Veering From the Typical Career Path

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Categories: Career Help

I recently watched a Hindi movie called 3 Idiots. The moral was to follow your passion--which got me thinking...

In the software industry I've seen examples of technical leads who were promoted to project manager based on the assumption that they'll perform just as well in that role.

But in several of these cases the technical lead has failed in the new position. That's because project management is not about resolving technical issues. It has other parts: resource management, cost management, expectation management, etc.

Companies shouldn't automatically follow the standard growth path for each role, whether it's for a software engineer, senior software engineer, technical lead or project manager. Rather, the path should be decided based upon an individual's capability and interests. A technical lead may be interested in business analyst work or quality-assurance activities instead of the project management role.

Also, as individuals we should have the opportunity to follow our passion and not feel tied to a typical career path.

What do you suggest?
Posted by sanjay saini on: February 03, 2010 04:59 PM | Permalink

Comments (22)

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Roshni Rajagopal
Completely agree with Sanjay. There was a situation in my organization where they were downsizing in US and moving work offshore. The mandate was that the only ones to survive in US would be project managers and business analysts. So everyone donned a PMs hat whether they were qualified for it or not. Poor estimations and risk management was the result. As tech leads one does manage a lot of estimations and communications but many aren't very good at project management as they don't know the entire theory. Also in India PMs are perceived as being 'better' as the more people you are managing, the better you are doing in life :)

A good project manager is one who is able to get the work done by using the right expertise available. He himself may not have to possess all the technical skills. Technical skilled people, who lack resource management skills may not be successful project managers.

But somehow the general perception is that a project manager is superior to functional managers or technically skilled people. This I think is probably because of the compensation levels which make us perceive this way.

Bart Criel
I agree as well.

If a great technical lead is 'promoted' to project manager and she/he fails, it is a double loss for her/his company: a good technical lead is lost, and a poor project manager is added.

So IMHO personal ambitions and talents should be the only arguments for these kinds of career moves.

Tariq Amin, PMP, PRINCE2 Practitioner, MIM-CKM
I agree. Business is so different today. Business leaders should be more critical in resourcing for the right leaders in managing projects. Getting a certified PM is one thing. Ensuring the right leader or person with the right aptitude is important, if not more important.

Totally agree too. IT workers are usually left-brained persons ...and managing requests more right brain skills. Right brain is about images, emotions, political skills, the kind of stuff IT persons are not exposed to and do not seek to. Would they see or feel it if it bit them, I wonder ;-)

Furthermore, CIOs and clients also have their type. Matching genres require some effort. Promoting to project manager is more than filling a hole, you need to test the candidates and there are lots of tools available for that, Briggs-Meyer, NLP meta-programs. Why not take a day or two at investing on a set of tests and put candidates through it to make sure the choice will be appropriate for all players.

Project managers, managers and clients, and team members too will all benefit from it, otherwise, I see only losers in this ... and projects will suffer from it an enterprise's productivity will go down the drain. Who wants that ?

Nina Llorens
I also completely agree with Sanjay ... Too often, we see people who are fabulous in a technical field promoted into project or other management roles - and they're just not cut out for that type of role - they end up miserable and failing.

Just because someone exceeds expectations in their current role, does not mean that they should be placed in a leadership position. I think corporations should do more in developing alternate career paths - it still seems that the standard career path and the expectation for a career trajectory is: Technical specialist --> Technical Lead --> Project Manager --> Program Manager.

Shouldn't there be other options available for those that are neither interested nor appropriate to be placed in leadership roles? Not everyone wants to grow in that linear fashion, but most do want to grow and continue to challenge themselves.

Well said Roshini.

Rich Maltzman, PMP

Good observation, and now I have to put 3 Idiots on my "to be watched" movie list.

I hope most companies recognize what you wrote about so concisely. Even more, it's important that the discipline of PM be recognized AS a career path and not a collection of different jobs that are unrelated. You'd be amazed at how this aspect of PM career path development is underused. So even after solving the problem you identify, there is another 'valence level' to overcome - one of truly developing the PMs who *really should be* PMs.

There's another aspect entirely as well, and that is the sustainability/green part of PM...but that's another subject (actually covered on our site htttp:// entirely...

Thanks again for your post.


Thanks for your post.

Gabino Carballo
One thing happening across the board is that "technical knowledge" has been devalued across the board by implying that is equal across continents. Knowledge is increasingly mistaken as "having data" available. So, those in possession of a manual explaining how to play a violin, feel that this actually equals knowing how to play a violin. Like manufacturing, technical expertise appears to be have fallen into the "non-core activities" basket, and has been pushed behind "management" and "project management" whilst the "soft-skills" mantra covers up the fact that those in charge of making decisions are increasingly detached from the reality that those decisions bring about. This appears to fulfill the prophecy that, one day, all work will be carried out by one person, as everybody else will have off shored and subcontracted theirs. Unfortunately, hands on experience doing actual "technical" work informs people's ability to manage projects. This may go unnoticed as long as there is plenty of people with that kind of expertise around, and "managers" of one kind or another are in short supply. The problem is that one day, there may be more managers that actual stuff to be managed, and less knowledge about how stuff is actually built that it is strictly necessary to conduct business with reasonable quality. If organizations are to survive in a complex world, they may want to remember this and retain some "obsolete" technical knowledge before is too late.

Mike Golden
Conversely, some technical project managers should be allowed to follow paths into managing/leading technical teams. And, project management leadership should not put on blinders and believe that no technical skills are required to manage complex, technical projects.

It is in the interest of those of us that manage highly technical, complex projects to gain a fundamental understanding of networking, systems management, systems administration, application design and various infrastructure systems to be more effective in managing scope, risk, schedule and staffing for these projects.

Bjorn Ivesdal
I believe regular project management is an excellent starting point to move horizontally and vertically inside companies as a career change, according to interests and skills. Maybe also a move to a supplier or client. Project mgmt has good opportunities for maintaining a solid contact network and insight throughout the company. Stakeholder management can be seen in this light :)

Before moving careers, it is good to know one's personal strength: E.g. "organizer", "leader", "communicator" or "analyst" type - take a personality test and see which one is strongest. Suggestions: Leader: department head in technology, operations or procurement; Organizer: program manager; Analyst: marketing research and strategy development, business analyst.

Just a comment on the programmer promoted to PM: it is best if they pass via the Technical Project mgr role first, or the technical architect role before that.

Kit Johnson
I totally agree with Sanjay. What is unfortunate is that when a passionate technical resource is handed off as project manager it often leads to low productivity across the entire team. When the project manager does not know how to our does not care to focus on non-technical areas such as resource management and scheduling it is the team members that will suffer.

Gary Schinnell
The problem described by Sanjay is by no means a recent phenomenon: Find the 1969 book "The Peter Principle" by Dr. Laurence J. Peter in which he describes the dilemma of promoting one beyond that person's level of competency. Wikipedia also has a good write-up on the the Peter principle. As PMs we need to be smart enough about ourselves and other project stakeholders to recognize the presence of the Peter Principle and to deal with its affects on our projects.

Venkataramiah Annapragada
I agree with you Sanjay that there should be multiple careers paths for an individual in an organisation. A technical person should not be forced to become a PM or resource manager. The one reason it happens now is due to monetary reasons. Without promotion to managerial role salary does not increase. Salary and role should be de-linked. A very competent technical person with 10-15 yrs exp should get high salary and should not feel the need to shift to PM role.

Interestingly enough, project management tends to be a very common 'destination' for those that would like to veer away from the typical career path. The 'barriers to entry' into this field are low to non-existent. As a result, it is hard to identify a good project manager by entry-criteria characteristics.

We created Business Value Alignment® to help differentiate the serious committed PM's from the rest of the crowd. Join our LinkedIn group if you'd like a voice in creating the next generation of PM leadership competencies.

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Gwenn Zoeller
My IT company has two career tracks. One leads to management the other stays technical. This allows us to continue to let the technicians excel to become experts, while those choosing project management can strengthen other skills.

Srikanth Prabhala
Good one, Sanjay. Usually an organization offers different paths at the start of career (Developer, QA, DBA, etc) and there is a significant training period for them. As everybody commented here, after few years, all these paths converge into management (be it project or technical). When a technical lead is made the project manager, it is generally assumed that he/she shall manage the project based on his/her experience. The person is expected to perform or learn while on the job. No formal training in project management is given to this person, which is a contrast when compared to the amount of training given at the career start. Re: your other point on a technical resource continuing in technical line, the scope for growth (both in terms of money and moving up organization hierarchy) is very limited. An organization and resource should together invest to chalk out the career path of the former and back it up with training. This could be to enable either the role change (cross functional) or role enhancement (technical lead to technical manager to technical architect to solutions delivery head). This would be of mutual benefit, as it increases productivity for both.

Peter Roshan, PMP
In the organization where I work there is a clear path defined for the individuals who would like to pursue technical or project management career path. Therefore an individual who wishes to take up a career in the project management side he/she will have to undergo various trainings in house and on the job. These types of trainings help the individual in sharpening their managerial skills thereby minimizing the failures. I believe every organization should have these types of trainings to be conducted in house or external and produce good managers.

suhin.rasheed, PMP

I totally agree with you. This is what we classically call the Halo effect.
Some more thoughts which I would like to add is that many companies especially in India see to promote people by giving a big weightage to their total number
of experience or the total number of years they worked in that company . Though I agree all these factors are good for an employee profile,still Management
is a different Ball game. Many youngsters though might not be having a large number of years to quote as Industrial experience have excellent management skills. Whatever books we read,what ever training we gain still there should be some basic skill within an Individual for Management and some people gain it in a very young age.

It's high time for many of the companies have to cherish a culture where they have their employees career path well defined and aligned in the right track which would benefit the Organization as well as the employee

Ipsita Kumar, PMP
During the recession, many businesses decided to merge project management into other functional groups such as product management or engineering teams. Most of the members under this new mandate started playing dual roles - one they are experts at and the other they have no clue about. Net result of this balancing act: Project delays, bad estimations, low productivity & lack of time to learn.

I agree with Suhin Rasheed about how companies in India base promotions mainly on years of experience. It makes me wonder how can one get through the starting point in case of such a career change if he has the interest & skills but not the specified years of experience.

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