Should Project Managers Be Technical?

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This topic contains 18 replies, has 9 voices, and was last updated by  Mark Hammer 7 years, 4 months ago.

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  • #161105

    Josh Nankivel

    In government agencies even more than in the private sector, my unscientific observation is that we have a lot of project managers who don’t ‘get their hands dirty’ with their teams.

    In other words, the project manager role is that of a pencil-pusher.

    Do you agree? What do you think is the right situation?

  • #161141

    Mark Hammer

    There are actually several sub-questions to your interest, that require disentangling:

    1) Are the folks in project manager positions knowledgeable about the subject matter of the projects they are managing?

    2) Regardless of what they may or may not know about the subject matter, do the expectations placed upon them confine them to a particular role?

    3) Is it the natural inclination of those in project manager positions to retreat from the subject matter and “shop floor” aspects of the project towards the ledger and Gantt chart?

  • #161139

    Josh Nankivel

    Good questions, all.

    Even if someone was in a technical role prior to going into management and project management roles, what I find is that they quickly lose touch if they don’t have at least a portion of their role involved directly with technical work.

    This can lead to managers who

    1. resist advances because they worked on a legacy system and it’s seen as a personal attack to scrap and replace it
    2. forget the nuances and challenges involved with getting the real work done
    3. once they’ve found they are out of touch, they do retreat to the Gantt chart
  • #161137

    Dave Hebert

    I believe Google did an employee survey a couple years back, and some large number of respondents (I want to say about 75 percent) said that the most important quality in a manager was the ability to listen and respond to needs. Technical expertise was two more notches down, if I recall. Can’t find any articles at the moment …

  • #161135

    Josh Nankivel

    Interesting, and I agree with that.

    Note I’m not saying the project manager should be the most technically savvy individual on the team, in fact I think that’s a bad idea.

    But if the project manager is too out of touch, they can’t listen and respond to needs effectively. They won’t even understand what the needs are in some cases.

  • #161133

    Victor S. Paola

    I agree – I have done project work in both the public and private sector and I have found the highly politicized environment of public life can easily lead to this. Often in public life, projects are mandated by elected officials. The project sponsors are appointed and often don’t buy into the concept. The result is the project manager spends an inordinate amount of time continually selling the project to both sponsors and stakeholders – often to the detriment of the team.

  • #161131

    Josh Nankivel
    Great points Victor.
    I can think of a few exceptions, managers who still make a point to stay very engaged in technical aspects…but all of those only went into management in the last few years. Most of the time they seem stressed trying to balance keeping in touch where value is created with the bureaucracy.
  • #161129

    Corey McCarren

    I’ve only really worked for startups ever, so all of the managers I’ve known have always gotten their hands dirty. I find it hard to imagine project managers that are unwilling or unable to do so. Then is it the case that project managers don’t always understand the projects their managing?

  • #161127

    Josh Nankivel

    It is the case many times Corey. Certainly not always.

    When they become out of touch, they stick to the layer of project management focused exclusively on the plans, schedules, etc. The content of change requests become nearly irrelevant, all that matters is if it’s a change to the baseline plan or not.

    When you spend more than half your day in Excel or MS Project, or non-technical documents in Word, you know you’ve gone to the dark side. 🙂

  • #161125

    Mark Hammer

    I think Victor makes some good points.

    Project managers can find themselves in between the wishes/commands/direction of those levels of management above them, and the realities of the shop floor below them. The extent of their “connection” (and here I’m imagining a weaving of braids between the manager and staff, as in Avatar!) with the technical aspects of the project partly dictates the ferocity with which they can defend the needs of the project to their own management team, as opposed to merely trying to explain what management wants to the project staff.

    While I would not disagree with Dave Hebert’s points above, regarding staff relations, you will note an entirely different thread on this forum regarding the role of courage in leadership. Insomuch as project management IS a leadership role, I think having one’s finger on the pulse of the technical aspects of the project allows one to BE a more courageous leader.

  • #161123

    Josh Nankivel

    Well said indeed Mark.

    There’s a difference in being the middle-man (or middle-woman) and being engaged with all key stakeholders, including your team.

    When a leader isn’t engaged with her or his troops on the front lines, things don’t work out so well. To make a military analogy, project managers should be like a Sergeant or Corporal – trying to act like a higher rank in the role of project manager just leaves your squad abandoned. A General or commissioned officer shouldn’t be in the weeds, that’s not their job just like a program manager, director, or executive officer.

    But we project managers are needed on the front lines with our teams.

  • #161121

    Henry Brown

    Tis an ageless question… My SPIN…

    Managers (regardless of whether they are project managers, or other types of managers) need enough technical knowledge to NOT be buffalo’d by any of team members.

    Use to use a phrase that is pretty close to describing the skill set required by a manager: “Jack of all master of none

  • #161119

    Pattie Buel

    Totally agree Henry. As a manager (Project or otherwise), while it certainly helps to know some of the same stuff as your folks, it’s more important to know who really knows what on your team and who only thinks they know what. But as a leader, I think it’s important for your team to know that you are willing to help with the dirty work – even if you are simply following someone else’s instructions on the actual steps.

  • #161117

    Josh Nankivel

    True, but even more so, a manager who isn’t technical enough to have a foundation of understanding can’t help their teams succeed either. The teams get things done in spite of the project manager or in isolation of the project manager when they aren’t engaged in the craft.

  • #161115

    Josh Nankivel

    Great point Pattie, I think it’s a huge boon to your credibility as a leader when you get your hands dirty with your team.

  • #161113

    Bill Brantley

    Yes, you should have enough technical knowledge to be conversant with what your team does but you are the project manager. You are not there to do the project team’s work but to help the project team do their work. That means:

    1) Keeping well-meaning stakeholders from interfering with the project team as they work.

    2) Making sure the team members have the proper tools, resources, and training to the do the work.

    3) Motivate and encourage the team as they do the work.

    4) Make sure that the project team is focused on the project vision.

    I will admit that I have occasionally jumped in to do a team member’s work when I didn’t think they were doing it right. I stopped doing that after I realized that I was either making the team member feel stupid or dependent. The project manager should not be a remote presence sitting in their office pushing paper. Management by Walking Around is the best model for a project manager, but Micromanagement by Walking Around is a very bad practice.

  • #161111

    Josh Nankivel

    Great points Bill. I think there’s an important distinction between being a know-it-all or trying to exert top-down technical influence versus getting your hands dirty enough to be well connected to your team.

    I have definitely been guilty of this in the past. Once when I moved from a technical lead role into a project management role, I kept my reigns on the technical lead role without really understanding what I was doing. The technical lead was deferring to me on technical issues that should have been primarily their role to decide. I backed off and deferred to her, and things got way better. Being engaged and being a control freak are two very different things.

  • #161109

    Allison Primack

    When asked if project managers should get their hands dirty in technical work, or just delegate, GovLoopers on Facebook said the following:

    John Bordeaux That’s an awfully binary question… There is a middle way, folks.

    Megan Eskey The best ones aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty every now and then..

    Nicole Marcy Bloom get dirty

    Penny van Zandt PMs should do technical work … this will help them stay better informed and in the loop…

  • #161107

    Josh Nankivel

    Thanks Allison! It’s good to get everyone’s perspective on this topic.

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