TPM – Project Manager who is technical or technical person who manages?

I squirm when I see a job description for a “Technical Project Manager (TPM)”. My experience is that an organisation advertising for a TPM is often confused about what they are looking for. Do they mean a project manager who is technical or a technical person who provides some coordination? Often you’ll find both types in the same “project management” team.

Project Managers who are Technical

About half the TPMs I’ve met are Project Managers who are technical. I like this combination. I expect my project managers to be technically savvy. They aren’t much use to me unless they are technical (see Three Talents of Great Project Managers).

I’m not alone of course. In 2009 Jim Highsmith said:

As a software development consultant, I’ve never encountered a successful software company (although my sample size is limited) in which the team and project leaders were not technically savvy. […] Championing technical excellence requires that the project leader, and team members in general, understand what technical excellence means – in the product, the technology, and in the skills of the people doing the work.

For me the role these TPMs perform is that of a Project Manager. I don’t add “technical” to the project manager role title because it is a bit like being in the market for a new car and specifying a “Car with wheels”.

Technical Person who manages

The other half of the TPM community seem to be technical people who have some coordination responsibilities. The responsibilities of this type of TPM, in the organisation where I found them fairly prevalent, includes:

  • Technical design
  • Technical acceptance
  • Technical integration
  • Technical liaison with technical supplier

The context is always very small projects involving a supplier who produces the bulk of the deliverables.

Nothing wrong with that context or those responsibilities, I just wouldn’t call it project management. I would not hire these people to run projects for me. They don’t have the skills or experience to be a Shepard. They are not a Project Manager by any stretch of the imagination.

For me these people are technical leads or perhaps just senior engineers. Again, nothing wrong with that, but I find giving these people the TPM label misleading.

This post is part of my series on Agile Roles and Responsibilities.

References

Highsmith, J. (2009). Agile Project Management (2nd Ed.). Addison-Wesley.

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