Two different colleagues wrote me with similar conundrums. Their managers wants a “technical” project manager. One colleague was a hardware person, the other was a tester. They have both been managing software projects for several years. No one has told them they were ineffective. (I’ve discussed this issue before: The Difference Between Project Managers and Developers, Characteristics of Great Project Managers, and How Technical Does a Project Manager Have to Be?
Senior managers frequently ask me this question when I do assessments, too: How technical do the managers or project managers need to be? The answer I give is: The managers and PMs need to understand the dynamics of the area or projects they are managing. They need to evaluate risks, they need to make good process decisions, and they need to be able to hire people for their areas or projects. But, they don’t (in general) need deep technical understanding of the project. (Sometimes they do need that technical expertise for managing functional areas.) I discuss the notion of problem-space and solution-space domain expertise with these managers, to see what they really need.
Here’s what I suggested to my colleagues:
- Ask the manager what his/her concerns are.
- Ask the manager what data, risks, problems he/she would have seen earlier with a technical project manager.
- Ask yourself how you could have provided data, escalated risks, or solved problems earlier.
- Ask other people on the project what else they would like from a project manager.
Project management and people management is about managing people issues: the flow of work, identifying and solving problems, recognizing when the work is on/off course, steering the work back on course, providing feedback and coaching. Real project management is not about making architectural decisions. If you have a highly risky project, it’s worth having a technical lead/architect work hand-in-hand with a PM, so that the two people together can see the state of the project. But once a technical person starts doing real project management or people management, it’s not possible for the great majority of people to remain highly technical. I know one person who seems to be highly technical and is a senior manager, but he’s not managing projects, and he has only two direct reports. He freely admits that if he was managing projects at his company (about 20 people per project), he could not retain the technical depth he has.
I agree that managers of technical projects and technical people need more than just an appreciation of the technical work — they need to understand the dynamics of the project work, so they can effectively manage the projects or the project portfolio. But I have yet to see a purely technical project manager succeed — unless they gave up technical expertise to concentrate on the people issues.