In a 2018 ProductTank Toronto talk, Anthony Ilukwe, then Director of Product at PathFactory, shared with us his views and experiences about the role of a Technical Product Manager (TPM). He highlighted some of the misconceptions and misunderstandings he sees in the community and deconstructs what he sees as the key factors and skills that differentiate a technical product manager. Here we take a look at the key points from his talk.
What is a Technical Product Manager?
A Technical Product Manager, despite what the name might suggest, is fundamentally not much different from a typical product manager. The requirements of the role are largely the same in terms of day-to-day activities. However, a Technical Product Manager is simply a technical Product Manager – someone with a technical background, who works with a technical product, or has a product with a technical end-user. Crucially, a technical product manager is not simply a rebranded engineering manager, a hybrid product-manager-and-engineer, or some kind of unicorn. The key differentiator is simply the background they come from, or the market they serve, and the domain expertise that follows.
Where a Technical Product Manager is Needed
A technical product manager is absolutely necessary for a few specific scenarios:
- When dealing with highly technical products like APIs or cloud services.
- If the end-user is technical, such as a developer or data analyst,
- Depending on the size of the organisation and its structure – sometimes there are gaps based on organisational maturity and resource availability, and a technical product manager is the perfect person to step into that space.
While any product manager can become a technical product manager, some of the skills that the role might require include experience with technical products, SQL (or some other querying language), and knowledge of the product or end user’s technology stack. A technical product manager can be a great partner for the development team, pushing innovation and deeply meaningful customer conversations, and will be able to handle technical challenges and constraints alongside the team.
What Differentiates a Technical Product Manager
Anthony touched on what a Technical Product Manager is in qualitative terms, but he also got down into some detail about what differentiates a technical product manager from a typical product manager in terms of their background and activities. A technical product manager is likely to come from a computing or quantitative field, and have experience working in IT, software development, or engineering. Given their perspective and rapport with development teams and software requirements, they tend to fit into an organisation’s strategic or tactical product management roles.
However, this doesn’t mean that a technical product manager can avoid the typical product manager tasks of talking to customers or executing a product launch strategy – they are still, fundamentally, product managers.
Anthony’s key takeaway is that, despite the mystery surrounding the role, any product person can be a technical product manager as long as they have a strong grasp of, or can develop, the required technical skills to understand their tech stack or their technical customers on a deep level.