Technical Program Managers Innovate, Lead, and Solve Complex and Interdependent Technology Problems

men talking at computer

Chris Upham | 01/06/2017 | Delivery Leadership 

Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1789 that nothing is certain except death and taxes. Another certainty today for modern enterprises is that technical complexity is always increasing.

The days when a “large IT project” effectively meant “enterprise-wide system installation” are long gone. Businesses today deploy large scale systems using services and micro services throughout their organizations. With systems being woven together in a complex tapestry, technology projects and initiatives demand incredibly precise coordination, especially to make large scale changes.

Fortunately, the Technical Program Manager (TPM) role has evolved to meet this need. TPMs combine superb technical skills with program/project/process management skills to dig into thorny, critical issues and lead teams to solve large and complex technical problems.

TPMs are particularly useful when technical requirements for a project come from many teams, divisions, and applications with multiple dependencies. As service dependencies grow more commonplace with enterprise applications, more collaboration between teams is required to get things done.

The role of TPM is standard at some companies, particularly ones where large SOA applications support the core business; indeed, some such companies have an entire team (or teams) of TPMs. However, many companies do not have this luxury.  There are also occasionally projects where internal resources cannot be spared or where specific expertise not commonly found in the company is needed. In these cases, bringing in an external TPM consultant can be a major boon.

Ideal Qualities of a TPM

The primary skill every solid TPM must have is the ability to dive deep to understand a supported technical stack and unite stakeholders and dependencies on tasks required to make changes to systems that meet business requirements and are performant and scalable. To do this well, TPMs typically have a software development background as well as a project management background.  They are leaders with experience presenting to executives and managing disparate teams and will have worked within different types of organizations and verticals. This experience allows a TPM to bring a diverse toolkit into any organization and solve very difficult problems.

A superb TPM will have characteristics in three key areas:

Technical Depth

  • Loves and understands technology
  • Can have deep technical design discussions
  • Can cover the pros and cons of using a certain architecture or technology
  • Can think creatively and innovate new technical and business solutions

Program Leadership

  • Has ample experience managing projects with technical and non-technical dependencies
  • Can influence all levels to do the right thing for the project and the client
  • Holds people accountable without authority as their manager
  • Communicates at a high level to all levels of an organization

Tools and Experience

  • Has experience leading enterprise-level projects in multiple methodologies and environments
  • Is not fazed with the complexity and problems of big technology projects
  • Is always level-headed under pressure
  • Has a large PM toolkit and the situational awareness to apply the right tool at the right time

What Types of Projects Do TPMs lead?

Every problem has a solution. The TPM’s job is to find it and implement it. The kinds of initiatives TPMs are becoming known for tackling include the following:

  • Large-scale system development
  • Complex software refactoring engagements
  • Large SOA projects with multiple dependencies
  • Significant integration between backend systems
  • Large system implementations or replacements
  • Significant technical change such as continuous integration or continuous delivery
  • Any other type of project where innovation is required to overcome a significant problem.

An example: At a multi-billion dollar global online travel package company, a TPM from AIM addressed a long-standing systemic incident-response issue involving the company’s service applications. The TPM worked across 10 teams to develop and employ a continuous improvement model that added immediate value to software projects while simultaneously making improvements to logging and alerts within existing applications.

Another example: At another large organization, an AIM TPM created a virtual inventory platform that anyone, regardless of geographical location, could pull from without triggering false fraud alerts. The solution kept the virtual inventory open while isolating real fraud instances to specific suppliers and locking those suppliers out immediately. The solution turned the organization’s warehousing system inside-out and was a first-of-its-kind solution for the industry.

Regular PMs can sometimes lead these initiatives too, but TPMs provide deeper visibility into the technical layers of a project in a way that typical project managers cannot match. While a traditional project manager is concerned about scope, schedule and budget, a TPM not only manages that, but also dives deeply into the problem with a team to determine how to engineer the way to a solution and can work with dependent teams without bring developers to meetings. To illustrate, a typical project manager will identify a risk and direct an engineering team to work on it. The team of engineers will then bring the solution back to the PM. Contrastingly, a TPM looks at the risk, digs into it with engineers to find the best solution to the problem, and then recommends a decision to leadership based on multiple choices. In this way, TPMs embody an integral part of the solution.

The ability to comfortably work in the trenches is what enables TPMs to think through sticky challenges such as understanding the sequence of software events as data moves through systems, the tradeoff decisions that organizations are often required to make when facing major change, and how to simplify and innovate to solve problems.

About AIM Consulting’s TPM Program 

AIM Consulting’s technical program management capability is part of its delivery leadership practice. With the experience and leadership to lead large technical projects, AIM TPMs helps companies solve their deepest and most challenging technical problems. With AIM Technical Program Managers, you get “doers” who understand the intricacies of technology as well as “leaders” who can manage teams, define and refine complex requirements, architect solutions, communicate at a high level to influence decisions across the organization, and, ultimately, deliver results. Ready for a solution? Tell us about your challenge.

Chris Upham

Chris Upham has over 15 years of experience managing technology teams, developing PMOs, and running complex technology projects. He excels at TPM and agile methodologies. Chris is a certified project manager with the Project Management Leadership Group (PMLG), a certified Scrum Master (CSM), and a certified AWS Technical Professional. He also has a Business Accreditation in AWS and is a public speaker.