I was having a great interview for a Project Manager position. It was a team interview and as we neared the end, everyone was acting as if I was a member of the group, I knew I had the job. As I was getting ready to leave, I asked my standard exit question, “Does anyone have any questions or concerns about my skills that have not been addressed yet?” Normally this leads to a bunch of “Nos” — but not this time.
One of the team members asked the fatal question: “If someone on the project is out sick or on vacation can you step in and write test scripts and do QA analysis while they are out?” As it had been years since I had done anything along those lines, I had to say “No, I cannot.” Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.
IT Project Management seems to be splitting into two camps, functional PMs and technical PMs. Technical PMs appear to need a skill set that is half technical and half project management. In this case, the PM is not just a PM, but also a stand-in for absent people, Tier III support, etc. For small and/or non-critical projects this is a good approach. But for anything else, this can cause a disaster.
It’s something like this: If someone you love is sick and needs a heart replacement, which doctor would you want to do the surgery, a dedicated heart surgeon (functional PM) or a General Practitioner (technical PM)? The GP may know a lot more about medicine as a whole (the technical aspects of a project) but the heart surgeon has specialized knowledge that the GP does not (the functional PM). If you have a business critical project, why would you not want someone specialized in project management skills versus someone who has only half — or less – of the PM skill set?
I can personally attest that a PM’s abilities can transfer between fields without any underlying knowledge of a project’s technical aspects. Once I was hired to manage a major construction project even though I had zero experience in construction. I was successful because I had a team that did have the expertise and could provide me with the details I needed. The fact that I didn’t know how long a slab of concrete of a certain size and thickness needed to cure was of no importance, because plenty of people on the team did know.
So how do we get across the message that PM skills are more important than technical skills? I’m glad you asked.
The authors of a 2008 study How do Project Managers’ Skills Affect Project Success in IT Outsourcing? reached this conclusion:
We find that PM soft skills significantly improve both cost performance and client satisfaction feedback. We further show that their impact is much stronger compared to that of hard [technical] skills.
Another point is the technical vs. functional difference has been around for quite some time, yet has had no impact on the overall success of projects. The table below highlights this.
Since 2002 there has been almost no improvement in the success rate for IT projects while the failure rate has increased. Whether this is due to PMs being required to split their skill sets between being PM and tech support is still unknown. However, whenever someone’s time is divided between two unrelated abilities, neither one tends to be done well.
I started project management from a technical background. As my responsibilities increased in complexity and scale, I still got involved in technical issues. My boss then finally took me aside and told me that the next time I touched the hardware or software he was going to fire me. Needless to say, that got my attention. He explained that if I wanted to manage critical projects, I needed to concentrate on being a PM as opposed to being part PM and part technician. Since then, I’ve realized he was correct. I was glad I took his advice. Plus, I kept my job.
The next time your company needs a critical or large-scale project done, think about how important what you’re trying to do truly is. Saving a few dollars on project costs by hiring one person to do two completely different jobs may not be the best way to save money. This is especially true if the company’s heart is involved.