Management in Practice

Beyond the alphabet soup of PRINCE2, MSP, MoP, PMBOK, ITIL, Agile

Do Project Managers need technical background?


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 …

if (iAmLookingAtCode)
{
 KickMeOut();
}
else
{
 WeAreOk();
}

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.

17 responses to “Do Project Managers need technical background?

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  3. Satyendra September 28, 2011 at 10:48 pm

    Hi Shoaib,

    Nice Post!!!

    I too started my career as a Developer and over 13 years currently positioned as a project manager. I strongly feel, project manager must have a knowledge of the technology along with the considerable business knowledge. This helps the project team in gaining the confidence in front of customers, as the project manager leads the team who delivers.

    These days customers are not interacting with those who do not understand the business needs and technology which is part of the solution. In precise, Account managers, Business Development Managers and General Manager’s lost the control over the customers and vice versa.

    And more over the processes, planning, metrices, and issues management are to be authorized and administered at organization level. Either project manager or some other, must manage as per the pre-defined process of the organization.

    Otherwise, managing and projecting the ‘success’ of the project and self; becomes a part of the project management!

    -Satyendra

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  5. Don Cox, PMP January 18, 2012 at 3:50 am

    For the last 15 years, I’ve been an IT Project Manager, but with more than 30 years experience in the industry, I’ve worked as a software developer, system engineer, database administrator, and system analyst. My opinion is that a project manager does not need to be an expert in the specific platform and technology of the project, but needs a technical expert or experts that are reliable and trustworthy to provide input and advice for defining, sequencing, and estimating the WBS, as well as validating performance against plan. One reason for this is that technologies change over time (my career began as a programmer writing octal assembler) and if we were to require experienced project managers to be expert in the specific technology of a given project, we would run out of PMs.

    Remember, project management is a set of skills, tools, and techniques that can stand alone, and an experienced, competent project manager should be able to apply those skills on any project initiative. Clearly, the combination of PM skills and domain knowledge will strengthen the ability of the PM to do their job, but it seems in this case the issue was a PM not willing to admit lack of domain expertise OR a developer that doesn’t appreciate oversight.

    • Shoaib Ahmed January 18, 2012 at 10:11 am

      Thanks for the comment Don. I expect my team leaders to do the technical role. The advantage I see is having a feel for the risks ahead of time, even if they haven’t been raised. If you look at the LinkedIn discussion I started on http://lnkd.in/kweBv6 it is quite interesting, how many Project Managers see it otherwise.

    • Kunjan Desai August 16, 2012 at 8:44 pm

      I also agree with Don, I was also developer since 1999 to late 2008. It is surely help to manager project effectively if you know technology in which you have been working on or managing project. But that can not be pre-condition. Applying correct project management technique with help of team members for technology is better approach. Project Manager should make himself aware and up to date with latest technology trends so he don’t need to rely on any other during customer discussions. Gradually upgrading technical knowledge from beginner to intermediate level is must but that does not mean to be expert in specific technology or be certified in any exam.

  6. Nina Kelley-Rumpff (@Nina_K_Rumpff) January 19, 2012 at 10:01 am

    I agree with Don – a PM should have some domain knowledge of the subject matter so that they’re at least speaking a similar language, but he/she certainly should not be expected to be an expert – especially given the speed with which technology is changing, and all of the various components (database, architecture, cloud computing, platforms, security, coding language, etc, etc, etc,). It sounds to me that your friend was suffering with a PM that was not an effective leader due to poor listening skills and not trusting what his experts were saying.

  7. Romeo Marcos Jr January 20, 2012 at 7:20 pm

    I agree, actually, the theories of project management applies to all projects either, software development, manufacturing etc… the PM just need to know and understand the process lies on a certain domain… The PM also should understand how the project works on a big picture.. I think the important thing that a project manager should master is to organize and to coordinate with different teams to work on a common process. One of the most effective PM that I work with happens to be a political science major. But since she is good on project coordination and organization, our development runs smoothly.

  8. Paul Cleghorn July 24, 2012 at 9:46 pm

    I think it depends on your team. In an ideal world the PM does not need to be an expert but it does help to know the issues and frustrations faced by the developers, testers and BA’s. Taking a manager from a shop or manufacturing company is not going to help your software team in my opinion. There is also an issue of respect that has not been mentioned and being able to muck in if the need arises(in smaller teams this is often the case). Perhaps it is a question of team size. Smaller team and the PM needs to be more of a team member. large team and they can rely on their tech experts and do more PM stuff. I’ve done both.
    The problem I have with generic PM’s is that they really don’t get the big picture in most cases and I’ve seen this many, many times. They apply blanket, generic assumptions that requirements are solid and fixed and this is totally not the case in software.

  9. Khristi October 8, 2012 at 6:01 am

    There is a reason why the large percentage of IT projects fail. IBM attributes 54% of that to poor project management. Check out The Standish Group’s CHAOS Manifesto for more disturbing statistics on IT. In my years of experience, I don’t think a PM needs to be an “expert” either but I’m pretty tired of working under PMs who know a lot about finance and next to nothing about the technology they are leading a team to implement.
    IF IT projects were not always so high in the failure percentages I might think a “generic” PM to be ok but I will never understand the thinking that a critical team member such as the PM doesn’t need to understand what they are trying to manage. How will they even be able to know if they have good team experts they can rely on if they don’t at least have a clue?
    There is also a HUGE difference between expecting someone to have an IT background and expecting them to be an “expert”. I expect a solid background and someone willing to listen to those who are experts instead of someone who has no background and ignores their expert’s so they don’t have get their ego bent.
    I am a PM currently, a programmer for 14 years and have 32 years of business experience both in owning and managing business prior to my career as a programmer. I make it my business to understand what I am managing and I would no more try to manage something I didn’t understand especially something as complex as IT than I would expect pigs to sprout wings and fly. IT projects are different animals than other types of projects and I keep wondering how long the failures have to continue before someone understands the problem in clueless leadership.

  10. Prashanth October 30, 2012 at 12:23 am

    Most managers today were once developers years ago,so they have forgotten most of the technical skills.In that case how much different would a non IT manager be from an IT manager who was technical years ago? Very little.. Aside from the mandatory skills it would help if managers spent just 10% of their time doing hands on development or technical stuff so that they remain abreast of the latest technologies.It would help them a lot in estimation and other core managerial tasks and also understand/asses their juniors better.As it is today most managers (at least those I’ve seen) are nothing more than time sheet approver’s. There is very little value he can add simply doing only politics.In such cases success depends on luck not on manager’s skills.Definitely spending small fraction of time doing hands on stuff is not impossible and also very helpful for other managerial tasks like estimation,risks,budget talent tradeoff, process required to enhance quality etc.

    • Shoaib Ahmed October 30, 2012 at 8:02 am

      Is the situation really that bad? As a project manager that came from a development background, I no longer pretend I know the answers from a technical point of view. I can probe to ascertain if the proper processes have been followed. I utilise my technical leads to make that judgement. I see the role of the PM as one that ensures proper planning, outputs meet the business objectives, any deviation from plan is communicated appropriately to stakeholders, manage expectations etc.

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