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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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Yes, But not all techs...

by house In reply to Should PMs have an IT bac ...

...would make good PMs.

It is very important that the individual has a technical background, as it will induce positive decisions and informed ideas. I think that it is vital for a PM to be involved in the project at the same level as his/her associates.

The main issue with an IT based PM, is that the individual needs to take a step back in order to view the project as a whole, and where it fits in with the corporate strategy and direction, financially, functionally, and otherwise. I know very few techs who I would nominate to the position, as they are more connected with computing related issues, than they are with management and business sense, but the right people would be a more valuable asset for sure. I've seen senior IT executives make or break the flow based almost exclusively on their backgrounds in the field.

Yes, for IT based PMs - that is not to say a non-tech couldn't do a good job.


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It is "pro" to have IT background

by SiggiH In reply to Should PMs have an IT bac ...

1) The PM needs to understand what should be done.
2) Usually PM with tech background gets more respect from techs in the project.

A good PM knows this, and either learns or relies on technical expertise.

A medium/bad PM might not realize this.

So IT experience is a "pro", but if the PM is a good one, then it is probably not neccessary.

Choosing between a good PM without IT exp. and a medium one with IT exp. I would choose the good one 5 times out of 6. In "heavy technical" projects this would have to be reconsidered.

just my 2c

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I'm with you

by Tzekov In reply to It is "pro" to have IT ba ...

I see the things exactly the same way. It's better to have a good PM without IT background then a mediocre one with a big IT experience.

A good PM will find the most appropriate way to obtain the missing tech knowledge - either learning him or finding a good subject matter expert or some other way.

For me the question "Does PM needs IT background or not?" is not so important. For me the question is "Is he a good one or not?".

For me, using IT experts as PM should not be an option at all when we are talking about projects that will require effort more than 50 man-days. If some IT expert has abilities to be PM, then he needs to decide - to make the transition to PM or not. For me it's not possible to be a PM and a project leader of a project in the same time. There is a conflict of interests in these two roles and nobody so perfect to seat in two chairs without falling down.

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Horses for Courses

by C.Grey3 In reply to Should PMs have an IT bac ...

There is a simple way of looking at this. If you want someone to manage a project (properly) you hire a project manager. In your job description you should extol all the virtues of project management that you require. If you want someone to be a C# programmer you hire someone to write code in C#. In your job description you should extol all the virtues of software development using C#. If you want a C# programmer you don't go out and hire a chartered surveyor. So if you want a project manager you shouldn't go out and hire a C# developer. The only reason this confusion arises is because often organisations actually want their project manager to also act as the development manager (and other disciplines too).


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Vanilla PM

by Meesha In reply to Horses for Courses

Quote, The only reason this confusion arises is because often organizations actually want their project manager to also act as the development manager (and other disciplines too)... unquote. I believe this is the germ of the actual issue at hand. Whether a PM must have a IT tech background or not cannot be satisfied with a simple yes or no. Projects, whether small, medium or long in duration, demand accountability and firm direction. The complexities of projects are mirrored in the corporate culture - if there's bad leadership at the top, there's very little doubt that however well "tooled" the PM is, the project's low success rates can be predicted. Business processes, business knowledge, IT knowledge all contribute to a higher success factor.

As one post previously mentioned, would you take your car out on a bridge that was project led by an IT person? Would you continue doing your Internet banking if all the Bank's team members - including the PMs - had no Internet, security or bank fund experience? A home builder can job cost a new home project fairly accurately leaving room for uncontrollable events - he is often the PM who works with various contractors that act as project leaders. This is the same of IT projects. A PM must know how to cost the project, communicate the project deliverables/timelines, defend the funding, allocate all the resources, monitor to completion, etc. If the PM had no clue as to how long it would take or how many people would be needed for the integration of the corporate legacy systems for Web Services for example, how could the PM possibly be successful? An IT project leader in the mean time acts as a second to the PM but their primary focus will be on the "technical" issues - whether that be requirements gathering or redeploying some of the resources to quality control, etc.

So, does the PM need to have an technical background to structure and deliver an IT project? I firmly believe the proposed project itself will dictate the degree of technical background required by the PM and other team members. I'm in IT with 20 years of IT experience, I do project management and I've been quite successful all this time because of my background. Would I PM on a bridge building project - not a chance and you wouldn't want me for that!

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by wnyakudya In reply to Should PMs have an IT bac ...

I do not think project manager's should have an IT background. Currently, I am a victim of a PM with IT background who has sacrificed all other areas, surprisingly including communications with the users/client.

I feel PMs should understand the environment and be better placed to sell ice to the Eskimoos.

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General agreement

by miles.felton In reply to Should PMs have an IT bac ...

I have seen projects managed by non-technical and by technical project managers. More by technical. I think some technical experience is needed to predict user experiences, but not necessarily programming. Ability as communicator and administrator is prime.
I agree with your classifications of Proj Man and Proj Ldr. I am often amazed by people in the S/W business who think that a team leader is a Project Manager, especially if their job title is Team or Project Leader. In some places simple Account Managers are called Project Managers too. It's probably lack of training and experience in managed project environments and is typical of SMEs. The big companies (especially utilities) in England always seem to do it more or less properly.

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You better believe it

by James Schroer In reply to Should PMs have an IT bac ...

How is a PM going to know how long things are going to take to implement if they don't have any background? They would have no idea what could and what will go wrong in a project if they don't have a background in that area. You could be talking about replacing a hard drive and the PM sees it as just taking a piece out and putting a piece back in if they don't understand. When in fact that would be the first step while the next steps would include istalling an OS, then all the drivers, and then move all the users data back to the drive.

So to make a long story short yes the PM needs some background and understanding of the IT field he/she will be managing.

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Mix of both is helpful

by nsadowski In reply to Should PMs have an IT bac ...

I'm a PM who manages infrastructure projects. I have found that being able to combine project managment skills with an understanding of the technical environments makes for a much better project. Plans are more comprehensive and issue resolution is much quicker. Based on experience, PMs who are thrown into the technical arena offen cause negative impacts on their projects just because of their own lack of understanding.

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Mix of both is helpful

by Tin Man In reply to Mix of both is helpful

I agree.

I think many people are assuming we are talking about IT projects here since this is a technology site. But I would expect some level of domain (IT or other) knowledge would improve the chances of success over not having any. I would be wary of hiring a project manager for a large construction project without some knowledge of construction.

One approach I have successfully used in the past is to have a technical PM reporting to the business PM for technical projects. The business PM feeds MS Project, manages budgets/major milestones, prepares reports and shmoozes management. The technical PM manages the technical process & resources. More expensive but you can't always find both skillsets in one person. People gravitate and focus on what they are good at and al activities. Cheaper than a failed project.

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