Technical product management (TPM) is rising in prominence as a highly sought-after role in tech, with over 22,000 open technical product manager job openings in the U.S. alone. That makes the technical product manager role one of the hottest roles in the upcoming years.
With more products being built for developer and data audiences in the last few years, the TPM role enables you to fully immerse yourself in several cutting-edge areas in technology, especially around APIs and data products.
So how can you become a technical product manager and join these innovative product teams? This article guides you on understanding all the aspects you need to know about becoming a technical product manager.
- What is a technical product manager?
- Technical product manager FAQs
- Technical product manager vs product manager: What’s the difference?
- How to become a technical product manager
1. What is a technical product manager?
To understand what a technical product manager does, we must first understand how products are built and for whom these products are built.
Products, especially software products like apps or websites, are built for specific consumer-centric or enterprise-centric use cases. There is a whole set of disciplines involved in building products like these, with designers, engineers, writers, and one or multiple product managers who guide the building of such a product through the lifecycle of conception to launching the product, including future iterations.
A large part of the product manager’s role is to understand the end customer closely, build the product and get feedback from these end customers to help achieve their objectives, such as booking a cab or getting food delivered to their home.
There are products also built for specific niche audiences like developers, data analysts, and designers, which enable these technical roles to develop more products for consumers or enterprises. For example, these products could have a user interface (think Visual Studio for development or Figma for designers) or a set of APIs (think Stripe for payments).
Such products require a product team to be highly familiar with the technology and the programming environment they enable. It follows, then, that the product manager guiding them to build such a product should also be highly proficient in the technology and the outcomes that these developers and designers would like to see fulfilled through the product. As a result, these product managers are known as technical product managers or TPMs.
TPM could be considered a subset of product management. You would be expected to understand the product management craft with a liberal dose of technical expertise to build an effective tech-centric product.
So how exactly does a product manager role differ from a technical product manager role? Let’s explore the differences in detail in the next section.
2. Technical product manager FAQs
Before we get further into our examination of the role, let’s first go through and answer a few common questions you might have about the technical product manager role.
What does a technical product manager do?
A technical product manager is expected to be highly familiar with the technology and programming environment they enable. Technical product managers (or TPMs for short) guide their product teams by honing their product management craft with a liberal dose of technical expertise to build effective tech-centric products.
What’s the average technical product manager salary?
BuiltIn reports $120,149 as the average annual base salary in 2023 for technical product managers. With more products being built for developers and data audiences, the TPM role is becoming one of the hottest roles in tech, allowing you to build around cutting-edge technology areas, especially around APIs and data products.
Is technical product manager the same as product manager?
A technical product manager builds on the existing product manager skills by becoming more proficient in the technical areas of the product. They also have to understand the motivations of the technical user personas who adopt such products, like developers or data analysts.
As a result, TPMs are expected to be proficient with market and competitive trends, and understand technology feasibility and risk more deeply than a typical PM role would require.
Which technical skills should a technical product manager have?
A technical product manager is expected to pick up the following additional skills, in addition to developing their core PM skills:
- Research the market and competitive technology trends
- Understand technology feasibility and manage risks
- Align architectural decisions and perform data analysis
- Create and manage product documentation
3. Technical product manager vs. product manager: What’s the difference?
To become a technical product manager, you have to start with the baseline of a product manager skillset.
Once you’ve learned these essential PM skills first, you should be able to understand how you would be able to improve upon these skills to become an effective technical product manager. Let’s delve deeper into the baseline PM skills and then understand how we could improve on these to become a TPM.
Key product manager skills
For becoming a technical product manager, let’s start with the baseline requirements for a typical product manager role. We wrote earlier about the top skills you need to become a product manager. For your convenience, let’s reiterate them below and then delve deeper into how a technical product manager improves upon these skills.
Understanding the product design and build cycle
Understanding how developers, designers, and engineers work together to build products is an essential skill for a product manager.
Every product manager needs to understand how products are designed and built so that they can gain awareness and appreciation for the multiple roles in the product team and how they work together.
A mix of business acumen and critical thinking
Understanding the domain and the industry you are building products for is a baseline requirement for every product manager.
However, they should also not be carried away by the traditional way of working in that industry. Each product manager should also possess critical thinking skills to understand how to challenge the current approach to bring in first-principles thinking. This way, the PM could bring about innovation and help the industry improve its current approach to thinking about problems.
A love for solving complex problems
Problem-solving will be a critical part of any product manager’s toolkit. The crux of every PM role is the ability to look at complex problems, employ design thinking, and then use data and UX (user experience) to solve these problems.
Being literate in data analysis
A large part of your daily routine as a product manager would be looking at research and product usage data to analyze and derive insights from this data. If you can wrangle large datasets, and become proficient in gleaning user behavioral insights from these datasets, then you will have a very successful trajectory as a PM.
Communicating to influence and negotiate
The famous orchestra quote from Steve Jobs also lends itself to the role of a PM. Product managers have to negotiate, influence, and communicate consistently to all related stakeholders for building products so that they all march towards the same goal.
Since a product manager might not have the authority over all the product roles in a team, they have to use practical spoken and written communication skills to bring everyone to the table with clear objectives for building the right product.
How technical product managers build on these skills
An effective technical product manager does all of these skills well. But TPMs have to evolve beyond these skills to become more technically proficient on the product or platform they are building.
They also have to understand the motivations of the technical user personas who would adopt their product. For example, understanding what the developers or data analysts want to achieve using such a product would help a TPM attain its adoption objectives. As a result, they might also have to be proficient in the following activities
- Research the market and competitive trends to understand what their target technical audience is talking about, including current pain areas
- Understand technological feasibility and risk deeply from an adoption and implementation standpoint for new technologies
- Being able to align architectural decisions and analyze datasets using SQL to diagnose design and build issues
- Create and manage product documentation and content for ease of implementation and support for these technical products
Although these skills mentioned above are not a definitive list, they would help you understand the core requirements needed to upskill into a technical product manager role. So the next question is: how do you upskill to become an effective TPM?
4. How to become a technical product manager
As we learned in the sections above, an effective technical product manager does not just perform a typical PM’s role. They also have to understand the product’s technical aspects and the audience they serve well.
If you’re in a PM role, but are curious to delve deeper into becoming a TPM, the following resources should help you develop the acumen needed for this role.
Pick up core technical skills
Becoming a TPM helps if you have an academic background in a technical field like software engineering or have prior experience as a data analyst or developer. However, not having specialized knowledge or prior technical expertise shouldn’t deter you from your aspiration to become a TPM.
All you need is an innate desire to learn about the technology behind building the product. To get started in this area, you should pick up a couple of core technical skills. Start by picking up the SQL language, learning a little every week. Next, get access to your product’s code repositories and API collections, and then try to understand how they work in different scenarios. An ideal place to start is with the quality assurance (QA) team, which works on your product and tries to understand how they test the product’s functionality from a technical standpoint.
Pick up a product angle for market research
A typical day in a TPM’s role would require you to understand the upcoming technology trends your current audience is reading and exploring. It could be generative AI, cloud-native APIs, or building new tools for writing quality code.
Understand the different technology players in these niches that your developer community is subscribed to, and then take a moment to try out these products yourself. You should be able to understand the different tech components used to build them and then understand if they apply well to your product.
Understand how to manage technology risk
Along with market research, a good portion of your time as a TPM would be spent de-risking your product’s technological dependencies and challenges.
Try to understand all the tech components and their lifecycle in building your product. APIs and platform changes happen swiftly, so being ahead of these changes and planning your product development accordingly would help you account for unprecedented surprises and downtimes in your product.
Get into the product every week
You might already be using your product as a PM, but you should collaborate with your engineers and developers to get into early builds for the product.
This approach helps you understand the nuts and bolts of your product better, as well as gain an appreciation for the technical challenges your team faces every day, thus helping you collaborate better.
Join niche product communities for data or developer audiences
Depending on the niche your product serves, there are a variety of public subreddits and closed Slack communities that can help you understand the ecosystem your product works with. For example, you might build a cloud-based data querying platform for data analysts.
Joining a data-oriented community like Locally Optimistic could help you understand how other data analysts use desktop platforms for SQL. These communities can also help you learn more about their pain areas in collaborating with their teams, thus helping you build a more relevant product roadmap.
Subscribe to technology newsletters or podcasts
Last but not least, subscribe to the relevant newsletters or podcasts that your audience listens to.
For example, OpenAI’s ChatGPT is gaining immense popularity, and your product might also use generative AI. To be more knowledgeable on how the generative AI space is developing, subscribe to newsletters like Ben Tosell’s Ben’s Bites or Calin Drimbau’s AI in the Middle newsletter to understand how this space is emerging to prepare your product to ride this new wave of AI.
5. Final thoughts: Building tech-intensive products needs technical nuances
It can be challenging grappling with the typical product manager role, let alone an evolved technical product manager role.
Fortunately, there are a variety of resources and communities to help you find companionship and prevent you from getting overwhelmed by a constant deluge of knowledge.
Once you understand that you can upskill for this role and stay relevant to create cutting-edge technical products, you will enjoy being in this role better and take advantage of this much sought-after profession in tech.
If you liked the resources you heard in this article and are just beginning to dip your toes in a product role, CareerFoundry’s Intro to Product Management Course should help you get started on the right footing for your career path into product management.
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