Discussion: Technical vs. non-technical project managers. Is it possible to manage an IT team without a technical background?

By Christian Podesta

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In some circles there is a notion that once you become a Project Manager (PM) you can lead any project regardless of the industry, that it all comes down to being able to reach deadlines, assign tasks, manage schedules and stakeholders etc. But is that really all it is?

How many examples do we have of frustrated developers complaining that their PM’s do not understand them and make all the wrong decisions; or PMs that can’t understand why some tasks cannot be estimated and get into trouble when deliverables aren’t met due to technical reasons. Do these scenarios sound familiar to you? Do you think that a Big Data project will be the same as rolling out an off the shelf CRM or similar to the installation of an ERP? What about legacy systems? Will it be the same project if we think about mainframes or a web based project? Will they face the same problems and will they be managed the same way?

Before we get into that debate, let’s go to the basics of a Project Manager.A PM’s role is 80% about maintaining good relationships, clear communication, and people management. Did I say 90%?

From experience, is always challenging to find a developer who speaks “business” and a PM who speaks code, hence the importance of a good PM who can navigate these waters, bring value to the team and meet deadlines, key for a successful project.

A gap exists between the “tech” language of developers, architects and testers and customers or business people. Tech people absolutely love, and use acronyms, explore the latest technology and get all excited when a new software version of their favorite tool hits the market or when a new trick is found and published on blogs. This excitement, is usually quite difficult to understand for a manager or a business person whose focus is revenue or, getting the latest company product to the market or, delivering a marketing campaign or simply reporting to the board. They are two different worlds that need each other desperately in order to move a project forward.

So if your team is frustrated and your stakeholders too, go back to basics:  communication. As a PM you need to be able to translate the business needs of your stakeholder to your team and likewise make the business aware of the implications (time, money, complexity, maintainability) of their requirements. Do you need to be the tech expert to do this? In my experience, highly skilled tech people do not fare well when they need to manage others. Being an expert in C# coding does not automatically make you the best suited person to manage the rest of the team. As a PM your main role is to manage the project, not get into the technical decisions.

Let me give you an example,  as a PM you are not expected to decide the best way to design the database or understand all the details that go into creating one. If you actually tried to do this, you will most probably fail miserably since they are the experts, and will only frustrate your team by overriding their decisions. On the other hand you could add much more value if you confront the team with the customer needs, force them to explore multiple options, put in plain terms the pros and cons of each one of them, guide them in brainstorming sessions, and then let them get to work accordingly. Of course if you are familiar with the topic, it will help avoid common pitfalls and help you to gain confidence, be trusted, understood, and followed by your team.

 

Let’s now look at it from a stakeholder’s and business standpoint.

Clients usually base their decisions on making profit, not on how hard or complex it is to develop the software, so it is the PM’s responsibility to highlight the hurdles or benefits of their decisions. The stakeholders or customers don’t know about the latest IT trend or the best possible way to get what they need, it is not their job, that’s why there is a PM, developers and the rest of the team. Think how valuable it is for the project and the business if you can raise your concerns quickly when a new requirement is put forward and get the customer to think of the implications as opposed to raising the issue after a lot of time has been spent on the development and the project runs into technical issues. At this point you need to be careful and always get the team on board, remember PMs are not the experts, they should know what the customer is requesting and more importantly “WHY” they are asking for it.

For a technical team the usual explanation, “because the customer wants it” is not enough. This kind of explanation will frustrate them and will automatically cancel all other possible options. If you can explain to your technical team why the client is looking for a certain feature, and what the driver behind the request is, they will surely come up with multiple ideas and options that can be presented to the customer. This will certainly enhance the relationship and start building trust between both worlds. The customer will appreciate that you keep him quickly informed and remember, nothing is worse than letting the customer take uninformed decisions.

In Summary

  • PMs’ primary job is to communicate and manage their team.

  • PMs must serve as a bridge between the technical and business side.

  • PMs must listen to their teams, let them explain in layman’s terms their issues.

  • PMs don’t need to be “techie” but if they listen to their teams and learn their day to day they have a great advantage.

  • If the PM also has a technical know how of the technologies used in his project he can go the extra mile to be of great value not only to the team but to the customer.

 

Since the idea is to start a discussion, below you will find different links and views to the problem, and as always your comments are welcome.

 

Further Reading:

Image credits:
http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/2010-04-19/
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  1. Hi, from my perspective it’s not a requirement to be “techie” to manage IT proyects or any proyect indeed.
    I would like to take words from PMI or Scrum Alliance.
    The PM or Scrum Master should be focused on the team, the customer and review the process, deliver on time and with value added. They should have the ability to manage any proyect of any industry.
    What it would happen if these guys are focused on the stored procedures, the code,etc?
    He would promote and facilitate the access to tools and good practices to avoid errores, but not focus on technical issues.
    Going further, corporations make the common mistake of promote to a managerial position to the most tech person, what happen in this case? You loose your best tech person and you put to manage people to a person that is not interest on that (please review Jack Welch, Tom Peters and Peter Drucker books).
    You would promote a tech person into a Senior tech rank and it will be okay to earn salaries like a management person, to allow and grant the grow of his technical carreer(it’s also a benefit for the company).
    Closing, the PM should trust in his team, they are the experts and dialogue with the customer to deliver the good features with value to the business.

    Thanks in advance,

  2. Have you heard about TPMs (Technical Project Manager)? Is a role which is currently growing a lot in companies like Amazon, Google o Microsoft.

    “A technical project manager straddles the line between technical savvy and organizational skill. (…) this combination makes him prone to the same kinds of psychological traps which plague developers and infrastructure technicians. It also gives them considerable and unexpected strengths a skilled manager can leverage to accelerate project completion and improve project quality.”

    http://www.techrepublic.com/blog/it-consultant/three-strengths-of-a-technical-project-manager/

    I had been struggling with my profile in a lot of projects recently since I had a strong technical background but I love project and team management and its hard to find a way to work with those two “loves” simultaneosly. Each role I’ve faced until now has forced me to forget half of my experience / knowledge.

    Until I found the TPM role, as described in the same blog:

    “On any given day a technical project manager will:

    Write a status report
    Compose a dozen communications emails
    Help his team prioritize the latest set of technical issues
    Assist his team in identifying the problem at the root of several technical issues
    Employ one or more mitigation strategies for technical risks
    Pull at least one IT professional out of a tempting rabbit-hole – also known as an unrelated technical problem

    http://www.techrepublic.com/blog/it-consultant/a-practical-statement-of-what-a-technical-project-manager-does/

    Sounds like a good and funny day to me. Thats why I’m moving in that direction just hopping that the realization fulfill the given promises.

    • Perfect. Why do we tolerate this? Why is some girl or guy who never wanted to do any Engineering or Science and could only do history or English in college allowed to come into IT, write some requirements and then become a Manager. Then what happens to the guy with Engineering degrees and has worked for 15-20 years building systems, what should his career be? Just stay a developer. Only a developer should manage developers.

  3. I am a software engineer and I can tell you from my experience that non-technical project managers can’t and don’t manage IT teams. Not being able to manage a team does not mean that you can’t manage a project. Managing a project and managing a team or more precisely managing people from a team are completely different things that require different knowledge and different skills.

    In order to manage a project you need project management knowledge which includes having business and soft skills. You don’t need to be a subject matter expert to manage a project but you do need a minimum understanding of the work that the team members are doing. As such non-technical project managers do make sense and they can even perform better in managing projects than some technical experts.

    Managing the people from a team however requires subject matter expertise as well as technical leadership skills. In order to be able to manage a team you must be able to perform the work the team members are doing. Usually the best professional from the team is also the team leader but sometimes this is not true since some brilliant technical experts may not have leadership potential. But even if the team leader is not the best professional from the team he/she still needs to be a good technical expert.

    It’s very easy to understand that non-technical people can’t manage technical teams. Just imagine a situation where a conflict arises between the team members regarding the technical solution to be used for a certain requirement. How can a non-technical project manager decide which is the best technical solution to be used if he/she is not a technical expert? This task is simply impossible to be performed by non-technical project managers and only technical leaders (managers) can take such decisions. In addition the team members expect their leader to guide and advise them in their work. Again how can a non-technical project manager give technical instructions to team members if he/she is unable to do the work of the team members?

    That being said non-technical project managers in order to be successful need technical team leaders to manage their teams since they don’t have the competence to do this.

    Prince2 defines among other things the roles of project manager and team manager. The project manager manages the project while the team manger manages the people that are doing the work. The project manager assigns work to the team manager and he/she leads the technical people to build the products. The role of the team manager is optional however in my opinion this role may only be omitted if the project manager is a subject matter expert which is able to provide technical leadership to the team.

    If the project team is cross-functional then each functional team needs a team leader and the project manager must cooperate with these technical leaders in order to coordinate the actions of the entire project team.

  4. Technical people don’t make good managers, really!! What about Jeff Bezos, Larry Elison, Bill Gates, Google founders, MS CEO e.t.c. Technical people are intelligent. Anyone can be a PM. That’s why you have history or psychology majors becoming PMs. Do you think the guy who leads investors in a stock brokerage is some loser with a history or psychology degree? Do you think the guy in charge of building an airport is some PM without knowledge of construction? If non tech people are allowed to become managers of intelligent developers what will the developers do when they get old? And your comment that “developers are excited about tools” shows your ignorance.