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.

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