Do Project Managers need technical background?
July 17, 2011
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I was talking to a friend who mentioned he was unhappy with the project he was involved in. His complaint was with his project manager, who he felt did not understand his field of work and set unrealistic expectations. At the time I did my friendly duties and sympathised with him. It got me thinking … do project managers need technical background?
I come for a software development background and am currently managing projects for a software and services company. I recall my early days as a developer when I had a project manager from an electronics manufacturing background. She could never understand the fact that developers can never give an exact estimate of a task. Another thing she never quite got to grips with is the difference of ability between the top developers and someone just starting out. This caused no end of frustration on both sides.
I have also worked under a project manager who was himself a developer in a previous life. While he understood how developers and development teams worked, he was very lax with his planning and issue management. We always felt we were fighting fires than working in a planned and organised fashion. That led to stress levels off the scale and we lost some good developers who could not be bothered working in such an environment.
Equally, I have worked under project managers of both ilk who have been more than useful. Now that I am managing projects, I am trying to judge if it is an advantage for me to manage development projects and teams. I definitely find my background useful. I know to understand tendency of various developers, understand when developers say 3 days – it is only for coding it, not to deliver it! If I had come from a different background, I would need to learn these nuances to be as effective. I find developers also find it easier to relate to me because of my background. What I try to guard against is the urge to have a look at code. I tell the developers …
The nature of the company I work for means I also have a team of non developers working on the same projects. These are geospatial analysts. While I did not start out in this field, I have picked up more than enough over the years to understand and influence how work is done. I now consider both geospatial and development as my technical background. This tells me you can learn new skills in a different field. PRINCE2 also contends that a project manager is managing projects to given parameters and should not require specialist skills. That is the domain of the team leaders.
My verdict … you do not need a technical background to be a successful project manager, but it definitely helps.