Project Managers and Technology

A reader was reading Characteristics of Great Project Managers and asked, “Do you feel that to be a great Project Manager one need not know completely about the technology involved?”

No. Project managers need to understand enough about the technology so that they can make tradeoff decisions (or help product owners make tradeoff decisions) about what will actually make it into the release. The more PMs understand the product under development, the better decisions they will make–or guide the project team to better decisions.

Here are the two extreme situations I would like to avoid: the un-knowledgeable PM and the PM who would rather be the architect. I’ve worked with several organizations who thought that PMs in other industries, such as event planning, would make great PMs of software projects. Nope. Not a chance. The PM needs to understand the process of the project. And in addition to the process, understanding enough about the product and the tools can help a PM assess risk and manage it during the project.

In my experience, the PM as architect is just as bad. This PM understands the process and the technology and ignores the work of the PM. If the PM is focused on development instead of managing the project, the project suffers as much (although differently) as if the PM was ignorant of the project.

So that means I don’t have a recipe for how technical the PM needs to be. It depends. It depends on how technical the team is, whether there is an architect, whether anyone else can assess risks, how self-disciplined the team is. The more iterative/incremental development a team does, the more self-organizing the team is, the more the PM can attend to the collaboration skills of the team and the negotiations with the product owners. The more the PM has to drive the project, the more the PM needs to understand the technology.

3 Replies to “Project Managers and Technology”

  1. This is one of the great controversies of the project management field. Does a PM have to be a subject matter expert to be successful.
    In my case, I believe that I am a successful PM in the software field that certainly has no skills in writing software. However, I do have a strong background in engineering, which means that developing technological systems is something about which I know. From that background to managing software development has not been a great leap. Needless to say, once in a field it is important to develop some familiarity with the field if not expertise.

  2. From my personal experience of being architect-PM I can say it also depends on the size of the project and its novelty. For a small small-size research kind of project having one person who assumes the both responsibilities is quite a norm (and very often is impossible otherwise). For a large scale, “give me this feature”, kind of project a single person style does not scale up well and you usually need to separate these two responsibilities.

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