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Differences between Technical Program Manager (TPM) vs Product Manager (PM)

In companies that specialize in building high-tech products and services, the roles of Product Manager and Technical Program Manager often coexist. There are many overlapping skills and responsibilities between these two roles, which can cause confusion and conflict. I have worked with different types of PMs and there isn’t a magic line that can be drawn to distinguish these two roles as they frequently intersect and complement each other. 

Technical Program Manager vs Product Manager

What does a Product Manager do?

On a given program, Product Managers define the "What" and the "Why"

What does a Technical Program Manager do?

On a given program, Technical Program Managers define the "when" and, to some extent, the "how." 

However, that wasn’t enough because there is more to creating a collaborative working relationship than a RACI chart. If both the Product and Program Manager want to do the same things, creating a detailed breakdown may not help. 

That’s why I prefer the following articulation: 

“PMs lean more towards vision and strategy, 

while TPMs lean more towards execution and delivery.”

For programs where both TPMs and PMs are involved, this articulation is an attempt to help the teams and people in these roles understand their uniqueness and similarities. 

The emphasis on the word "lean" implies that each role has a core value proposition, but can also encompass aspects of the other. PMs should have knowledge of execution and possess some technical domain expertise, while TPMs should understand the vision and strategy and possess effective prioritization skills. You can view it as a sliding scale or a see-saw. You may lean into one area more, depending on the program requirements and the team composition. 

In complex programs, the partnership between TPMs and PMs can be especially valuable. While PMs are forward-looking, envisioning ways to bring their vision to life while considering what lies ahead, TPMs are laser-focused on present execution and ensuring that tasks are completed. This complementary dynamic allows for a balanced approach, addressing both the strategic and tactical aspects of program management.

4 ways that PMs and TPMs can collaborate and complement each other

Shared vision

PMs and TPMs align on the overall product vision and strategic objectives, ensuring that the program execution supports the product strategy.

Requirements and execution

PMs provide detailed product requirements and priorities, while TPMs bring their technical expertise to drive the execution and delivery of those requirements.

Cross-functional collaboration

PMs and TPMs work together to facilitate seamless collaboration across teams, ensuring that the product vision is effectively translated into actionable plans and successful execution.

Feedback loop

PMs gather user feedback, market insights, and data on product performance, providing valuable input to TPMs for refining and improving program execution strategies.

In my experience, to establish a fruitful partnership with your TPM or PM, it is crucial to engage in open conversations and clearly outline your respective roles and responsibilities, taking into account your individual strengths. By openly discussing expectations, aligning on objectives, and leveraging each other's expertise, you can foster a collaborative environment that maximizes the potential of both roles. 

TPM Vs. PM roles: Which Role Is Right for Me?

Many folks often move between the TPM and PM role until they figure out which one is for them. If you are thinking about which of these two roles is right for you, then it is important to understand that PMs and TPMs possess distinct characteristics, responsibilities, and skill sets that contribute to their effectiveness in driving successful outcomes.

PMs often immerse themselves deeply in the product or area they are working on. They identify significant opportunities, conduct research and analysis, define priorities, and craft detailed requirements. On the other hand, TPMs can have a narrower or broader focus depending on the domain area. Regardless of the specific focus, both roles demand strong communication and leadership skills to effectively collaborate with stakeholders (other teams, business groups, etc.) and drive successful outcomes. While they have unique focuses, they can collaborate and complement each other in various ways to achieve shared goals.

If your current job/situation allows, I encourage you to experiment with both roles in order to land on something that compliments your strengths. Remember that you may be going back and forth between the nuances of these roles within the same program. Some programs or teams may not need both roles and in that case, you will wear both hats. The key is to be flexible.

Also Read Top 5 technical program manager course for interview


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the primary difference between a Technical Program Manager (TPM) and a Product Manager (PM)?

The primary difference lies in their focus areas within a project. Product Managers (PMs) are primarily concerned with defining the vision and strategy of a product, focusing on the "what" and "why" aspects—what the product should do and why it is needed. In contrast, Technical Program Managers (TPMs) concentrate on the "how" and "when" elements—how the project will be executed and when deliverables need to be completed. This emphasizes TPMs' roles in managing the operational and technical details of project execution.

 Are there any overlapping responsibilities between TPMs and PMs?

What specific skills does a TPM need that may differ from those of a PM?

How does the decision-making process vary between TPMs and PMs?

Can someone transition from a TPM role to a PM role, or vice versa?

What background or experience is typically preferred for TPMs compared to PMs?

 In terms of project execution, how do TPMs and PMs approach their roles differently?

Are there any industries or types of projects where one role is more common than the other?

What level of technical expertise is required for a PM compared to a TPM?

How do TPMs and PMs collaborate with other teams within an organization?

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