How does a Technical Product Manager differ from a Product Manager?Dec 21, 2022
I’ve been a PM for 6 years. Due to the recent layoffs I’ve been thinking about how to make myself more valuable for employers. I don’t want to be a developer but I love working with devs and figuring out how things work so I want to start transitioning into a Technical Product Manager role. What skills do I need to become a TPM? — Asked by a Senior Product Manager at Series B startup
Dear Sr. Product Manager at Series B startup,
I definitely understand the desire to make your role more “sticky” given the current tech climate. Tech jobs are broadly seen as very safe so for the tech industry to be hit so hard is a big eye-opener for many. The silver lining is it gave that extra push you need to deepen your technical skills which opens up a whole new set of possibilities in your short and long-term career and that’s super exciting!
Understanding the PM vs. TPM role
The core difference between the product manager (PM) and a technical product manager (TPM) role is the focus of the role. At a very, very broad level, the software product build cycle can be divided into two parts: the product strategy part and the technical implementation part.
The product manager’s main focus is on the product strategy and the technical product managers focus is on technical implementation.
Therefore, in order to make the transition over from a product manager to a TPM, you need to start acquiring the skills necessary to work with engineering teams to execute the technical implementation portion of the product build cycle.
What are a TPM’s responsibilities?
Technical product managers support and work alongside engineers to build software according to the product specs without actually doing any of the building or coding (though the extent to how technically deep a TPM’s role is expected to go varies across teams and companies).
Here are a few functions you’ll be expected to perform as a TPM:
Working with engineering teams to define technical requirements and software architecture.
Once business and functional requirements are solidified, you’ll work with engineers on the technical design document to hash out the technical requirements and how the feature/product should be built, including architectural decisions.
Some examples of technical requirements include:
- API response time under 1 second
- The system will maintain availability of 99.99%
- Our codebase must have a test coverage of minimum 90%
Drive the development and delivery of technical features
As the TPM you’ll work closely with engineers to enable them to do their best work by removing roadblocks, clarifying requirements, and facilitating process.
- Process related. Being the scrum master and running backlog grooming and sprint planning every week.
- Cross-functional collaboration. Getting necessary materials from cross-functional teams on behalf of the engineering team. For example, UX mocks from designers or clarifying areas of confusion with product managers.
- Reducing workload. TPMs will often take on workload that doesn’t need to be done by a developer but is still important. For example, owning and writing documentation or responding to customer requests.
Ensure that the product meets the necessary technical standards and specifications
Bugs are often unintentionally built into software without a developer’s knowledge. As the TPM, you’ll want to ensure technical standards and specifications throughout the software development lifecycle by thoroughly testing each code release and then work with developers to correct any issues that come up.
Managing technical budgets and resources
Software services can get expensive and budgets are limited. Typically either the TPM or engineering manager will evaluate how much a service will cost and whether the budget allows for it. For example, when deciding on which cloud computing service to host your applications, as the TPM you may have to evaluate the features and benefits of each in addition to cost.
What skills do TPMs need?
Above all, technical product managers need a deep understanding of technology and is responsible for managing the technical aspects of a product.
- A strong technical background and deep understanding of technology
- Ability to effectively collaborate with engineering teams and other technical stakeholders
- Ability to translate technical requirements into business value
- Strategic thinking and problem-solving
While you don’t need to code as a technical product manager, compared to the typical product manager you do need a much deeper understanding of how software is built and broader awareness of what available technologies exist. This level of technical understanding can usually only be attained through experience building software at all points of the software development process.
Building software entails so much more than just coding. In fact, coding is the most straightforward part of the software development process. Building flexible, maintainable, and resilient software requires lots of strategy and intentional architectural decisions.
Here are just a few examples of what, besides coding, does it take to build software:
- Setting up physical and virtual infrastructure (i.e. containers)
- Installing various dependencies used for building and testing code
- Setting up code and package structure as part of configuration and framework setup
- Deployment strategies and how to rollback a release when a critical bug makes its way into the live version of an app
- Scaling software to meet traffic requests and methods for doing so
- Different types of databases and how to design database schema for best maintainability, flexibility, and security
- and much more..
As a technical product manager, you’ll need hands-on experience with all of the above along with experience working with development teams.
Becoming a technical product manager
If you are currently a product manager and want to become a technical product manager, there are several steps you can take to acquire the necessary skills and make the transition:
1– Build your technical knowledge through hands-on experience
If you don’t have a strong technical background, it’s important to start by building your technical knowledge. You want to start with some general technical training before jumping into hands-on experience through:
- Working on tutorials on different parts of the software development lifecycle. Cloud computing companies offer awesome tutorials to start. You can find a few of them through Skiplevel’s resources page.
- Building and deploying your own simple application like a to-do list app.
I also strongly recommend getting a tech mentor to help answer all your questions and give you personal guidance as you work on the above items, along with joining a technical community/group like CodeNewbie to learn from others and stay up-to-date on the latest technologies and trends.
2–Gain experience working with technical teams to develop your technical communication and leadership skills
As a product manager, you likely have experience working with cross-functional teams, including engineering teams. However, to become a technical product manager, you’ll need to have a deeper understanding of the technical aspects of a product and be able to effectively collaborate with engineering teams on technical requirements and features. Consider seeking out opportunities to work closely with technical teams and learn from experienced technical product managers.
Effective communication and leadership skills are critical for any product manager, but they are particularly important for technical product managers. You’ll need to be able to clearly communicate technical concepts and ideas to both technical and non-technical stakeholders, as well as lead and motivate cross-functional teams to deliver on technical goals and objectives. Consider taking courses or seeking out opportunities to develop your communication and leadership skills.
3–Show your interest and aptitude for technical product management
If you are currently a product manager and want to transition into a technical product manager role, it’s important to demonstrate your interest and aptitude for the role. Don’t be afraid to take on additional technical responsibilities in your current role, such as working with engineering teams on technical requirements or evaluating new technologies. You could also consider seeking out technical product management internships or side projects to gain practical experience and show your commitment to the field.
In summary, transitioning from a product manager to a technical product manager requires building your technical knowledge, gaining experience working with technical teams, developing your communication and leadership skills, demonstrating your interest and aptitude for the role, and networking and seeking out opportunities. With the right combination of skills and experience, you can successfully transition into a technical product manager role and contribute to the development and success of technical products.
Become more technical without learning to code with the Skiplevel program.
The Skiplevel program is specially designed for the non-engineering professional to give you the strong technical foundation you need to feel more confident in your technical abilities in your day-to-day role and during interviews.