According to Andi Blackwell, Lead Director of Project and Product Management at Works, the role of a Technical Project Manager (TPM) can vary depending on who is asked. With the increasing demand for TPMs in recent years, Works has taken the initiative to match highly skilled project managers in their freelance network with organisations seeking top talent for specific projects. Blackwell is leading the team in charge of this endeavour.
Blackwell states that there is a significant disagreement in the technology sector regarding the definition of the term ‘Technical Project Manager’. He adds that many individuals who have been involved with engineering teams or overseen technical teams from a project management point of view are labelling themselves as Technical Project Managers, yet this is not what they are searching for.
The definition provided by Works is more precise, with all of its project managers possessing a strong expertise in traditional project management abilities such as outlining, budgeting, and timeline management, as well as in Agile software development practices like iterative deployment and ongoing improvement. Additionally, they have a long history of working in close collaboration with engineers, and can provide guidance and training to a Scrum team if necessary.
Team Product Managers (TPMs) must possess more than just the ability to manage Agile processes and collaborate with developers; they must have a background in software development. This experience is essential for TPMs as it gives them an understanding of the technical aspects of development, which allows them to more effectively support teams and anticipate potential issues that could arise.
A Valuable Combination
Organisations of all sizes are showing an increased enthusiasm for this specific set of competencies. According to Blackwell, “Most start-ups are unable to find a candidate who is only capable of performing one task”, and larger enterprises require to see “developer” or “architect” on a job applicant’s resume if they are seeking someone to work on an engineering project.
Even if a client does not explicitly state that they are seeking a project manager with technical expertise, ticking the “developer” box is a major advantage. Possessing the ability to plan and execute a software project, as well as the capacity to implement and enhance Agile processes and coding, is an invaluable asset.
TPMs, on the other hand, are not expected to code—many haven’t coded in years. So, why is programming experience required?
According to Blackwell, Technical Project Managers (TPMs) must possess the technical expertise needed to make sound decisions, particularly when it comes to modern technology stacks, software development kits, architectures, and test automation platforms. Without some degree of hands-on experience in these areas, the TPM is likely to make incorrect decisions, and their credibility with the client will suffer as a result.
Working in Groups
Securing engagements with prospective clients requires more than simply providing credibility. A Technical Project Manager (TPM) must not only establish their credibility, but must also demonstrate the ability to earn the trust and respect of the technical team assigned to the project. This requires a certain level of expertise and expertise in order to effectively manage the project. It is essential for a TPM to build a positive relationship with the technical team in order to ensure the successful completion of the project.
At the age of sixteen, Michael Poythress began his journey into computer programming, having co-founded a real estate advertising company with his father. This was the start of a successful career as an entrepreneur, founding several startups and becoming the CEO of each. In 2018, he joined the Works network as a Technical Project Manager (TPM), where he currently collaborates closely with engineering teams. He believes that his coding experience has been invaluable in this role, as it has enabled him to gain the respect and rapport of the programming teams he works with. “If I didn’t have any coding experience, the programmers would notice,” he states. “They were not going to shoot straight with me. But there’s respect and rapport when I challenge them and speak to them as a peer.
According to Allen Takatsuka, a Technical Project Manager based in Orange County, California, the experience gained from working with technology is more important than the title itself. Takatsuka has observed that the ‘T’ in Technical Project Manager does not necessarily hold any weight for engineers, as they often perceive it as simply a project manager who schedules meetings and requests that they fill out spreadsheets.
Despite the initial challenges of understanding each other’s perspectives, once a mutual understanding is achieved, the dynamic of the interaction shifts entirely. 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 an entirely different flavour from the initial conversation.
For many years throughout his career, Mr. Takatsuka has been at the helm of engineering teams. He believes that this experience has helped him to hone his soft skills. According to Mr. Takatsuka, “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.’”
Dan Allen, a technology consultant from Vienna, Virginia, has experienced a significant career progression since joining the Works network as a Technical Project Manager in 2019. He has described his career journey as “guy-in-the-cubicle programmer to technical lead to architect, director, VP, CTO, CIO” and has completed 14 client engagements since then.
He admitted that he does not read code regularly and rarely ever writes it; however, he noted that he is able to assist developers who become stuck by listening to them explain the architecture and logic behind the code they are working on.
He believes that the dynamic is beneficial not only in exceptional situations, but also in day-to-day scenarios. “Having the knowledge that your team can come to you and know that you will truly understand what they are saying is incredibly valuable,” he commented. “You can provide help when they are considering all the complexities of a situation, ensuring that nothing is overlooked. Additionally, you can serve as a sounding board and provide feedback when needed.
The Multiplier Influence
This type of feedback and insight is indispensable for building meaningful relationships, but it is also essential for providing a unique value proposition to any organisation. Technical Program Managers (TPMs) are a valuable source of knowledge, much more than just a conduit for relaying information. In addition to planning, coordinating, and communicating, TPMs are also responsible for helping clients and teams make informed decisions on complicated technological matters.
Mr. Takatsuka asserted that possessing the ability to be technically opinionated is beneficial to the organisation as it is capable of producing a multiplier effect in addition to facilitating collaboration and organisation.
According to Takatsuka, Technical Program Managers (TPMs) have less of a burden when it comes to resolving issues. In contrast, a Non-technical Program or Project Manager in a larger organisation may need to take a more comprehensive approach to confronting a technical problem. This process could involve recognising the individuals and groups affected, giving a comprehensive explanation of the situation, gathering relevant facts, and then sifting through the data to make a well-informed decision. That being said, TPMs can also draw on their own technical knowledge to help in the process.
Oana Ciherean, a Tokyo-based Technical Project Manager, asserts that risk management can be greatly improved through the identification of the various sources of danger. For example, one such source can be inaccurate team estimates in terms of time taken to complete a task. For example, if a piece of code is estimated to take a week to write, but it actually only takes two days, this can unblock personnel who may have been stuck in the assigned task due to the misestimation. Ciherean emphasises that such situations can be avoided if those in charge have been in the same situation and can anticipate the potential delays.
Finding the Right Balance
Ciherean began her professional journey as a software developer, yet she soon transitioned to a project management role as she desired to have a more comprehensive view of the whole picture. After a while, she realised that she had begun to miss coding and that Technical Project Management provided her with the perfect 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 identified his ideal role, which is to act as a mediator between visionaries who have an idea and technical personnel who can make it a reality. As he explains, “I can bridge the gap between those who have an idea and those who have the technical know-how to build it. I’m comfortable speaking both ‘normal person’ and ‘technical-ese.’
The CTO Mini
Technical Product Managers (TPMs) employed by startups and small businesses hold a special role at the intersection of business and technology. On such projects, TPMs are often the first to be hired, and have the responsibility of assessing the feasibility of the product, determining its technical scope and requirements, helping the client – who may be an individual with just an initial concept – to pick an appropriate tech stack, evaluating vendors to deliver services, applying DevOps best practices, and recruiting the ideal team.
Takatsuka regards these engagements as “mini CTO” roles, wherein the Technical Project Manager links the technical and business arenas to initiate projects. He often poses the question “How can I establish the necessary groundwork?” to clients who possess a limited understanding of software development. Additionally, he inquires “What is the most effective way to implement Agile?
According to John Poythress, Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and Senior Technical Project Manager (PM) roles are often intertwined and indistinguishable from one another. He believes that there is considerable “cross-pollination” between the two roles, and that an individual in a CTO position in a small organisation could transition easily into a Senior Technical PM role in a larger organisation and feel comfortable.
Although the principles of Agile are well known to the majority of project managers who are experienced in software development, a more sophisticated approach to process management can be achieved by someone who has a technical background.
According to Ciherean, it is essential to take an individualised approach when implementing agile methodologies, as they must be tailored to meet the unique needs of a particular team and project. This means that it is necessary to customise, combine, and adjust agile practices to suit the specific requirements of the team and project.
The speaker emphasises that any process that is designed must not impede the developers’ work, but rather should enhance their efficiency and productivity. To ensure this, it might be necessary to investigate the developers’ existing workflow on GitHub, such as how they commit code and create branches. If the designed process does not fit this workflow, then the process itself or the workflow must be adjusted accordingly.
The expertise of a TPM can also be applied to specific Agile artefacts and practices, such as the product backlog and relative size estimations.
According to Takatsuka, having an understanding of the technical side of a project can enable one to estimate the complexity of items in a backlog. Without that understanding, it would be difficult to tell the difference between items on the list and the amount of effort required to complete them. Takatsuka stresses that a highly experienced Technical Product Manager (TPM) could size items independently, but it is important to note that when the team is assigned to the task, their own velocity may come into play.
After evaluating the technical leads and engineers he is considering for a project based on his knowledge of size estimation, Mr. Poythress is confident in his decision making process. “I take the time to listen to their ideas and if I feel there are complexities that I hadn’t previously accounted for, I take that into consideration. Ultimately, however, if I don’t feel they are a good fit, I won’t move forward with them. We need somebody who has a strong grasp on the feature and isn’t intimidated by its relative simplicity,” he explains.
Technical Project Managers play an important role in helping clients understand their non-functional requirements. For example, questions may arise such as ‘How is high availability handled?’ and ‘How does the system cope with disaster recovery?’. In the words of Takatsuka, “It is difficult to gain an understanding of these topics without a technical background. In such situations, requirements are usually discussed at the Scrum level and the discussion is put on hold until the technical team can provide their expertise. This is where a large gap can form.
Keeping Up to Date
Trained professionals in the field of technology management (TPMs) must remain aware of the changing technology landscape in order to remain current and relevant. Despite the importance of their time spent at a keyboard, past experience is not enough to keep up; the rate of advancement in technology is such that it is easy to become out of touch with the latest developments. TPMs must stay informed and up-to-date in order to remain competitive.
John Poythress experienced firsthand the consequences of not keeping up with the latest technology during the five years he ran his own business. As he admits, “I definitely became stagnant. A lot of new languages emerged that I had no knowledge of because our technology stack was all that we required.” This lack of technological advancement ultimately led to Poythress joining Works, where he was able to stay up-to-date with the modern advancements in technology.
He now dedicates a significant portion of his time to becoming familiar with the latest developments in his field by reading documentation, watching tutorials on YouTube, and experimenting with new ideas in a sandbox environment.
John states that he is constantly exploring new languages and technologies in his spare time, “just to stay sharp.” He emphasises the importance of staying current with the industry, as he has experienced the consequences of not doing so in the past. He believes that staying up to date is much easier than attempting to quickly learn something new at a later time.
Takatsuka is an advocate for staying informed and closing knowledge gaps, noting the value of resources such as Google and YouTube. They emphasise the importance of completing homework, as it serves as the foundation for further learning.
He also relies on his expansive network of fellow consultants for both support and to obtain knowledge. “At times when a client wishes to use Google, while I am more experienced with Amazon Web Services (AWS) platform, I can always reach out to my peers and ask, ‘Hey, do you think we should consider Firebase for this case?'” he states. Have you ever encountered a similar issue with a client? He then further inquires, “What would be the best approach for scalability?”
Daniel Allen has more than three decades of experience and has held multiple executive-level roles, yet he isn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves and get to work. Over the past three years, he has taught himself how to deploy on Amazon and Google Cloud platforms. According to Allen, “I taught myself so that I could better understand and assist a Works client who lacked a dedicated technology team. I was the only one available, so I turned to YouTube University and completed the task.
Allen began his career as a software developer in 1985, and since then he has seen the field evolve and shift with the changing technology landscape. Despite these changes, he enjoys the challenge of tackling new opportunities. Allen explains, “I really appreciate the variety that my job 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.