The Quest for the Technical Project Manager
By Ammar W. Mango
It is becoming less common but it is still out there; the demand for the technical project manager. To deny the role would be unrealistic, but to assume that it is all that is needed as far as project management, that would be more unrealistic.
From experience, and some of you might agree, that a technical project manager cannot work alone, without someone playing the role of the “business” project manager. Usually companies figure that out too late, or even never figure it out, and blame failures on incompetent resources or project managers. The truth is that the main problem is in the attitude of management and how the role of project manager is looked at.
Some say that the term itself “technical project manager” is counter productive, since a project manager is a project manager, and should take care of business and leave technical to technical. Others disagree completely, they want a project manager who is as knowledgable, if not more knowledgable in the technical aspects than the technical team.
Let us start with the idea of a technical project manager. This is a relatively older idea than the business project manager, and maybe why it is still evident especially in less mature organizations, and organizations that are not open to change or at least fast change. Technical project managers are also more common in smaller organizations, where the company has not decided yet to invest in higher rate project manager. Business project managers on average get paid more than technical project managers. Also, smaller companies who do not have the experience and the commitment to project management are still not sure about the value a business project manager can bring to the table. Also some industries seem to be focusing more on the technical project manager than others.
A point of caution here, many ask me: “if you really believe in a non technical project manager, why do you focus on expertise in the technical field when you advertise for project manager positions?” There are two parts to the answer of this very good question. The first is that it is very important to differentiate between expertise in the field and technical expertise in the field. For example, I insist on hiring a project manager who is seasoned enough in the industry I am hiring for. Like for construction, I insist on someone with strong background in MANAGING construction projects. So, I am not looking for someone who has expertise and strong background as a concrete or steel reinforcement designer. I am not looking for an electrical engineer who knows circuit design. I am looking for project management experience in construction. There is a big difference. To clarify more, I would gladly hire a project manager with ten years experience managing construction projects, even if his degree is not in construction or even engineering. Given these are rare and hard to find, but I would hire one if I find him AND if my client is like me looking for project management experience not technical experience. Sometimes the client insists on someone with an engineering degree. I usually make my point clear if I have a good candidate who does not have an engineering degree, but if client insists, I usually respect the client wants and look for another candidate.
I was having a conversation with a friend of mine working for a major manufacturer in Europe. He was complaining about how the company does not seem to appreciate a business project manager and wants a project manager to solve technical problems. Again, there are two parts to this issue. First even if you are a business project manager, that does not get you off the hook when it comes to understanding technical aspects of the project. Afterall, the team members, client, your management, expects you to be up to speed on technical terms, technical risks, and technical related issues the team might be having. Now this level of knowledge is attainable without having to get a degree in the technical field, but it definitely requires studying even if independently, and learning about the characteristics of the industry you are working in. I cannot stress enough the importance of this technical learning. The further technically you are from the industry of the project, the more reading and understanding and asking you need to do to get up to speed. Also, the harder it will be for the team to accept you as their leader. Of course some industries are harder than others. In construction, engineers find it hard to accept non technical project managers. However, if you have enough experience under your belt in construction, they might not be as picky about the degree. In IT it is also the same thing. One of the best project managers I know in the IT industry has no degree whatsoever. I learned from this person about project management more than I learned from any single person. And he was accepted easily wherever he went. But he had a lot of experience. Very strong background leading IT projects. So that makes a big difference.
The second part of the issue of management insisting on a technical project manager is a challenge that management themselves are having. In the old days, the industry was based on lots of workers (considered hands) and a single or few managers “considered brains.” At that time, many managers thought that the less brains the better, and the more hands the better. The industry was based on the innovation of a few intellects, who preferred to keep control of their projects in their hands and have technical engineers manage the “hands” so to speak. It is sad that people used to think this way, but this was the case.
In today’s industry, things are different. The executive cannot manage the projects and the engineers, because they cannot be managed as hands. They are intellects, and their work requires intellect. They also have rights, speak their minds, and have other options for employment other than the owners’ company. So, they are less likely to act like machines and more like intellectuals. Also, with the information technology and automation advances, work has become more about intelligence of operators and users of tools, than the hands that use the tools, or the tools themselves. So the team members have much more intellects today and need more intellects than the brains of the owner alone. This is why managing the organization like a group of machines can never work today or would not work for the long-term. However, some managers insist on still doing just that: treating people as hands. Many managers think that merely a headcount would be sufficient for a project to succeed. So, a small IT project requires maybe 10 junior programmers, two senior programmers, and an architect. They get these “hands” together and demand project success. Then, they scratch their heads when the project does not work, and start blaming “the hands” for not being competent. I mean if I had a penny for every time I see this story, I would be a millionaire. (Well, maybe not a millionaire, but easily would have a dollar worth of pennies.)
So what does that have to do with the technical project manager or the business project manager? In the setup above, managers do not feel they need someone to “run” the project and the politics around it and inside it. They think they have the necessary “hands” and the rest is to get them to labor and work hard. Those with a better understanding of what it takes for a project to succeed are frustrated with this mentality, and usually run away from these managers and companies. So, these managers end up with technical people who either have no other place to go, or are content with being just “hands.” In this kind of organization, you end up with doers who think that hard work alone will get the job done and the rest is automation. These organizations are either going extinct, or will have to change their ways very quickly to catch up with the rest of the world. There is not much room for such companies.
By the way, the current recession and tough economic situation parts of the world are going through made it easier for these old mentality managers and owners to make their demands, and to get away with their old ways. As soon as economy picks up, when other companies flourish, they will probably be on their way out. If not, they will keep struggling trying to make ends meet to no avail.
What is sadder is that many of them will not even know why they are going out of business, when they do. they think it is a weak market, too much competition, tough clients, or incompetent employees. They never blame themselves and they never learn from the experience.
So where does this leave us? Who do you want to run your project: a business project manager? or a technical project manager? There is still a choice to be made as both are out there in today’s market, but I do not know for how long. The problem is that when technical project management does not work anymore, it is not easy to just switch to business project management, because the company will have to get acclimated to that kind of environment. For companies that are less used to change, it might require three years or more years for an average size company, If they ever figure out the real problem they are facing, and if they ever make it.