Interviewed by Zhanat Abylkassym
Josh Teter is a co-founder of TPM Events, and organizer for the TPM Summit. He authored Technical Program Manager’s Handbook in 2022 to share his knowledge of the role with the wider community. Outside of building the TPM community through writing and events, he applies his TPM skills as a Principal TPM at Amazon where he has worked for the last 10 years. Josh lives in the greater Seattle area with his wife, two children, and two cats. You can reach him on LinkedIn.
Josh, you began your career as a software engineer at InfoLogic and HP. Could you share some highlights from your journey leading up to your current role as a Principal Technical Program Manager at Amazon?
Those first few years as a developer, I mainly worked as a lone developer, but was constantly in touch with my user base who were in the lab next to my office. This grounded my work in being customer focused from the get go. When I felt I couldn’t learn any more from that first position, I moved to HP where I found myself in a “lead developer” role — which meant no code writing and just helping junior developers. This was my first foray into the TPM role (sans the title). I moved to Amazon when I moved back home to Washington and grew through the TPM ranks helping build a team from 35 to 260 strong.
Over your 10 years at Amazon, how has your role evolved from Technical Program Manager to Principal Technical Program Manager?
I started as an L5, or industry TPM, at Amazon on a small team of 35 as the second TPM on my team. The first few years were getting used to the scale of Amazon, learning the systems that my team owned, and learning the intricacies of the TPM role. Thankfully Amazon started a TPM Con my first year and I’ve attended it every year and it has helped me tremendously as I’ve grown. The move to Senior and then Principal was just about finding the right set of impactful projects and demonstrating my ability to run a large, complex project or program with high impact. As you can imagine, this takes some time and there were many setbacks, including COVID delaying my promotion by a year, but you just keep moving forward.
Which program stands out as the most challenging one you’ve overseen as a TPM? What made it so memorable?
There was a program that I ran as an L5 TPM to help launch Amazon Chime. My org owns tax calculations for all of Amazon and its subsidiaries and we had to find a way to introduce telecommunication taxation into our then-retail-only tax engine. Though I can’t get into details on how that was solved as I still work at Amazon, the solution opened the door to a new way of approaching our problem statement and has had an ongoing impact on our scale and ability to adapt quickly to this day — almost 6 years later.
What inspired you to write ‘The Technical Program Manager’s Handbook’?
When I joined Amazon, I didn’t know what a TPM was! As I started conducting interviews at Amazon, I found that this was true for many people looking to get into the role for many years after. Even those who were in the role were constantly checking what they did to what others did in other orgs, and the internal TPM conference continued to grow showing that understanding was still lacking and the need for a community was strong. In 2022, I was contacted by Packt publishing to see if I would be interested in writing a book on TPMs and after some thought and brainstorming, I decided to tackle it and contribute to the community.
Are there key lessons from your tenure at Amazon that you’ve woven into the book?
Probably so! Given my long tenure, it’s hard to separate out Amazon-lessons from non-Amazon lessons. I did some research and interviewed TPMs from other companies to ensure the book, and my advice, wasn’t too Amazonian and would apply to a larger audience. That being said, I think driving towards clarity takes a strong queue from Amazon’s dealing with ambiguity competency. It’s a key component in differentiating junior and senior positions — as you become more senior, the problems become more ambiguous to the point where the problem is no longer given to you, you must find them yourself. So being able to drive towards clarity in every step of project and program management helps you build this skill.
Switching gears to the TPM Summit that you and the team are organizing, what excites you the most about the Summit?
That’s almost like asking me who my favorite child is! We’ve collectively worked to craft each aspect of the summit, they all have their purpose and intention to help the community. So being a little abstract, I’d say it will just be fun to be at the summit in person and network again and to meet so many people in the community that I have only known online.
Given that this is a first-of-its-kind event, how do you envision the future of the TPM Summit? Are there plans for subsequent editions?
Definitely! We have a 3–5 year business plan depending on how successful the event is. As a nonprofit, we are working on slim margins but we will at the very least do this again every year. However, we have an eye on expanding to multiple per year spread around the globe as a good next step.
Use code TPMSTORIES for a 10% discount to the upcoming TPM Summit!
TPMs — What’s your story? If you are interested in contributing or sharing your story, please reach out!