Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
June 09, 2022 · 8 min read

What is a technical project manager? (And why you should think about becoming one)

How (and why) to become a technical project manager

As products become more complex, technical project managers have quickly become the holy grail for growing businesses. Technical project managers (TPM) bridge the gap between understanding what’s technically possible in a project and managing the resources, timelines, and expectations to get it done.

This hybrid of business and engineering skills is a superpower. And technical project managers are quickly becoming one of the most sought-after roles.

According to the Project Management Institute’s Pulse of the Profession survey, 81% of top-performing companies prioritize the development of technical project management skills. And the PMs who become more technical are getting rewarded for it. The average salary for a technical project manager is 50–60% higher than a junior project manager.

Higher salary and a bigger seat at the table. Being a technical project manager sounds great. But what if you’ve never written a line of code in your life?

The good news is, there are no lifetime bans from joining the club of technical project managers. Instead, anyone can make the shift with a bit of research and an action plan.

Whether you’re a PM looking to get more technical and climb the career ladder or a growing company in need of a technical project manager but unsure what to look for, this guide is for you.

What is a technical project manager?

A technical project manager is a specialized role that combines leadership, organization, and communication skills with specific technical expertise to lead development projects.

Technical project managers have a unique insight into how products get built that allows them to collaborate better with development teams, identify technical risks or inefficiencies, and make smarter decisions about how new features will work (or not) within your product roadmap.

While most technical project managers aren’t expected to code (and most haven’t done serious development work in years), they have the background to make technical decisions, understand tradeoffs, and spot risks that a typical project manager might miss.

This hybrid of business and technical expertise makes being a technical project manager such an exciting and in-demand role!

What unique skills should a TPM have?

A technical project manager needs to be proficient in standard project management skills like time management, leadership, communication, decision-making, and planning. However, their position as a technical leader means they also need to understand common coding languages, app architecture, and QA processes.

But it’s not enough to simply know these different skill sets. Technical project managers straddle the line between business and engineering and need to bring the two together in several ways.

What unique skills should a TPM have?

They have deep technical knowledge

Above all else, technical project managers need a deep understanding of programming languages, systems architecture, and tech stacks. They’re often expected to help establish software engineering tools, standards, and processes like code reviews and testing strategies.

If you can’t walk the walk with your development team, they’re going to reject your suggestions.

If you want to truly understand the products you’re working on, you need to build one yourself.

They focus on communication across technical and non-technical teams

Every project manager needs to be a master communicator. However, a good TPM should be comfortable explaining the same technical problem to both developers and non-technical audiences. This skill helps with everything from running important meetings to customizing your project management tool to make it clearer for everyone.

Custom fields in issues are easy to add
Project management tools like Planio let you easily add custom fields so everyone can find what they need when they need it.

They have an eye for risks, inefficiencies, and technical debt

TPMs can see issues or risks that both sides might miss by straddling the line between business needs and technical projects. Technical project managers understand how all sides of the business are impacted by product decisions and aren’t afraid to speak up when they see something.

They’re comfortable making data-driven decisions

Being a technical project manager requires being technical. Doing program reports can often mean going into complex data warehouses to run lengthy SQL queries.

A great technical project manager is curious about new technologies yet realistic about what their current team can accomplish.

Development teams get bored doing the same work day after day. As a TPM, having an interest in new technologies, languages, or protocols can motivate and inspire your entire team. However, it’s still your job to know what can be done with your current resources. Technical project managers often have to play both sides of the good cop/bad cop scenario.

They’re flexible and adaptable

No two days are the same when you’re in the middle. An ‘average’ day for a TPM could mean running meetings with stakeholders from multiple projects, sitting down with technical teams to work through architecture issues hands-on, and trying to find slivers of time to keep project plans updated and tasks properly managed.

The key differences between a PM and a technical project manager

The role of a technical project manager is largely dependent on your team structure and company size.

To make matters even more complicated, project management jobs don’t always follow a consistent naming pattern. If you’ve looked for jobs in the past, you’ve probably seen all sorts of titles, from Agile Project Manager to Program Manager, Technical Program Manager, and more.

However, in most cases, the responsibilities of a technical project manager become an ‘everything in column A, plus…’ situation. For example, they are expected to find a business need for an upcoming project and sanity check the technical implications of working it into your current roadmap.

Here’s a short breakdown of some of the more common differences or additional responsibilities you’ll take on as a TPM:

Project Manager Technical Project Manager
Find a business need to power the product roadmap. Do a sanity check on the product roadmap and highlight any changes based on existing features, gaps, or technical limitations.
Be a conduit for information. Be a source of knowledge to help teams work through complex decisions.
Groom backlog and write user stories. Add more detailed technical requirements to user stories so devs can start work right away.
Estimate the time, effort, and resources for an entire project. Help devs come up with effort estimates and feed those back into the overall estimation.
Manage the flow of tasks during the project. Answer any dev or QA questions about stories. Provide feature demos with other PMs to get early feedback. Accept stories when completed.
Close the project and conduct a retrospective and lessons learned. Help with the technical implementation of the shipped software. Make sure other teams know what’s being released and what to do with it.

When does a company need a TPM?

Most large companies running parallel programs already have technical project managers in place (or technical program managers if they’re working across a suite of projects).

However, it’s not always clear when you need a technical project manager. The easiest test is to simply look for friction.

Whenever there’s a communication breakdown between your engineering team and business needs, or if you’re struggling to properly handle the dependencies between parallel projects, you’re probably ready for a technical project manager.

For example, the technical project manager might act as a ‘mini CTO’ at a startup. They’ll be responsible for assessing the viability of a project, defining the technical scope and requirements, and helping your client or founder select a tech stack.

How to become a technical project manager

There are multiple paths to becoming a technical project manager. While most start their careers as software engineers and then transition into project management, it’s just as common to go in the opposite direction.

How to become a technical project manager

For engineers looking to improve their project management skills, we’ve put together this in-depth guide on managing projects.

However, if you’re already a project manager, you’ll need to upgrade your technical knowledge to make sure you can talk the talk with your development team.

This doesn’t mean you need to invest years in learning the ins and outs of product development. Instead, former Airbnb product manager Lenny Rachitsky suggests taking a three-step approach to becoming more technical.

First, learn the basics

Technical teams love to talk in code (pun intended!)

If you don’t at least understand some basic concepts, terms, and technologies, it will be hard to keep up. Invest a few hours to go through some beginner-level content.

Here are a few short videos Lenny suggests to get started:

If you prefer posts over videos, the Technically blog explains technical topics for non-software engineers.

Learning the basics of software development also means getting comfortable with the tools your engineering team uses.

Technical teams love to talk in code.

For example, in Planio, technical teams use integrated Git and SVN repositories for easy access and permissions to review and commit code.

This also means you can keep your code commits, task management, time tracking, and knowledge management tightly connected.

Integrated Git and SVN repositories in Planio

Developers can reference any issue in a commit to display the two side-by-side in Planio’s repo and issue views. Mention hours spent in a commit message to automatically track time. Or even reference commits, files or lines of code from the wiki to annotate and document important parts of your code.

Next, ask your team questions

With a good foundation, you can now use the best resources at your disposal: your development team!

It’s so much easier to understand concepts when you can ask questions in real-time to a working professional. Ask around and find a senior engineer who will sit down with you for a few 1 - 2 hours sessions to go over what you’ve learned and how it applies to your product and company.

Here are a few starter questions you can use:

  1. How would we go about adding feature X? What would need to happen from start to finish?
  2. Can you draw me a rough diagram of how our system operates?
  3. What issues slow down your work the most?
  4. Where would you suggest I continue my learning?
  5. Can you show me what it takes to update the copy or images in our product?

This is also a great opportunity to use your own skills. If you’re used to doing user interviews, think about structuring these scenarios in the same way.

If you need some leverage, make it a two-way street. Provide some key business insights or offer to teach them more about what you do. Everyone’s looking for a way to move up at work, and this can be a great way to do it together.

Finally, build something for yourself

If you want to truly understand the products you’re working on, you need to build one yourself.

While there are plenty of no-code options that you can start with, the most benefit comes from actually learning to code.

Here’s why.

Learning to code helps you communicate properly with your development team. The more you know about the systems that power your product, the better you’ll be at your job. It also helps you assign bug fixes and issues to the right people (making your project and task management more efficient!)

Eventually, you might even be able to jump in and make minor changes to unblock your team (while setting aside time for a proper code review).

Learning to code and build products takes more than we can cover in a blog post. Instead, check out one of these free resources:

  1. Codeacademy
  2. freeCodeCamp
  3. CS50: Introduction to Computer Science (from Harvard)

This is a pretty fool-proof plan for learning any new skill. However, self-education isn’t for everyone.

If you’d prefer a more guided approach to learning technical concepts, plenty of courses are out there. To start, check out Project Manager HQ’s Technical PM certification course.

Bonus: Use the Feynman technique to test your own knowledge

Learning new skills can be overwhelming - especially coding, which is full of jargon and technical language. However, the issue with jargon isn’t only that it buries the meaning of what you’re learning, but that it can also make you feel like you know more than you do.

There’s a quote from American philosopher Mortimer Adler that says:

“The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.”

As you learn technical topics, it’s important to test your own understanding. And one of the best ways to do that is with the Feynman Technique.

Named after Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, the technique involves four steps:

  1. Choose a concept you want to learn about and write down everything you know about it.
  2. Explain the concept to a 12-year-old. In other words, remove any words or jargon a child wouldn’t understand. This will help you identify the gaps in your understanding or where you’re only vaguely sure what something means.
  3. Reflect, refine, and simplify. Return to your notes and see where you’re still confused. Go back to your source material and review the parts you still don’t quite understand.
  4. Explain the topic to someone in the real world. Once you’re confident in your understanding, test it in the workplace. Talk to another project manager about a technical subject. Where do they get confused? What questions do they ask?

You can use this technique for everything from how websites work to the architecture of a SaaS app. The easier it is for you to explain how it works, the better you’ll be at running projects with your team.

Don’t get left behind as your product becomes more technical

Technical project managers offer a different value proposition to their companies. Instead of sitting alongside your development team and helping to guide them, you’re right in the trenches.

Because here’s the thing: the tech world isn’t getting simpler. If you want to keep up with the pace of innovation and your company’s growth, you need to become more technical.

Plus, it’s fun! Learn the basics, connect with your development team, and build something for yourself. Not only will you become a better project manager, but you might even find a side project you love or an entirely new career path.