Project Management in Practice

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

5 things a tech lead can do that a Project Manager cannot


I was talking to a former colleague and reminiscing about some of the projects we had worked together. He is still in a technical role and enjoying it. I have long since moved into project management and have been enjoying that. As friends would banter, we started talking about how our different roles give us different flexibilities and constraints in projects. I really enjoyed the perspective and though I’d share the things that we thought a tech lead can get away with that a Project Manager cannot.

1. Do the work themselves

A wise man once said if you need a job done well, do it yourself. There is an element of truth in that. Sometimes it is more optimal to do the work than to explain what needs doing. If you are a technical lead you can easily do that yourself from time to time for expediency. A Project Manager cannot really do it. That is especially the case if they have less content knowledge.

2. Be blunt in feedback

There is a different code of interaction between technical people when they relate to each other and when they relate with others. In their own way they can afford to be quite open and challenge each other. This may not always manifest in a cohesive way, unless there is trust between the various personnel. Many times this is how they challenge each other and extend their own knowledge. Project Managers deal in more shades of grey. They meet people from many different stakeholder groups and bluntness is the last thing you want. You may take a client’s requirements to your technical team and how often have you heard the comment … “this is cr*p.” From a technical point of view this may be a very legitimate answer. However, the Project Manager needs to translate the reasons from a business point of view that would preclude it being an option. Both groups are trying to achieve the same outcome, but communication style is very different. Often getting the client to be flexible enough to think differently is where good Project Managers distinguish themselves.

3. Relaxed attire

Tech leads are usually in a position where any interaction with the customer is planned well ahead of schedule and most of the time they are not necessarily required to be customer facing. They can easily be in the office in the jeans and t shirt. A Project Manager on the other hand either needs to dress differently in most industries, or keep a separate set of clothes in the office and be prepared to change as soon as needed. Managing stakeholders and project teams is a less precise activity than managing technical work.

4. Chasing the Cool option

Tech leads can often go off on tangent to do things that interest them. These could be trying out new design patterns, pet technologies or even specific devices. There is always a good argument in favour of innovation or up-skilling that can justify those, within reason off course. Project Managers are required to be more outcomes driven. If something is not geared towards meeting an outcome desired by the stakeholders, there is little appetite for doing it.

5. Turning phone and email off

While this can not be done for long periods, tech leads can have periods of time where they can turn the phone and email off and lock themselves in a room in order to concentrate on particular technical challenges. A Project Manager will struggle to do that. Turning off the communication tap is the worst thing they can do. This is a sure way to send a project south. Certainly, a lot of the communication ends up being wasted effort. Any risks or issues you may be able to pick up through the communication channels that you can prevent before they get to unwieldy proportions outweigh that.

If you have read this far, you may think why would one want to move into project management from a technical role. In fact not all tech leads make for good project managers.  Not to worry, we had an equivalent list of things that a Project Manager can do that a tech lead will not be able to do. That is a post for another day.

If you have moved into project management from a technical role, I would be quite interested to hear your list.

Image Credit: venneberg.blogspot.co.nz

10 responses to “5 things a tech lead can do that a Project Manager cannot

  1. Pingback: How much do you think it’ll cost? « Project Management in Practice

  2. Brad Rach December 2, 2012 at 6:34 pm

    I can relate strongly to point #1. I’m in software development as a PM and nothing is more frustrating than not being able to roll up your sleeves and help in the actual development when there is a tight deadline to hit. Great post!

    • Shoaib Ahmed December 2, 2012 at 8:20 pm

      As you can probably imagine, this is exactly where the discussion started. However, I do realise that I no longer have the same technical knowledge I once had. Trying to pitch in is likely to be equally dangerous.

  3. Kannan Subbiah December 6, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    Well written blog and thanks for that. As I have experienced, the primary barrier that comes in the way for a tech lead transforming to project manager is that the inability of unlearning. i.e. the technical persons always take a position to defend or establish their supremacy in technology when engaging in a team conversation. They need to unlearn some and then re-learn certain new tactical and related soft skills. Sharing this blog in my daily digest .

    • Shoaib Ahmed December 6, 2012 at 4:50 pm

      Thanks Kannan. Unlearning is an excellent point. Technical knowledge is useful in identifying risks, but equally distracting, when you don’t have enough times to keep up.

  4. Pingback: 5 Questions every Project Manager must ask « Project Management in Practice

  5. Yousuf Rafi August 20, 2013 at 7:51 pm

    Very well written blog… As a former tech lead in my previous job I can relate to every single point.. as a matter of fact I can feel the particular events that went with the relevant points mentioned here… Hatss offf!!! Kudosss

  6. Yousuf Rafi August 20, 2013 at 7:55 pm

    Very well written blog.. can surely relate to it.. as a former IT lead in my previous job I can feel the events that are relevant with every single point…. As a matter of fact felt like jotting down my feelings on a piece of paper… Loved it.. kudooss!!

  7. Webtex October 24, 2013 at 9:02 pm

    Just came across your site, the post is great! Pleasure to read.
    Another point is that not all tech leads are good communicators, and are ready to be indulgent enough to the clients.

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