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How Technical is a Technical Project Manager?

Job postings for technical project managers sometimes look like they're asking for technical leads who might happen to want to lead a project team on a long technical project engagement.  Dream on, people.  It sometimes appears as though they want what amounts to a ‘rock star’ - and I hate that term’s over usage.  I really don't think there are that many rock star application developers out there lining up to be project manages..

But let's consider this question...how technical should a technical project manager be?  I’m a firm believer that every IT project manager should come from a technical background.  As the IT project manager is assembling the project schedule, knowing something about the development tasks at hand is going to help them put together the best possible draft schedule before sitting down with the team and ironing out the details.  How credible does an IT project manager look to their assembled development team if they have to check with them on every single development task input to the project schedule before they even have the draft assembled?  Answer: not very.

Consider the skill set. When you are a small organization and you’re looking for a project manager to lead your next software implementation, system conversion, or business strategy rollout, think carefully about what skill set you want from that project manager.  Do you want a developer who can act like a project manager?  Do you want a techie who has the management skills necessary to lead a talented team on a successful implementation while still tending to the project status reporting needs that you have during the engagement?  Does such a person exist?

When I was hired to move from Iowa to Las Vegas to oversee the development staff of a billion dollar gaming and hospitality organization, I was mainly hired because I was a project management expert with the development background to wear both hats in a ‘management’ role.  Project management and leadership was important to them because they knew the development staff needed to develop, project managers needed to project manage, and someone needed to lead while instilling good PM principles throughout the development lifecycle of the projects and systems we were implementing and developing.  

There was no PMO.  No PMO director.  I guess in a way that was sort of my unofficial position there as well - that was part of my role.  They weren’t looking for a developer who wanted to code but was forced to lead.  They had that – a very talented software architect who was suffering miserably in the Corporate Application Development Manager role that I took over.  He had no clue how to manage implementations from a leadership role.  There was no way he wanted to put project schedules together.  Project status reporting, leading development team meetings, and reporting to executive management was not his cup of tea – it never was going to be.

Separate the roles. The key is we need to understand the needs of the organization while at the same time paying attention to the wants and needs of our employees or potential employees.  Does a ‘rock star’ developer really want to manage?  Probably not.  Do you want a project manager coding your system and loading legacy data into the database for a new rollout?  Probably not.  The two don’t really work.  Keep them separate.  Let the project manager oversee the project status and schedule in the project management software.  Let the developer or software architect play their role and amass their successes and further boost their ego…it will make them a better technical lead in the long run.  

Most developers don’t really want to manage.  And most IT project managers are too far removed from their development days to be anything other than a helpful side resource when catastrophe is on the horizon.  Don’t blend the two…it won’t serve your needs well.

Summary / call for input

The bottom line is this...what is your real need?  Hire accordingly.  I feel that any project manager who is leading technical projects should have a technical background.  They don't have to be – or have been – a rock star developer.  I certainly was not.  But I could code and I was a good estimator – I still am.  And that helps any technical project manager on a technical project.

What's your take on this?  How much tech knowledge does a project manager need when leading technical projects?

 

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