Public sector IT departments have undergone sweeping modernization efforts, from virtualization and mobility to cloud computing and digital transformation. At the same time, this challenging period of remote work increases the burden on federal IT teams to ensure staffers can continue working without technical glitches, but also to keep morale up and — most importantly — to keep projects on track.
Now more than ever, the project manager (PM) is an increasingly critical role. Strong IT performance is about far more than IT skills. The most successful project managers have IT skills, as well as communication, collaboration, and other “people skills” to truly help with digital transformation and other agency initiatives.
The SolarWinds 2020 IT Trends Report echoes this. According to the report, 69% of respondents chose project management as the most critical non-technical skill necessary in successfully managing today’s modern IT environments. Additional skills like interpersonal communication (57%) and people management (53%) were ranked as almost equally important.
CIO Magazine’s annual State of the CIO Survey confirmed similar results, finding that the top skills needed for digital transformation were strategy building (40%), project management (32%), and business relationship management (25%). In fact, these critical interpersonal skills become more important as IT pros increasingly communicate and collaborate across previously siloed IT functions.
Based on this information, what are some examples of the types of things that make a good project manager?
A successful project manager will perform a range of non-technical tasks to help keep the project on schedule, including:
- Checking in with team members
- Collating regular feedback from the team members
- Helping team members escalate issues to the right people to resolve them
- Coordinating meetings with non-project team members
- Providing positive feedback to help drive the project forward
- Serving as a liaison between IT and the business side
- Working with the project team on release night to see the project through to completion
None of these are technical skills. Instead, they require leadership skills, the ability to communicate and collaborate, an understanding of the business side of technology, and, at some level, empathy.
Let’s look at an example of how these skills can help a project succeed, and how not incorporating these skills can lead to project failure.
Agency A has a large database upgrade to roll out. The project manager listens to, and understands the team’s technical needs and brings in development and business resources as needed. The project manager oversees testing the system prior to the upgrade. The night of the upgrade, the project manager comes in later in the day with the rest of the project team, orders dinner when the team gets hungry, and, ultimately, stays until 4 a.m. when the upgrade is completed. In this scenario, with the project manager intimately involved in the technical and non-technical parts of the project, the rollout goes exactly as planned — on time and within budget.
Agency B also has a large database upgrade to roll out. Here, the project manager collects status updates every week from team members, but simply regurgitates these updates to the rest of the team during weekly meetings. The project manager does not involve the business side nor other technical teams to help with development or testing. On release night, the project manager is nowhere to be found and unavailable via email or cell phone. The project team has several technical issues the night of the release that cannot be solved because sufficient testing was not performed. In this scenario, the project is ultimately delayed and goes over budget.
Failed or delayed projects, for any reason, do not help toward enhancing the agency mission. And, the larger the project the greater the risk. Any project, large or small, requires a professional project manager to run it and help mitigate that risk. If you’re a federal IT manager looking to enhance IT success, strongly consider project managers with the strongest people skills. Especially when it comes to managing large, agencywide projects, these PMs will be worth their weight in gold.
Brandon Shopp is the vice president of products at SolarWinds, a provider of IT infrastructure management software.