The Technical Project Manager: Are Technical Skills for Project Managers Necessary?

The Technical Project Manager: Are Technical Skills for Project Managers Necessary?
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Technical Project Management

If you look at online job postings for project managers, or read project management websites or journals, you will start to wonder about how

important it is that the project manager is technically competent. By technical, this can mean many things. It can mean anything from being a subject matter expert, to being able to write code, or to actually including himself as not only the project manager, but someone responsible for actual deliverables.

There are pros and cons to this, but it’s questionable if the value gained by having a technical project manager with technical skills outweighs not only the value lost, but also the added risk that this brings to the project.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about expertise in project management, or even expertise in the business domain. Both of them are very important to have, even for a technical project manager. Without a good handle on how to run projects, and a good handle on the business drivers, a project manager becomes nothing more than a facilitator. The role of a project facilitator is rarely a high-level value-add-on, and one that most of us wish to avoid.

Pros: The Technically Skilled Technical Project Manager

So we have agreed that project manager needs to have business acumen as well as knowledge in the art and science of project

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management. But what are the gains of having the project manager be able to directly contribute to the project itself?

Here are four good things about having a technical project manager who is also technically skilled.

  1. The project manager can truly participate in solution design, brainstorming, requirements gathering, and determining levels of risk and likelihood of the risks occurring. She can also help with business analysis, or even help determine the fitness of the final design.
  2. A technical project manager can also be a second set of validations on amount of work. Often, a project manager has to rely on scoping estimates either directly from the team, or from the technical team lead. A good manager can sense when estimates are off significantly, or when the person giving them isn’t confident. But with an added level of technical skill, the project manager can actually vet the estimates themselves.
  3. Additionally, if the team is highly technical or highly specialized, this level of knowledge can gain the project manager some trust or respect from the team. Instead of being viewed as the pointy-haired boss, he can be seen as a valuable ally to the technical side.
  4. And of course, if the project manager can assign deliverables to himself, then that means that there is a backup plan for when things go wrong, or when another pair of hands are needed.

Cons: A Project Manager Doesn’t Need to Be Technical

All four of the things listed in the pros column are objectively good things. The question is, how important is it that the technical project

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manager needs to be the person who fills those roles? For instance, if we merely assigned another technical consultant to the project, could he handle all four of those needs? Worse, here are some things that can happen if the project manager is too technical.

  1. In times of stress, people tend to revert to doing what they are most comfortable with. For a rookie project manager, this could very well mean spending too much time on delivering actual tasks, and not enough time on communications, coordination, iteration planning and prioritization. It can be very easy to be tricked into thinking you are being productive, since you are crossing items off the list, when in reality, the important things are being left entirely undone.
  2. If the technical project manager actually is an expert in the topic, she might cause conflict with the other technical team members. Either she wants to be more involved in the day-to-day operations of the team, or she wants to have a hand in the solution design. This is a case where being right might be irrelevant. The project manager has a job to do, and doing the engineer’s job isn’t part of it.
  3. Finally, and the opposite of the first problem, where the PM is spending too much time engineering, we have the problem where the PM isn’t spending enough time engineering. The technical project manager may indeed think he knows the answer, or he may think that his skills or knowledge is current. However, he has been spending time communicating, learning project management and working in PowerPoint. This makes his abilities a little bit suspect, at least when compared to the top technical consultant on the project. This can lead to a sub-optimal decision being made, just because the project manager thinks he knows the answer.

It’s a balance

Since virtually all projects are understaffed, it’s understandable why some organizations require that their technical project managers actually be technical, and be ready to pitch in and help if the need arises. Doing this may make the project manager a more valuable member of the project team, but it can also bring friction and risk to the project itself.

Image credits from FreeDigitalPhotos:

Luigi Diamanti

Graur Razvan Ionut

Suat Eman