
Since joining Works in 2019 as a Technical Project Manager, Dan Allen, a technology consultant from Vienna, Virginia, has experienced significant career growth. He has progressed from being a generic programmer to a technical lead, architect, director, VP, CTO, and CIO, and has completed 14 client engagements since then.
Although he does not routinely read or write code, he acknowledges that he can assist developers who become stuck by listening to them describe the code’s architecture and logic.
He believes that such a situation is beneficial not only in unusual circumstances but also in everyday scenarios, as “having the knowledge that your team can come and talk to you, and you will genuinely comprehend what they are saying, is exceedingly advantageous.” He remarked, “You can provide assistance when they are considering all the intricacies of a situation, ensuring that nothing is missed. Furthermore, you can act as a sounding board and provide feedback as necessary.

The Power of Multiplying

Offering feedback and insights of this nature is crucial for creating significant bonds, but it is also crucial for providing a unique value proposition to any company. Technical Program Managers (TPMs) are an invaluable source of information, far more than just a means for conveying information. Apart from planning, organizing, and communicating, TPMs are also entrusted with assisting clients and teams in making informed decisions regarding intricate technological matters.

Mr. Takatsuka maintained that having the ability to express technical opinions is advantageous to the company, as it can result in a multiplying effect in addition to promoting collaboration and organization.

Takatsuka claims that Technical Program Managers (TPMs) have a lower burden when it comes to resolving issues. On the contrary, in a larger organization, a non-technical Program or Project Manager may need to adopt a more comprehensive approach to tackling a technical problem. This process may involve identifying the impacted individuals and groups, providing a detailed explanation of the situation, gathering pertinent facts, and then analyzing that data to make an informed decision. Nonetheless, TPMs may also use their own technical expertise to assist in this process.

Oana Ciherean, a Technical Project Manager based in Tokyo, asserts that the identification of various sources of risk can significantly improve risk management. For example, one such source could be inaccuracies in team time estimates for completing a task. If, for example, coding is estimated to take a week, but it only takes two days, this can unblock staff who were previously stuck on their assigned task. Ciherean underscores that such situations can be prevented if those in charge have previously experienced similar scenarios and can foresee potential delays.

Striking the Proper Balance

Ciherean began her career journey as a software developer but soon transitioned to a project management position as she wanted to have a more comprehensive perspective of the entire picture. However, after some time, she realized that she missed coding and that Technical Project Management offered her the ideal balance between the two. As she put it, it “allows [her] to be really hands-on in technology while also comprehending the business and customers, and what they are expecting in terms of features.”

Chris Poythress believes he has found his dream role, which is to serve as a mediator between visionaries who have an idea and technical staff who can transform it into reality. As he puts it, “I can connect the divide between those who have an idea and those who possess the technical knowledge to construct it. I’m adept at communicating in both ‘everyday language’ and ‘technical-ese.’

The Mini CTO

Technical Product Managers (TPMs) working for startups and small businesses play a unique role at the crossroads of business and technology. On such projects, TPMs are frequently the first to be employed, and are responsible for evaluating the product’s feasibility, identifying its technical scope and requirements, assisting the client – who may only have a preliminary concept – in selecting an appropriate tech stack, evaluating vendors to provide services, applying DevOps best practices, and assembling the perfect team.

Takatsuka considers these assignments as “mini CTO” positions, where the Technical Project Manager connects the technical and business domains to initiate projects. He typically poses the question “How can I lay the necessary foundation?” to clients who have limited knowledge of software development. Furthermore, he asks “What is the most efficient method for implementing Agile?”

John Poythress believes that the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and Senior Technical Project Manager (PM) jobs are frequently intertwined and hard to differentiate. He believes that there is significant “cross-pollination” between the two roles, and that someone holding a CTO position in a small organization could easily shift to a Senior Technical PM position in a larger organization and feel at ease.

Enhancing Agility

Even though most experienced project managers in software development are familiar with the principles of Agile, having a technical background can enable a more sophisticated approach to process management.

Ciherean emphasises the importance of adopting a personalised approach when implementing agile methodologies, as they must be customised to meet the particular needs of a team and project. This entails modifying, combining, and fine-tuning agile practices to fit the precise requirements of the team and project.

The speaker stresses that any process that is created should not hinder the developers’ work but rather increase their effectiveness and output. To accomplish this, it may be necessary to examine the developers’ current workflow on GitHub, such as how they commit code and generate branches. If the designed process does not suit this workflow, then either the process or the flow must be adjusted.

The knowledge of TPMs can also be utilised for specific Agile artifacts and practices, such as the product backlog and estimations of relative size.

According to Takatsuka, understanding the technical aspects of a project can enable one to estimate the complexity of items on a backlog. Without this understanding, it would be challenging to differentiate between items on the list and the amount of effort required to complete them. Takatsuka emphasises that a highly experienced Technical Product Manager (TPM) may size items independently, but it is crucial to recognise that, once the team is assigned to the task, their own velocity may also be a factor.

Mr. Poythress evaluates the technical leads and engineers for a project based on his knowledge of size estimation and is certain of his decision-making process. “I take the time to listen to their ideas, and if I believe there are complexities that I didn’t previously consider, I take that into account. Ultimately, though, if I don’t think they’re a good fit, I won’t proceed with them. We require someone who has a solid understanding of the feature and isn’t intimidated by its relative simplicity,” he clarifies.

Technical Project Managers have a crucial role in assisting clients in comprehending their non-functional requirements. For instance, queries may arise such as ‘How is high availability handled?’ and ‘How does the system cope with disaster recovery?’. As Takatsuka puts it, “Without a technical background, it is difficult to comprehend these topics. In such situations, requirements are usually discussed at the Scrum level and put on hold until the technical team can provide their expertise, creating a significant gap.

Staying Current

Professionals trained in technology management (TPMs) must stay informed about the evolving technology landscape to stay current and significant. Even though keyboard time is valuable, relying on past experiences is insufficient as technology advances at a rapid pace. TPMs must stay up-to-date in order to stay competitive.

John Poythress experienced the repercussions of not keeping up with the latest technology during the five years he ran his own business. As he acknowledges, “I became stagnant at the time, and numerous new languages emerged that I was unaware of because we were content with our technology stack.” Ultimately, this lack of technological growth prompted Poythress to join Works, where he could stay current with modern technological advancements.

He now devotes a considerable amount of his time to acquainting himself with the latest advancements in his sector by perusing documentation, viewing tutorials on YouTube, and experimenting with new ideas in a sandbox environment.

John says that he is always delving into new languages and technologies in his free time, “just to stay on top of things.” He stresses the significance of keeping up with the sector, as he has faced the repercussions of not doing so in the past. He thinks that staying current is much simpler than attempting to learn something new quickly later on.

Takatsuka advocates for staying informed and bridging knowledge gaps, highlighting the worth of resources such as Google and YouTube. They stress the significance of undertaking research, as it lays the groundwork for further learning.

He also depends on his vast network of fellow consultants for both support and acquiring knowledge. “Sometimes, when a client wants to use Google, while I am more experienced with the Amazon Web Services (AWS) platform, I can still contact my peers and ask, ‘Hey, should we think about Firebase for this scenario?’ ” he explains. “Have you ever encountered a similar problem with a client?” He then asks, “What would be the best scalability strategy?”

With over three decades of experience and various executive-level positions, Daniel Allen is unafraid to take a hands-on approach. Over the last three years, he has self-taught how to deploy on Amazon and Google Cloud platforms. Allen states, “I taught myself so that I could provide better understanding and assistance to a Works client who lacked a dedicated technology team. With no one else available, I turned to YouTube University and successfully completed the task.”
Allen started his career as a software developer in 1985 and has watched the field evolve and adapt to the changing technology landscape. Despite these changes, he enjoys taking on new challenges. Allen explains, “I really appreciate the variety that my position offers. There’s always something different, something I haven’t done before. And I’m able to learn something new with each project that I can apply in the future.”

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