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Should PMs have an IT background?

By MaryWeilage Editor ·
This week's Project Management newsletter explores the debate about whether project managers should have an IT background.

Do you think IT skills are necessary to successfully lead IT projects? What has been the experience in your organization?

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I second (or third) DC_Guy

by TomSal In reply to Yes.

I believe, while not completely REQUIRED, yes on average from folks I know personally, at my place and other shops...it does help when IT project managers have past IT experience.

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Bad experience

by C.Grey3 In reply to Yes.

You have met a couple of PMs who were really good. Great. You have met a lot more who were utterly imcompetent....

Surely these totally incompetents would be totally incompetent whether they had IT skills or not? Therefore what you are saying is that you agree that a GOOD PM doesn't need to have an IT background and you just wish that all the PMs you have met were GOOD?

Chris

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Perhaps I didn't express myself clearly

by DC_GUY In reply to Bad experience

The vast majority of the IT project managers I've worked with have been competent. Some have been outstanding, some have needed a little TLC, but in general they were able to dispatch their job duties satisfactoritly.

I was talking specifically about IT PMs with no IT background. One attorney managed to catch on quickly and did a really good job. Of course he had also had a variety of other careers so his diverse background was a help. A couple of other people managed to go through the rites of passage all right; the key seemed to be an abiding sense of humility and not being afraid to look stupid and ask questions. But for the most part the not-IT people who took IT PM roles didn't approach it correctly and could not make up for their lack of expertise in time to bring the project in successfully.

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A very big 'of course !!!'

by alex.v In reply to Yes.

A project manager without an IT background will not be able to evaluate the feasability of solutions in the required timeframe. As a project manager is the interface between the business community and the design/development teams he/she will have to reconcile the business functional requirements and deadlines with the real world technical constraints that his team will be facing. He/she has to understand whether a solution is difficult to implement and suggest changes. Conversely he/she has to be able to distinguish between legitimate requests for more time/development resources and lame excuses. Also, how can a project manager resource the team if he can't tell between good and goof ?

A non-technical project manager is heavily dependent on the qualifications and honesty of the people who report to him. I am an Oracle consultant and I have seen many underqualified PMs who led projects off rails because they could not tell whether the solutions were feasible (falling for the 'this tool will write the whole thing for us' syndrome for instance).

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Not sure that's valid

by Tony Hopkinson In reply to A very big 'of course !!! ...

On any multi-discplinary project, one of his 'experts' could lead him down the garden path. Seeing as there's no way he could have the technical expertise to catch us all out, he has to rely on experience, intuition, documentation and espionage to do so.

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Project Leader or Project Manager?

by ArrowIVDriver In reply to A very big 'of course !!! ...

I agree with your concerns regarding the role that project team
leaders fulfill. In small projects, the PM and PL roles may
necessarily be combined in which case the leader must have
technical expertise - at least enough to avoid being "snowed" by
the technical team.

However, in larger projects, it is often impossible for the project
manager to have expert knowledge of all the technical
components involved. If you've got a mainframe systems
integration project that utilizes DB2 interfaced to an Oracle-
based distributed data collection component, with real time
communications to specialized radio-linked embedded data
collection processors in a manufacturing environment that use
PLC processors, and a high degree of electrical engineering
knowledge is needed to understand the signal processing
algorithms being used to filter the data coming from the process
sensors - the PM is unlikely to be able to serve as the technical
leader in all those areas.

Formal, structured project management practices must be
employed. Subject matter experts, solid technical team leaders,
and key stakeholders must be identified, recruited, inspired, and
orchestrated in order to produce a good project result. Thinking
that the PM will lead it all personally is unrealistic.

Moreover, asking the PM to lead the project as a technical team
leader on multiple simultaneously working technical teams is
organizationally flawed. It is a setup for failure. The PM must
be an accomplished project manager first - focusing on project
issues - not technical issues. The PM must use technical leaders
to manage the technical issues.

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Nice and simple, good statement

by bcgreaves In reply to Yes.

I don't need to add anything else, I believe you're absolutely correct.

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Don't confuse project team leader with project manager

by ArrowIVDriver In reply to Yes.

In these debates, the most common observation I've made
repeatedly is that people confuse the role of the team leader
with the role of a project manager. The project team leader
absolutely MUST have an excellent grasp of the technology and
the technical processes and trade-offs. The project manager
must have an excellent grasp of project management skills -
including the ability to identify and recruit appropriate subject
matter experts to serve as project leaders.

In smaller projects, the project leader and the project manager
may have to be the same person. I understand the economic
pressures that cause that. However, more often than not, I've
seen people in that combined role become conflicted in terms of
priorities and goals regarding their personal tasks. More often
than not, the technical demands supercede the project
management demands and the project falters as a result.

Finally, I too have seen more project manager lacking technical
backgrounds run into trouble on technical projects than those
who are successful. This has almost always, however, been due
to weak project management proficiency rather than lack of
technical knowledge.

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Not sure it could be any other way

by davidpmartin In reply to Yes.

In today's post-manufacturing, information-driven capitalistic world, information is THE key to gaining a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Given this very credible assumption, I do not understand how any corporation that really is serious about establishing the information competitive advantage would even consider a Project Manager for IT with a non-IT background. I know there is almost a built-in bias against PMs with a extensive IT background, because the prejudice against 'techies' not having good people skills, but the non-IT PM simply cannot call BS against suggested solutions that are too 'leading-edge', expensive, non-reliable, etc. They simply do not have the background. This puts the corporation behind the 'power-curve' on putting together a sucessful IT project even before they get started.

I think if you look at the PMs of all of the world class companies (Daimler-Chrysler, Walmart, FedEx, etc) and you would find IT PMs that had extensive IT backgrounds as well as good people skills. Granted it's a mix that is hard to find, but I think it is an absolute neccessity that an IT PM has extensive grounding in a wide variety of IT disciplines.

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Shopworn arguments

by Ken9 In reply to Yes.

A lot of the shopworn argument about a "good manager can manage anything" is based on the management doctrine of managing up and down. In short it relies on their team to educate them on the specifics of every decision they need to make.

Unfortunately as observed in another thread IT people have a superiority complex and will not take kindly to having to educate a manager sufficiently to make the correct decision every time (especially as most managers get paid more than their team members). And there are so many ways in IT you can make someone look like a fool if they don't know enough to check what they are told.

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