The Background of an IT Project Manager
by Brad Egeland
I am prompted to post this topic by a posting on AllPM that I read a couple of years ago and it came back to me recently.
What type of background, experience, skill set, etc. makes for a good IT Project Manager? Can an individual be say, a successful marketing person and step into the role of IT Project Manager? How about an HR person? An engineer? A customer service rep or manager?
All these positions require a few similar skills as ingredients to success. Communications skills, knowledge of the organization, some type of organization skills, the ability to relate well to individuals inside the company and hopefully outside such as customers. But will they likely be successful Project Managers in an IT organization or in an IT role in the long run? Not likely.
Any of us who have been application developers or work closely with developers (both, in my case) know that they are a different bunch. They must be reined in often. Their priorities are not necessarily your priorities (as the PM). They don’t report to you. You don’t give them their performance reviews or raises, though you may have a say in how they are rated.
You must gain their respect – or at least tolerance – in order to be successful in your role as the IT Project Manager. Without that, they will likely work on their priorities, ignore yours, miss deadlines and you will be cut off at the knees.
Recently, a friend of mine who was a Program/Project Manager for a company I used to work for informed me that he has been out of a job for awhile and is actively looking for PM opportunities. His concern with consulting in a PM role was that he has always been frustrated by a lack of control over the developers on his projects and felt that gave him no confidence in job stability – let alone success in a future consulting role. Well, guess what? He did not have a background in IT before moving into a Project Management role.
Another company I was at required PMs to present their projects to a Technology Council for review at a go/no-go decision point. The PMs with no real IT background before taking over the PM role were repeatedly sent back for more information – and repeatedly frustrated as well.
IMO, it is imperative for success as an IT Project Manager to have some level of IT background in their career path. It has definitely helped me be a more successful Project Manager as well as a better and more respected leader of technical resources on my teams. Developers see through the fluff….but when they realize that you come from a similar background and understand their needs and concerns from a project perspective you often instantly gain new respect and compliance from them.
Keep in mind I’m talking specifically about IT projects only, not all projects in general. Maybe this isn’t an issue at most companies, but it has been an issue in several companies I’ve been involved with. Many characteristics go into making a successful Project Manager beyond just technical knowledge. I’m also certain there have been IT PMs who have succeeded with no previous IT experience. However, as I’ve described above, I have witnessed PM frustrations first-hand at several organizations where the individual was trying desperately to manage technical resources without the development or even general IT background that helps them to better understand the issues being encountered by their technical team members.
One final thought on this subject which affects another critical area of PM responsibility – pricing and estimating. The IT Project Manager who has previously been a developer or played some other technical role will find it easier to ‘ballpark’ prices for customers and estimate change orders for new work required on projects. The first-hand knowledge from their earlier days will help the IT Project Manager estimate and price change orders and ‘sell’ that effort to the customer. I know it has helped me on nearly every project that I have led.