Discussion: Technical vs. non-technical project managers. Is it possible to manage an IT team without a technical background?
By Christian Podesta
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.
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.
- This article goes a bit more into the topic discussed here: http://www.projectsmart.co.uk/project-managers-the-value-of-understanding-technology.php
- Some views on the IT profession and being successful, do not miss item 4. http://www.cio.com/article/2375264/careers-staffing/12-characteristics-of-successful-it-professionals.html
- A very good example of the skills a PM needs to run a Big Data Project, gets you thinking on the differences between IT projects. http://www.freepmstudy.com/BigData/BigDataPMSkills.cshtml
- A starting point on how to manage Knowledge Workers, applies to all of the IT world. http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTMM_45.htm