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The Role of a Project’s Lead Technologist
By Bruce McGraw

Every project that I have looked at over the years involving computers, software or technology had three key staff on them — The PM, the sponsor and the lead technologist (or some call them the Subject Matter Expert- SME). Selected by the project manager, the Project Management Office, program manager or senior staff, the role of lead technologist requires someone who can effectively balance technical leadership and design, while supporting organizational and project goals. Although the exact duties differ among organizations and projects, the lead technologist often is expected to:

  • Oversee or develop the system architecture and design
  • Work with clients to understand requirements and constraints

  • Create and present the project’s technical side to customers and senior management

  • Solve technical problems

  • Referee technical disputes

  • Recommend resources and tools

I could go on. However, I think you get the idea that this position can be extremely demanding. In my career, I have seen lead technologists save the backside of inexperienced managers and nearly destroy a project because of personality conflicts with junior staff. As a lead technologist or a developer moving into a lead position, here are a few suggestions that may improve your chances of success.

  1. Get authority commensurate with the position – if you can. But remember that you are not the PM – and probably don’t want that job anyway! Be a support partner to the project manager.
  2. Define clearly the expectations and evaluation criteria of the position – tempting though it may be for the PM to say, “and everything else assigned by the PM,” work with him or her to clarify expectations.

  3. Practice communication skills. Lead technologists help program managers, executive management, customers and stakeholders understand the technology and its application to the project goals. Often they need to serve as translators for technology approaches and obstacles.

  4. Be willing to say no. Sometimes through ignorance or bullying tactics, you will be asked to make technology violate the basic laws of physics or human nature. As lead technologist, you need to explain why an itch cannot be scratched or a request cannot be met. Be diplomatic, but firm.

  5. Get to know team members skills and motivations. Do not overlook weaknesses because of friendship. Help build weak skills and enhance aptitudes. Be a coach.

  6. Do not hoard information – screen it. Then pass along as necessary both up, laterally and down.

  7. Work to build trust with the team by doing what you promise, admitting mistakes and recognizing (publically) achievements and contributions of team members. Give credit where credit is due!

  8. Do not be defensive, but be willing to explain technical decisions when asked. Listen to other’s ideas.

  9. Create level of effort estimates with input from the assigned staff. Do not base LOE on the time and effort you would take to complete the task (Not everyone is a super-star).

  10. Stay calm even in the face of unexpected challenges or problems.

Please share your suggestions, tips and experience as lead technologist.

Bruce A. McGraw is COO/EVP for Cognitive Technologies, a WBE/DBE consulting firm delivering project /program management, collaborative processes, and organizational effectiveness to commercial and government clients (www.cognitive-technologies.com). Bruce has been a program manager for over 25 years and has experience across multiple industries. His ability to craft pragmatic solutions to meet project goals, coupled with experience in all aspects of project management, enables him to meet customer expectations with on-time, within-budget deliveries. Bruce is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) and is an active member of the Project Management Institute. Bruce authors a project management blog at Fear No Project and can be contacted at (512) 380-1204 or Bruce.McGraw@cogtechinc.com.

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