Technology Project Managers Don't Need to be Technical

Ned Johnson, SVP, Director, Project Management, Team Detroit
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Ned Johnson, SVP, Director, Project Management, Team Detroit

In project management and business circles, there is a fierce debate that never seems to go away. The question is, do you need technical know how to successfully manage technology projects? Or are great project management and leadership skills enough to drive project success?

It is common for leaders in the technical project management arena to argue that when a project manager (PM) has experience as a programmer, systems analyst or other IT SME, they more quickly gain the respect of their team and can even jump in to help with a few tasks themselves in a pinch. Those are logical ideas, but those ideas are short sighted.

As the Director of a large project management team focusing primarily on technology projects, I make hiring decisions and determinations on which project manager to assign to which project all the time. In the past, I approached these decisions through a series of questions on the project manager’s fit: First, do they  have experience with the platform or technology specific to the project so they will be taken seriously by the team? Second, do they have a proven ability to manage scope, identify risks and apply other PM fundamentals? Finally, do they have the ability to manage and lead the diverse set of stakeholders they are sure to encounter on technology projects? Although I considered all three skills critical, I was overemphasizing technical skills. If the person didn’t have exposure to the technology the project focused on, I would often pass on them.

Then things changed rather quickly. The types of projects we were being asked to manage became much more varied. From cloud-based implementations, to mobile app development, to analytics tool implementations – all of these in addition to “oldfashion” web development projects – the landscape was changing at a faster pace than ever. Then it picked up a few more notches. Faced with more diverse project types than we were equipped to handle, I realized that putting too much weight on a project manager’s technical knowledge left me looking for that rare, one in a hundred individual with specific technical experience who could also truly lead a team. I was always looking for the project management unicorn. This was not a sustainable path.

Simply put, I used to believe a certain level of technical experience was required for a project manager to effectively lead a technology project. I no longer believe that is true. While strong PM fundamentals such as an ability to write and manage to a quality project scope are a requirement, it’s the people who have clear leadership skills that we need to put in charge of our technical projects and not get hung up on that person’s technical background.

For those of you who still abide by the idea that project managers must be highly technical, I am sure you are looking for the nearest comment box to post your dissenting viewpoint. Before you do that, let me share the moment I truly realized technology teams don’t respect a good PM because of their technical ability - they respect a good PM because of their leadership skills.

"I used to believe a certain level of technical experience was required for a project manager to effectively lead a technology project"

A few years ago, I happened to be sitting in on a team meeting for an important project. This was immediately after a customer had shared an opinion that, let’s just say, was hard to stomach. The wind was immediately taken from the team’s sails and the room almost instantly splintered into multiple, negative conversations. That is when it happened: The project manager stood up, clapped her hands loudly, walked to the front of the room, and said, “People, one at a time. Share your opinion on how we should address this.” The individual experts each had their turn to provide perspective and within 30 minutes, a solid plan was developed for the customer. More importantly, it was a plan that was supported by the whole team. That project manager didn’t weigh in on the technical path to follow. Rather, she provided the team with focus and guidance which drove the project forward. That is when it finally hit me that it didn’t matter much, if at all, that a PM has technical expertise. The team wasn’t looking for subject-matter know-how, they were looking for team leadership, discipline, organization and effective communication.

Great project managers break down barriers for their team. They have the teams back when scope is creeping or project resourcing isn’t balancing. They are the trusted advocate of the team. Those are consistently the types of project managers I see succeeding.

What types of project managers consistently excel in your own organization? When you encounter a great PM, assess the feedback you give or receive about that project manager. Is the feedback about the project manager’s abilities to act as a backup QA resource or is the feedback about their leadership and organizational skills? Is the feedback about their motivating attitude or are those comments about their technical prowess? It’s the leadership skills that teams value more than anything.

If you’re still not convinced why it’s important to broaden our viewpoint on who the right types of project managers are for our technology projects, consider this: According to the Project Management Institute, “Between 2010 and 2020, 15.7 million new project management roles will be created globally.” With the growing demand for project managers, let’s be honest with ourselves. Project managers with both real technical prowess and strong project management leadership fundamentals will become increasingly difficult to find. Organizations should be looking for and hiring people who know how to lead teams, regardless of that person’s technical background. After all, our project teams are looking for disciplined and organized leaders, not technical smarts.

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