The Technical Project Manager

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by Christian Bisson, PMP

 

Several years ago, I decided to put my web developer hat behind me and become a project manager (and eventually product owner). At first I wasn’t sure if I would be up to the challenge given that most project managers have different backgrounds.

But several years later, I don’t regret my decision.

Technical project managers are more present — and required — in the digital world, and I have no doubt that will keep rising. Here’s why.

The Rising Digital World

The digital world is taking up more space in our lives. And it doesn’t stop at what people see, there is also a vast world of data happening behind the scenes.

A project manager that can’t comprehend the technical relationship between every piece of a client’s ecosystem will fail to manage it properly. As ecosystems grow, it will become more of a challenge to ensure teams have the right people at the right time so that everything comes together as planned.

Still, many project managers are not even aware of what a development environment (development, staging, user acceptance testing, production) or even deployments are. Project managers today should know about synchronizing websites, apps and other tools together. If one can’t deploy a site, then there is simply no hope.

New Technologies

A website used to consist of images and text, so not understanding how it worked didn’t matter much if you had the team to compensate.

Today, however, a lot of websites use advanced technologies to provide users with what they want, like powerful search engines or features using machine learning.

Machine learning in particular is becoming the toy every kid wants. It’s also within everyone’s grasp—whether it’s with advanced machine learning expertise or with tools made available by Google, for example. Project managers need to understand this technology in order to bring out its full potential within the projects they manage, otherwise it becomes a trend word that brings nothing to the table.

Communication Reigns

Everyone knows that communication is key to running any team smoothly. If a project manager can’t understand what the team is communicating, then he or she can’t properly manage the project.

Furthermore, clients are becoming more techy and often have a better understanding of how things work. So if project managers don’t understand the tech behind the project, they can’t have proper conversations with the client. It helps in key project decisions to actually understand what is going on.

What are your thoughts on technical project managers? As the world becomes more digital, are they becoming essential?

Posted by Christian Bisson on: January 22, 2018 07:12 PM | Permalink

Comments (23)

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Good insights into digital projects.

A project manager to have technical knowledge is not must but is nice to have and it surely benefits him/ her in understanding the process and issues.

Domain expertise is a key element of being a credible PM, especially when working in a new organization or with a new team. As the IT industry matures, specialization in managing specific types of technology projects is getting more critical.

Thanks for sharing!

Kiron

RIGHT! PMs need domain expertise to communicate well with project team members and stakeholders.

Good article and thanks for sharing this.

Thanks, Christian. Great insights.

Agreed. Project Managers are better served having knowledge of the interrelationships of project tools, as well as development tools, environments, etc. Many organizations have various systems used in their PMO which require a quick understanding and ability to jump right in. All of these tools together provide a centralized, collaborative, and transparent hub.

The question is: what does mean "technical project manager"? You have not defined it.

I have to agree with you wholeheartedly, Christian. Given the choice of being purely managerial or purely technical, I, like you, opted for a blend. Bringing technical, hands-on skill along with managerial, in this case project management, skills benefits the employer in that there is a great potential to see and prevent errors which could negatively impact both budget and timeline. Having already done the work in a technical capacity also lends itself to more accurate estimates when creating or review WBS. It's also helpful with managing vendors who might otherwise propose a more costly solution.

Being a Technical Project Manager certainly helps in accomplishment of project objectives. Thanks for your insight

Great post Christian!
Technical understanding is a must to understand the E2E ecosystem, however one should never lose the sight that technology is only a means to solve a business problem. So understanding the business problem is equally important

Thanks for sharing, technical knowledge is important to succeed in certain projects not all projects, so it is just one of the three talent triangle. One should not be promoted as PM just based on technical knowledge that's a Halo effects.

Thank you all for your comments!

@Najam: I do agree that in some cases it'a more of a nice to have, depending of the nature of the project or the team you work with, but it certain cases, it's a must, I've seen disastrous results simply because some of the basics were unknown to the PM.

@Sergio: fair point, in this case what I meant is someone with the knowledge of the technical aspect of a project, for example, if you are managing a digital ecosystem, you should be able to understand about deployments, development environments, or how each piece of the ecosystem is tied together because of "code".

@Brenda: you bring another good reason for the importance of technical knowledge, managing vendors! How often can a vendor tell you something "cannot be done" or as you mentioned, provides costly solutions.

@Priya: Absolutely, technical knowledge is only one of many aspect of a PM's life!

@Riyadh: absolutely, some types of projects do not even require any technical knowledge at all, it really depends.

Understanding? I agree. But you must not be a subject matter expert.

Sergio, agreed, an understanding to allow better communication and decision making, however like you mentioned, the idea is not to become the subject matter expert, you should have a team to refer to, but basic knowledge allows you to know who you need and when.

Agree Christian. Most of the project manager forgot an activity that must be done from the zero minute when the project manager is assigned to the initiative: prepare for elicitation. There is a process to follow that was create by the CMU SEI just in case best fits. Time ago I wrote an article about that that was published by the PMI as "best practice". Basically, the assigned project manager must take knowledge (not being a subject matter expert) on application domain, stakeholders, pains, etc. Zachman framework row 1 can help as a checklist or a guide about what to take into consideration. Blindness mean happiness. Blindness, but not stupidity.

Technical Project Managers will be more essential than ever. As you wrote the world is becoming more complex and digital it is necessary to have persons on board who understand what the issue is about.

As someone who has moved from web development into project management, I found this article quite interesting. The discussion around your blog post has also been quite interesting as well.

Christian
A Technical Project Manager brings with him/her their own Pros & Cons.

A clear Pro is that an insightful Technical Project Manager can lead the Project team from the front, guide them through the riptides & currents, and ensure that project success is reached without any mishaps.

On the other hand, a clear Con is that an insightful Project Manager may end up driving the Project team to his/ her vision of the project path, ignoring any dissenting voices, and thus losing valuable opportunities to innovate & drive improvements, and also potentially lose the team's support with a potentially coercive/ dictatorial style of management.

Obviously, these are both extreme scenarios. The reality may lie somewhere in between.

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