Technical Project Manager

Technical Project Manager

“Does the Project Manager need to be technical as well?

Once during an interview for a Project Manager position, in a software development company, the interviewer asked me; “How do you design the architecture of the applications?”. The interview was going along very well till this point and I was a bit taken back at this question. The reason was that no such thing was mentioned in the job description in the job advertisement. 

What I could recall, in terms of requirements, from the advertised JD, was all about a traditional project manager. So I responded to the question that it is a job of Solution Architecture and also clarified that I never mentioned in my resume that I have been involved in such a role ever in my career. 

This was not the only time I faced this question. It was repeated many times after that. As I gained more experience in the project management domain, I explored this question more, does a Project Manager really needs to be technical as well? The general impression is that it is good to have but I firmly believe that there is no such thing as Technical Project Manager. The fact is that it is either “Project Manager” or it is “Technical Development Manager”. They both have clearly defined boundaries and are also two different kinds of senior-level roles.

For me, when someone is working in a senior-level role, he/she cannot be doing a bit of this or a bit of that. He/she needs to be an expert in his/her respective domain. Asking such a senior-level resource to perform a critical task, not related to his/her domain, is like asking an experienced medical doctor to involve in some advanced engineering activity and also expect him/her to perform at the same level that a domain expert could have done. The Project Manager’s domain is more focused on “when” and “what” while Technical Development Manager’s role is about “how”. 

I have seen many project schedules prepared by Technical Managers and most of them seem too good to be true but in reality, they are missing many basic elements. A traditional Project Manager will consider each role when coordinating for estimates. The main problem with Technical Project Managers is that they are more inclined towards the technical aspects of the project and miss out on many project management aspects related to the project. The most common aspect that is missed by the Technical Project Managers is the Risk Management Plan.

One of the most common arguments is that if a Project Manager is not with a technical background, then he/she will not be able to verify the estimates provided by the team to be realistic resultantly this will cause weak control over the project. I disagree with this school of thought. The Project Manager has other specialized resources, i.e., Architect or Development Lead, etc. at his/her disposal which are responsible for such technical activities. 

A good Project Manager should stick to his/her role and let others perform their duties rather than trying to do everything himself. Also, it is the team that has to perform the actual work and they need to be unpowered to keep them accountable which is also what Agile methodologies agree with. It is a common phenomenon that a resource can be only held responsible if he/she has provided and agreed with some effort estimates. 

Other main areas, the Technical Manager, generally lacks and the Project Managers are generally good at are documentation and reporting. It is not that the Technical Managers don’t do a good job but the fact is that their job is different. 

There is one group of Project Managers who might have worked as technical resources in the early part of their careers before moving into the Project Manager role. For me, that situation is very beneficial as the manager will have experience in both domains. But like I said earlier, I don’t expect an expert of one domain to have the same command over another. 

But that doesn’t mean that if you were a technical resource then you cannot be a good manager. You have to work hard and try to fast-track the learning curve to become an effective Project Manager. A good way to do that is to talk to the experts regarding different things and experiences related to their domain and also go through some relevant pieces of training.

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