What is Program Sense in Technical Program Management?

Technical Program Management
Anthony PellegrinoAnthony PellegrinoLast updated

Have you ever heard the term "program sense" before? If you're interested in the field of technical program management, then the answer is, without a doubt, yes. Yet, the topic can be a little complex or confusing for those that aren't totally familiar. As the name of the position suggests, program sense is an integral part of a technical program manager's day-to-day. So, if you're interested in a TPM career now or sometime in the future, you must become deeply familiar with and build up your own program sense. After all, program sense questions are included in every TPM interview. Let's get started!

Program Sense: An Overview

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First and foremost, program sense has everything to do with the management of 'programs' or any technical process at a company. Your 'program sense,' then is the ability to understand and improve these programs in some way. This includes things like what methodology to use,  how to improve the delivery of programs on short deadlines or with limited resources, and managing the risks that come with technical program management. Sounds simple enough, right? There are, nevertheless, several important considerations that go into program sense. These are:

  • Influence: As a TPM, a crucial aspect of the position is influencing and persuading the relevant teams and stakeholders to take the necessary actions to accomplish certain goals. TPMs should ask themselves how they can influence or pitch their ideas regarding the execution or improvement of company programs to the relevant teams and stakeholders?
  • Managing Technical Dependencies: Most TPMs will find that managing various technical dependencies are central to their role as technical program managers. They are responsible for ensuring technical processes can be completed according to their deadlines. As such, a TPMs program sense entails the ability to manage and navigate through technical dependencies and work alongside the engineering team.
  • Understanding of Product: All TPMs must work alongside their organization's product managers to develop and release the company's products. Therefore, they need to have a thorough understanding of the product. An integral part of program sense is the understanding of product vision and requirements.
  • The Ability to Simplify Complex Processes and Execution Strategies: Ultimately, the most important aspect of program sense is the delivery of a product. A TPM with great program sense is one with a strategy and the ability to simplify technical processes and expedite the delivery of amazing products.

What Goes into Successful Program Sense

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There's no denying, program sense can be a complex aspect of a TPMs job description. A lot goes into successful program development and execution. But, generally speaking, there are 12 crucial parts of the industry-leading program strategy. TPMs will use these considerations when they are successfully executing their programs. But they can also use them to effectively answer program sense questions during their TPM interview. These are:

Setting the Right Goals

The goals that are set for a particular project are absolutely vital for the ultimate success of that project. It's not at all uncommon for projects to fail simply because the goals weren't clearly defined or all the necessary stakeholders weren't on board. Ultimately, when the engineering team is operating without any clear goals are set up to fail. Without concrete objectives, it becomes hard to find meaning in their efforts, and they'll be much less effective as a result. To help set the right goals, TPMs can make use of two strategies. These are SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Trackable) and OKR goals (Objectives and Key Results). As a rule of thumb, SMART goals are best formulated for goals for individuals, whereas OKR goals are best for program or company-wide objectives.

Program Requirements

Most of the time, if a certain project has a product manager overseeing it, the requirements for the project are formulated by that product manager. A TPM is tasked with working alongside these product managers to make sure that the requirements being formulated can be executed most effectively. A TPM must make sure that the engineering teams they work alongside both clearly understand these requirements. TPMs must also ensure the engineers can have some input. If the engineers are not on the same page with the product managers regarding the importance or practicality of the technical requirements, their execution may fail.


At the end of the day, the target customer base is always front and center for most. While the specific audience is usually not defined by a TPM, but rather the marketing teams, product managers, etc, it is the TPM's responsibility to help their teams gain an understanding of this target audience. The better this understanding, the better a program can be executed. A great way for TPMs and their teams to gain a rich understanding of their customers is by collecting user feedback. This could mean A/B testing, customer demos, usability surveys, etc. Ultimately, as long as the teams collect enough feedback and really understand their customers, the product development cycle will be as smooth and efficient as possible.

The Design of the System

Now, TPMs are not the only stakeholders involved with the design of a system's architecture. Usually, the responsibility falls within the domain of technical architects, but system design fundamentals are one of the cornerstones of a TPMs portfolio. More specifically, a TPM will be responsible for the particular business requirements that need to be included within the architecture. There may be times when conflicts arise between competing system designs. It is the TPMs job to achieve consensus and resolve the conflict.

Forming a Committee of Stakeholders

Successful program execution will require collaboration between many diverse stakeholders. For a TPM, a stakeholder is any person that wields some influence over a particular project, especially when it comes to the execution of that project. Every program will undergo some changes during its execution. The direction will need to change from time to time. As such, the early formation of a stakeholder committee can better allow these changes to be communicated with every relevant party. There is no single project that doesn't adapt its course of action during execution. These committees are also good opportunities to discuss updates and make program-wide decisions among all the stakeholders.  All of which will prove vital for the successful execution of your programs.

Managing Program Execution Risks

The execution of any program will inevitably involve taking risks. Part of a TPMs program sense is knowing the best way to manage these risks. It is part of the TPM's responsibility to ensure that their teams are always aware of both the business-related and technical risks involved with the execution of a program. Otherwise, unnecessary or counter-productive risks may be taken, or proper mitigation plans or contingencies cannot be formulated. In business, things go wrong. There's no way around it. But, if a team isn't privy to the particular risks of an approach or strategy, disaster can strike in the form of no back-up plan. Part of a TPM's program sense is the ability to create these back-up plans and help guide their teams and stakeholders to reduce the likelihood of these risks occurring.

Dealing with the Variables

Taking all the different variables involved with a program into account is a significant part of a TPM's program sense. This means TPMs must answer questions such as does the program have a fixed scope/timeline? Does the program need to work within a fixed amount of resources? Are all the necessary stakeholders on the same page regarding the program's working model? Dotting your I's and crossing your T's when it comes to the program variables is essential for those inevitable curveballs or surprises that arise during program execution. Otherwise, a TPM and their stakeholders will have a more difficult time changing the pace or correcting the course when the situation demands it. This will ultimately hurt the program's execution and, by extension, the users of the product.

Staffing Decisions

The staffing decisions that a TPM makes also plays a role in their program sense. In many cases, TPMs may already work alongside certain engineering teams assigned to execute company programs. However, TPMs will usually need to make decisions regarding the allocation of program resources. In such cases, TPMs should partner with their engineering leads and managers to best allocate these resources to execute their programs most successfully. Nevertheless, staffing decisions regarding the engineering team will not be the only decisions a TPM needs to make. Technical programs also need to include support staff for things like UX/UI design, data analytics, marketing, etc.

Working Alongside Technical Teams

Most TPMs will find that their programs require working alongside other technical and engineering teams beyond their own. Program sense involves the ability to work alongside these teams, ensuring that their input is sought after and implemented, and all teams have the liberty to deliver their work as they see fit. TPMs with great program sense know they must align all the relevant teams and stakeholders so that all parties are operating under the same dates, deliverables, and OKRs.

Partnering with Cross-Functional Teams

Launching great products is rarely a one-person job. It almost always requires the efforts of countless people. This is a fact that is certainly reflected in a TPM's work. Part of their program sense involves working alongside and partnering with many cross-functional teams. This means marketing, sales, support, business development, customer success, manufacturing, operations, and legal teams, among others. Great program sense entails keeping everyone on the same page regarding product status and important development updates. This will serve to mitigate those risks that can arise during the development cycle while fostering the necessary relationships across teams that are vital for a product's ultimate success.

Managing Timelines

While all company programs and projects will have some associated timelines, TPMs must create execution timelines with clear milestones for the most efficient delivery. TPMs with supreme program sense are those able to create these effective deadlines, while also ensuring that the milestones are aligned with that of their team and all other relevant stakeholders. The secret to managing these timelines is the prioritization of the "critical path" of a program. Timelines can easily be blown up if teams delay on the work items within the program's critical path.

Communications with the Teams and Stakeholders

There's nothing quite like communication to make or break a program execution. A TPM with great program sense must always keep their teams and stakeholders in the know. This means a TPM with great program sense must have regular meetings with their engineering teams and connect with their cross-functional teams. A TPM's program sense will determine how these teams will communicate with each other, and successful TPMs must know how to make the most appropriate determinations given the particular program.

Ultimately, many aspects are encapsulated in a TPMs program sense. Program sense is broad but critical for all technical program management.

Ace the TPM Interview with Exponent

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If you've read this article, chances are that you're preparing for an upcoming TPM interview. If you're anything like us, then you'll surely want to do your due diligence to best improve your chances of success. So, consider joining our thriving community of job seekers, interview coaches, and employees at some of today's top tech companies to help you ace your upcoming interview. We've also released an interview prep course just for TPMs along with our others focused on Product Management, Software Engineering, Data Science, Product Marketing Management, and Product Design.

Here at Exponent, you'll have the opportunity to virtually sit down with a TPM from Stripe, LinkedIn, Facebook, or Amazon! All of our partnering interview coaches are industry insiders or career experts in the fields of technical program management, product management, program management, product design, software engineering, and data science. See the full list here and book a session today!

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