Project Management

Transitioning into project management without a tech background

Help a TechRepublic member figure out how to transition into a technical project management job without a tech degree.

I recently received an email from a TechRepublic reader regarding applying for a technical project management job even though the candidate didn't have a lot of technical experience. Below is the reader's question and my response.

The scenario

"I have 20+ year experience in creative services management for busy in house graphic design teams. We produce promotional materials for off-line and on-line purposes.

Recently, I have started working with the new Digital Director here. I have volunteered to help him build a user experience design for a new web site.  I am interested and motivated about user experiences with technical products and I believe I was built to work in this field.

However, most technical project managers come from a technical background. I am very good at task management - highly resourceful, creative, curious, detail oriented and functional thinker keeping the big picture in mind. My strengths also include intuition, successful staff and resource management. My degree is in Business Administration with an emphasis in Direct Marketing.

There is an opening for a Technical Project Manager job at my company and I am interested in learning more about.

Would you ever consider hiring a person without a technical background? What does someone with my background need to do to get a job managing projects with user experience and design?"

Pursuing the technical PM opportunity

Sometime during my college days, I heard the saying, "You'll change your career six or seven times in your lifetime." I'm sure we've all heard this saying in one form or another. I consider it useful advice when trying to transition to other job roles that you find interesting even though your background may not be a perfect fit.

Your challenge with this position is demonstrating relevant experience compared to the other people applying for the position. However, in a technical project management position, the hiring manager and you need to assess the amount of technical work required in addition to the project management requirement.

If the candidate has a good understanding of how the technology layers fit together and has past management experience but doesn't have a technical background, I would still hire that person. I often see this in project management positions for Information Technology jobs. Typically, the Computer Science student is the coder, and the MIS major is the business analyst or systems analyst; either person would make good project managers as long as they can demonstrate an understanding of how the technology fits into the overall plan.

You have more than 20 years of work experience and have gotten an informal education in the digital design and user experience domain. I use experience in the subject matter drive the evaluation rather than the academic credentials. After all, we're designing websites not engineering pyramids.

Technology keeps changing, so the tools you use today will likely be different in 3-5 years. Your management skills, on the other hand, should improve with experience. By demonstrating past experience and competency performing the technical work, you can position yourself as a strong candidate. Since the job is a project management role, I would highlight the management strengths over the technical competency.

In order to deemphasize the lack of technical experience, I recommend taking an introductory technical course so you'll have a foundational understanding of the actual application. For instance, it has been 14 years since I coded in Java, yet I took an Android development course to get a better understanding of the work required for creating Android apps. I won't be developing Android apps any time soon, but I now have a better understanding of the process and the issues developers face when developing apps on mobile platforms, and I am confident that I could manage an Android development project.

Your degree doesn't determine your entire career

My peers and other executives I know have a mixed bag of degrees and backgrounds. Finance, Math, and even Biology majors have all succeeded in earning senior project management and executive positions despite their lack of a technical IT degree.

Your lengthy career cannot be predetermined by the piece of paper you earned when you were 21 years old; your skills and your collective set of life experiences determine your career. There are no guarantees you'll get the next position. There may be a better-qualified candidate who has the right mix of technical background, management experience, and the political corporate capital within the company.

I encourage you to apply to the position and consider taking additional technical training to earn enough certifications to balance your experience. Learning doesn't stop with the initial degree, and hiring managers recognize the importance of a balance between management and technical skills.

What's your advice for this reader? Please comment your suggestions in the discussion.

About

Dr. Andrew Makar is an IT program manager and is the author of How To Use Microsoft Project and Project Management Interview Questions Made Easy. For more project management advice visit http://www.tacticalprojectmanagement.com.

9 comments
jsargent
jsargent

It is more important to know something about the business domain the project will be in and know the methodology to do project management. I would say that from all the project managers that I have met in IT they have never demonstrated that they ever had any tech knowledge worth noticing. Getting on to project mangers in non-IT sectors I personally know 3 project managers that are Chemical Engineers doing project management for civil engineering projects. What helps is domain knowledge and the methodology to do the job. I would agree with the author to try for the job and to back up the experience with a formal qualification.

waltersantiago
waltersantiago

There are lot of technology educational sites where you can learn the basics plus the latest technological advances. A lot of universities are also offering free beginners through advanced tech courses that would help you better prepare yourself to any challenge a techie interviewer may throw at you. Try www.coursera.com for a list of free college level courses you can enroll. You'll find original courses from universities such as Stanford and Duke. MIT has their own free courses site as well. Some of these professors would even give you certificate of accomplishment for finishing the course if you complete all the homeworks and pass the final test with a passing grade.

RW17
RW17

Existing Project Managers will be sure to reply to this situation with all of the "barriers" they wish to throw up to discourage some like this from trying to be a PM. I'm here to tell you to read all responses and pick and choose who you think is providing supportive advice! The key questions I would have are the following: Have you had experience working on the types of projects you would manage in future? This does not mean the same technology, or anything like that. For example, if you have worked significantly on a project (as a project worker) to implement "ABC", you will be sure to be fine with the sequence of activities of a project to implement "GHI" in a similar fashion! When a new Information System comes out, no one has experience managing it's implementation, but there are a lot of people who have lots of project experience in similar products. Don't sell yourself short... if you have experience in similar projects, you should be fine moving up the chain. You will run into difficulties, but not that many more than any Tech-skilled-to-PM manager guy. We all have our strengths. The trick is to maximize the benefit of them, and then to work hard on the "Weaknesses" you have as well. Who is ever logically going to refuse a person who does that?

jim
jim

It sounds like this person has operational experience. Good project management is significant different from on-going operational managment. Historical good technical people have been promoted to project management, but many do not make the transition well, because of the lack of people skills. If you have the people skills, you still need to understand the temporay nature and other project aspects that are different from operations.

steven
steven

There are two people I hire for a specific job depending on what I need in that position. The first is someone who has extensive experience in similar positions and stands out as a perfect fit. The second is someone who clearly does not have the experience to qualify as a perfect fit but has the less tangible qualities of eagerness, common sense, good interpersonal skills, and intelligence to quickly compensate for their lack of applicable experience. I have hired both with great success. The question for you is "Do you fall into the latter category." Therefore, your task with respect to the hiring manager is to first determine what characteristics he or she would accept from someone who is not a perfect fit. That is, you must ask them, "You know, I'm considering applying for this position. If you were to hire someone who does not have the specific experience relating to the technical knowledge of this job, what qualities would you look for that would convince you to hire someone without a great deal of technical experience?" They may answer, "I would not hire someone like that under any circumstances.".... end of discussion. On the other hand, they may well give you a series of qualities and now you know what they want. If I were asked this question, I would list the qualities I listed above. But those are my criteria. You must find out what the hiring manager values. If you can't get an answer then take mine. Your task then, in order to secure the job, is to show that you have the non-technical qualities that the hiring manager wants. If you can get the desired non-technical qualities from the hiring manager then pump up your capabilities in relation to those qualities. If you cannot get the desired non-technical qualities then hit as many qualities as you think might be important including the ones I list in this response. The main message is that under some circumstances I will opt for the candidate that is a perfect fit... if they exist. On other occasions, I might have a really "good person"; smart; quick; articulate; able to think clearly; able to work well with people; and organized.... someone I trust to become what they are not yet. I've hired plenty of these people and they have never let me down. However, that is also a function of my ability to spot these people... some managers never take this approach. It is risky. So your job as the non-technical candidate is in two phases. First, do the best you can to determine under what circumstances the hiring manager would hire a non-technical person for your desired position.... guess only as a last resort if you can't get the desired information. And second, if you have the desired qualities, make sure they are clearly presented to the hiring manager. That's how you make your case. I hope this helps. Steven Cerri

sparent
sparent

Winslow8, The last person you hired was not a technical project manager. It was a person filling in two roles, project manager and troubleshooting. I usually don't like projects where I am the PM and also part of the delivery team. I prefer to keep those activities separate. (I don't mind being on the delivery team for someone else's project.)

Mind the Gap
Mind the Gap

I do not have a technical background (no programming degree), but I've successfully managed projects I think in part because I think like a programmer and have good organization and at least average people skills. On the other hand, the last person I hired as a project manager needed very good technical skills because I knew he'd also have to do double duty, using his programming skills and data conversion experience to troubleShoot.

jsargent
jsargent

To be a good engineer you have to have good people skills. It seems that those people were probably mediocre to bad engineers.

jsargent
jsargent

The project manager should not be trouble shooting or doing any data conversion. You did not hire a project manager, you hired something else.

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