TPM Stories — Josie Gillan from Google

TPM Stories
6 min readSep 12, 2023

Interviewed by Zhanat Abylkassym

Josie has been in Program Management at Google for the past 5 years, and has worked in both the Ads SRE and Developer Productivity orgs. Prior to that Josie worked at several different companies (in program management and engineering leadership roles) including Salesforce and Atlassian. Josie grew up in New Zealand and has also lived in Australia and England, and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, two teenagers, a dog, a cat, and a leopard gecko.

Tell us about your career journey — how has your career transformed and how did you become a TPM?

I started my career many years ago when I got a job (that doesn’t exist any more!) as a Computer Operator at the University of Otago in New Zealand, in the same town where I grew up. It was a great job — I learned many skills, and that’s where I was introduced to systems administration, operating systems, and infrastructure. I was able to complete my degree part-time at the University while I worked there, and I ended up getting a job in Australia as a programmer. I spent the next few years in Australia and England doing Oracle programming.

I got the opportunity to move to the US during the dot com boom. I worked as an engineer, and I ended up moving to engineering management pretty quickly. But I’ll be honest, I got really sick of the waterfall approach to building software — it was one of the classic examples of releases taking a year-and-a-half to get out the door, and then it was just the same thing all over again. That’s when I moved (quite accidentally!) into program management. I started in program management at Oracle working on some really big initiatives, and after a while there I moved to Salesforce as a Technology Program Manager. I loved how big programs would have a tangible outcome, after which you could then move on to something new. Over the next few years, I worked as an engineering leader (see next question!) and, most recently, have been a Program Manager at Google for just over 5 years.

You have changed roles from engineering to TPM to engineering and then back to TPM. Can you tell us more about those transitions?

As I mentioned, I worked at Salesforce as a TPM, and, after a couple of years, I had the opportunity to be a ‘manager of TPMs’. I decided that I wasn’t ready to be a manager of TPMs at that time, and, wanting to be more technical, I decided to move to Quality Engineering leadership. At the time, I thought it was quite an unusual jump, but it turns out there are a lot of people who make the leap between quality engineering and program management, exercising their attention to detail and understanding of the broader picture. At my next 2 companies, I had various engineering leadership roles, and in 2018 I interviewed for an SRE leadership role at Google. I wasn’t able to crack the “non abstract large system design” section of the interview, and Google asked me to consider a Program Management role instead, with the potential opportunity to transfer to an engineering leadership role at a later date. In the first six months of that job, though, I realized what a great role a technical program manager at Google can be, and I have fully embraced being a program manager again!

What is the most memorable program that you have driven as a TPM? What made it so memorable?

Early on in my Program Management career, I was the program manager for a large initiative where we moved 5000 engineers from a Solaris platform to a Linux platform. That effort was memorable because there were so many different tools that the engineers used, and everything that worked on Solaris had to work on Linux. We also had to migrate the entire source control repository. After a ton of prep work, we had a huge migration weekend, and the engineers logged out of their Solaris servers on a Friday night and came back to work on Monday and started using Linux, (almost!) seamlessly.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a TPM? How did you overcome it?

One of the trickiest things I have found being a TPM is that many folks just don’t understand what a TPM does and how they contribute. I’ve heard engineering leaders say things like “Look I don’t know what <name> does, but I need more of them!”. And “I have <name> allocated to a project and I just don’t know what to do with her”.

The HBO Series “Silicon Valley” has a great scene that shows the value of program management. Dinesh is talking about how he has “just implemented DRM”, and Gilfoil replies “Wait you did DRM? I did DRM” — at which point Jared looks at Richard and says “Scrum?”. This is a perfect example of a team not being in alignment, and scrum is one of the many tools that program managers use to ensure alignment and transparency.

I take the time to sit with my stakeholders, and using examples from their own orgs talk through how program managers can help. And it’s great that we now have Josh’s book that can help explain Technical Program Management to stakeholders! I am looking forward to discussing how other TPMs tackle this at our upcoming summit.

What advice would you give to a someone who is considering a TPM role? Any tips on how to best prepare for TPM interviews?

Learn as much as you can about the role. Consider taking some on-line courses — I contributed to the Google/Coursera “Foundations of Project Management” course and that gives a good overview of Program Management (and includes a section of Agile). Definitely be curious, and do your homework. Look at interview questions on Glassdoor, and research where you can sign up for mock interviews.

Find out what the company places value on — for example when I was interviewing at Salesforce I knew that they were really big on Agile, and at the time Oracle was entirely waterfall and I knew that would be a ding against me. I learned everything I could about Agile and was able to speak knowledgeably about it (and got the job!) .

To combate Imposter Syndrome: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” from Eleanor Roosevelt.

What motivated you to get involved in organizing the TPM Summit?

About a year ago I was looking on Amazon to see if there were any books on ‘Technical Program Management’. Surprisingly, there wasn’t, but I did see that Josh Teter was working on a TPM book that was to be published in February. I looked him up on linkedin and saw he worked at Amazon so I knew he knew what he was talking about! I reached out to him on Linkedin to see if I could help review chapters or anything, and we started communicating. Josh, me, and a couple of other TPMs (including Zhanat) starting talking and the subject of a Technical Program Management summit came up. Zhanat, Josh and I ended up organizing a book signing in April, and the 3 of us worked so well together we decided to look seriously into the possibility of hosting a summit. Once we scoped out a venue and date (Zhanat led all of that!) there was no turning back. We have had a ton of fun working on this, and it has been super rewarding to organize a summit with Technical Program Managers!

Can you give us a sneak peek into any special sessions or keynotes that attendees should particularly look forward to at the TPM Summit?

I am super impressed at the variety of presentations and keynotes. We have sessions on program management fundamentals such as portfolio management and agile, but also have some sessions around how to reduce stress! I am really excited about the TPM Panel, the bookstore, and the Coaching Corner. I can’t wait to see what happens when this many TPMs get together!

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!

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TPM Stories

TPM Stories is a collective of experiences and journeys featuring Technical Program Managers across the industry.