Yes, Project Management Skills Trump Tech Skills

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.

Group InterviewOne 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.

Chart of Project SuccessI 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.

33 Responses to “Yes, Project Management Skills Trump Tech Skills”

  1. Well this is really something of an unfair comparison … in that one is comparing “apples” to “oranges”..yes they are both fruit but they are different.
    However to say that Project Management Skills “Trump” Technical Skills is really missing the point
    when it comes to successful project management.
    I’ve been in the IT business for over 30 years now, I can attest to the FACT that if a project manager, knows NOTHING about the technical aspects of a project, that manager better pray that there is excellent raport between her/him and the project team, AND that the team members are
    highy motivated AND honest, because if they’re not and the PM knows little or nothing that PM can get “hung out to dry” and the project will fail. I’ve seen it happen many times.
    Having said that, establishing a good team spirit and communication, and maximizing the teams
    skill sets, and providing support for the team members are the main ingredients to a successful
    I had a similar experience some years ago interviewing for a project management for a application development team. When asked could I get into a “rollup the shirt sleeves” situation, I said yes.
    Even though it had been a few years since I did any COBOL coding, none the less I was very confident that I could. Leadership is the most important skill.
    General Dwight Eisenhower when asked what makes a good leader, he repiled “Leadership is the ability to get people to do what you want them to do because THEY want to do it..”

    • Gene Hart

      Its actually spot on, so many times the project stakeholders want a technical lead as the PM, but forget that they need a PM to drive the project. Your comment is correct about leadership, and most successful PM’s would agree with you, but the the technical lead now the PM would say understanding “How this works” is the most important. Russell really nailed it, rolling up the sleeves is not what this is about. Its about a company knowing when to hire a real “Project Manager” as apposed to a technical lead to oversee a particular service, software or product.

      I’m commenting because as I troll thru the job postings, time and time again companies list technical qualifications for software integration, development, coding for some software gadget or whatever, and at the end it says PMP certified! Really you really wanted a Functional PM? Just Split the roles please so the Career PM’s with outdated technical skills because we’ve been running complex projects and not making sure our COBALT skills are stale. Can we just go right to the actual projects that need Project Managers and List them as “You know, the guy that runs the Project”

  2. Russell Harley

    So let us say you started coding as part of your project. How do you think that would have impacted the project? Things change really quickly in the IT field so the tools you needed to use and the process would have been far different than the last time you coded anything. Do you actually think your code would have been as good as someone whose current job was doing it still? Do you think that would be a good use of your skills on the project?

    If someone wants you to be a team player on a project, there are many ways to do that besides asking a PM to use outdated skills and process to ‘roll up their sleeves’. You can say, I know someone that is a great coder that does freelance work (or can find someone) that if the project needed it could come in with a few days’ notice and help out if needed. You could even have them be pre-screened by the team so if the need did arise, the trigger could be pulled and they could step in.

    That seems to be a much better value-add than asking someone that had not coded anything for a few years to ‘step in’. This is why I said “No” when that question was asked of me. Even if I was 99% sure I would have never been asked to do the QA testing, I did not want to take the chance of being called on to do it and then fail or ignore the PM aspects of my job while doing the testing.
    If what you propose was true that PMs get ‘hung out to dry’ if they do not understand the technical aspects of a project, then the project failure rate for projects would be much worse. There is no way a PM can understand all the technical aspects of a project as the projects scale, encompass new technologies, and involve hundred’s (even thousand’s) of people. To me this is an unrealistic expectation in my view and why I wrote the article.

    Filling in the ‘gaps’ as a PM does not do the project, the team, or the sponsors any favors either. You could be the best PM in the world, but if something you coded in order to ‘help out’ caused a major issue, would anyone really care at that point what a great PM you were? This is why as the projects I was responsible for grew in size and scope, my manager at the time told me to leave the technology alone. That advice certainly has worked out well for me.

    • I say that PM involvement on a “technical” level really depends on the size and scope of the project. Very large multifaceted projects require PM with skills in areas such as time and budget management, resource management, and communications.
      However the PMs of smaller projects and sub-components of larger projects should have some technical skills. In fact the project I was referring to while I didn’t do any coding I was able to guide and assist programmers in terms of the design basis for the application system.

      As to the “hung out to dry” comment, I did preface that with the facts that the project team must have “Unit Pride” and integrity; if I may borrow some terms from my experience as a Marine. These are the qualities a PM must instill in the team. Again effective communication, leadership by example, and watching out for “mission creep” are some of the key elements in successful project management.

  3. On highly technical projects, a PM with little or no experience in the skill area is going to crash the project. The exceptions are if the PM has a self managing team and simply stays out of the fray, or if the person has extensive experience with that sort of project, even if he does not have the actual project skills.

    On anything smaller than a Medium-Large project, the PM should be dividing his time, or he is just stealing company time. A PM should not be able to occupy a 40 hour week with status meetings.

    • I am sorry Rich; I will have to disagree with you concerning the ‘crashing of a project’ as my experience does not support that. Neither does the study I quoted in my article. Can understanding the technical details help, yes. Are they critical for the success of the project that many seem to think, not so much.

      If what you say was true, then my managing a build out of a $10M Bio-diesel plant was doomed to fail because I knew nothing about the technical details of the project. Yet it did not. And my team was anything but self-managing. You can certainly manage teams without understanding the technical details of what they are doing whether they are self-managing or not.

      Also, in my article, I clearly stated (or thought I did) by stating “For small and/or non-critical projects this is a good approach.” so on that point I do agree with you.

  4. A PM needs to be hands off approach when it comes to Project Manager. A Project Manager needs to be aware technically to calculate estimates correctly, understand, follow and lead meetings. But for the actual implementation has to be done by a technical guy / SME. Think like this. As a PM if you are work is worth $100-$150/hr and developer work is $50-$60/hr why do you want to replace technical work (ie in stead of $100-$150/hr work you will contribute $50-$60/hr work). Besides if you get too bogged down in technical work you will not have time to do PM tasks.

  5. A PM needs to be hands off approach when it comes to Technical Work. A Project Manager needs to be aware technically to calculate estimates correctly, understand, follow and lead meetings. But for the actual implementation has to be done by a technical guy / SME. Think like this. As a PM if you are work is worth $100-$150/hr and developer work is $50-$60/hr why do you want to replace technical work (ie in stead of $100-$150/hr work you will contribute $50-$60/hr work). Besides if you get too bogged down in technical work you will not have time to do PM tasks.

  6. On a different note, I wish companies would stop calling everything a project, especially when they are internal endeavors. Yes, they may fit the literal definition, but no one is expecting the PM to spend time on risk or quality management. And often, the PM doesn’t even have a budget, just an end date.

    Everyone now wants PMPs, which I am, yet they don’t want out to use your real skill sets. Too often you get roped into tasks that others should be doing.

  7. @ Joel G. et al
    I understand what you’re saying Joel, however, it’s a situation that’s unavoidable.
    As a PM, one must be wary of nebulous “goals” ill defined expectations and “moving targets”
    Frankly I would be wary of any “project” that doesn’t have a budget.
    You have to insist that “upper management” be “on board” for the project.
    That they are willing to give you the budget and AUTHORITY necessary to achieve the project goals. Beware of “Mission Creep” and NEVER take on a project w/o the budget and authority to
    get the “job” done.

  8. wendy godfrey-dean

    I agree strongly with this article. I also agree that is important to have a general knowledge of the IT. Beyond this and more importantly a good project manager must also have expertise in business and marketing in order to be able to manage a project from onset to completion. A PM must be well rounded in order to be successful and in order for any project two be successfully completed.

  9. Zachary Hamilton

    I think there’s a lot of “It depends” in here. It depends on whether the project manager listens to their SME’s or whether they bowl them over in order to meet/beat deadlines.

    It also depends on the tasks at hand and whether they should be treated as a task or a project (I might not be using the right jargon there). I have worked in IT for 20 years, and I’ve seen some managers that required project plans for tying your shoes. Sometimes, when the scope is small, you don’t need that level of formality (although I’m not saying you shouldn’t plan).

  10. Your point is interesting, and I would have to somewhat disagree.

    A full-blown, certified Project Manager can indeed manage any project; however, he will be more effective if he doesn’t have to constantly ask people to explain how anything around him works. A project manager will have better input into a project and a stronger ability to manage stakeholders and their requirements if he actually understands the stakeholders’ requirements and the limitations of the field well. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it and do it well; but it’s best if you have technical skill in the field. It can be weak technical skill, even below what would allow you to perform effectively in the field; but you should be able to perform to a basic degree, and understand what’s in front of you.

    Miyomoto Musashi once said that a foreman cannot be a foreman until he has been as all carpenters in his command.

    A foreman knows that a good carpenter can finish woodwork with intricate designs; and that a not-as-good carpenter can lay and finish floors; and that the even less skilled may place joists; and the totally incompetent can cut wedges and shims and perform other such time-consuming but mindless tasks until his mental discipline and fine skills have been honed enough to cut a perfect wedge, and lay an acceptable floor joist.

    A foreman also knows the requirements of all of these jobs, and how to evaluate the carpenter’s ability, and thus to leverage the carpenter’s skills more effectively: he knows that the carpenter laying joists has developed a keen eye and lays his joists level, and will be able to effectively finish a floor such that it is truly planed and not just finished in sections. He knows this because he at one time has lain joists and finished flooring and, although his skill has waned with time and he is now surpassed by his best carpenters, he understands the meaning behind the job of laying joists and finishing floor, and can recognize when the job is being done well and when a carpenter displays skill that would probably apply well to a more nuanced task.

    A foreman’s great skill is not his loud mouth.

    • Thank you for the well thought out reply.

      I agree that we will need to disagree with our points of view. The issue between them is that you see project management as a craft. As I stated in my article in small and some medium sized projects this is a valid way to do projects. However, once the scale of the projects get larger, this is impossible to accomplish.

      Think about projects that are worldwide or cost tens of millions of dollars. Is it realistic for a Project Manager to really know all aspects of the role of a project as you suggest? Is it really a cost effective use of the PM’s time on a project to do work that some who is paid less to do as another commentator pointed out?

      In my Master’s program, one of my instructors was the lead PM on the Boston Big Dig project. I can assure you that she did not know every aspect of the project like you suggest she would need to. Yet the project was completed. There are huge numbers of projects that are being worked on every day successfully by PMs that do not have the understanding that you suggest they have to in order to be successful.

      As I have lead huge national and international projects there is no way I could ever have the understanding you suggest I needed. Yet these projects were successful. And I did not find that the projects suffered because I, as the PM, had not worked in all areas of the project before I led the project.

      The bottom line in this discussion is that it is a matter of scale. If you are building a custom home as a carpenter, then your viewpoint is correct. If you are responsible for building subdivisions of homes across the US, with different building codes, etc., then your example does not hold up very well based on my experience at least.

  11. To be a successful PM, your knowledge should be a mile wide and an inch deep. I know this is a very simplistic attitude to take but you are proficient in application of project management skills/practices, anything else can be learned. Granted some background experience would be helpful but I cannot grasp that a PM is only affective in ONE industry

    One last thing, you have to be willing to accept that you will not always be the smartest person in the room. You just need to know how to manage and motivate those who are.

  12. Raquel Schneiderman

    I really like how you distilled the essence of this very common problem by showcasing a very thoughtless ‘apparent’ solution. A strong project manager will be resourceful and ensure that the project continues on its proper path through planning. People call in sick all the time. Plan for it. Communicate the plan and get sign off from all; especially the sponsors.

  13. Keith Meyer

    Started reading through some posts here…so kinda late to the party apparently.
    Anyway, while it is all well and good for a PM to step in and help on something needed, it can be disastrous if you expect someone to jump in for a day or 2 and code for someone else…wth? no PM would even allow that to happen…heck in most cases I’d be wary of a programmer stepping in. But again this is where a good PM shines…he knows what skill sets go where…and who has those skills sets. Time and time again I was able to plan for A to take over B’s role if needed, but no way in heck would I let B take over for A…different skills, different jobs, different task schedules and so on.

    I think the proper response to the interview question from above would have been, “If I am out sick, who takes over for me for a day? And is that useful?”.

    A PM does not need an in depth technical to any project they are running…it could be useful for sure, but as the PM starts a project, starts identifying the choke points, the skills sets, the budgets and costs and so on they will learn what is important to get the project done. My QA background is great for knowing off the top of my head how long most projects take and to understand the QA needs, but at the end of the day I am rarely testing code.

  14. I wonder who managed the Affordable Care Act system.
    It clearly failed. Every new system especially large ones will have some subtle nuances that create problems. However this system looks like it was never thoroughly tested, nor does it appear to have gone thru any kind of QA or Acceptance testing. It is a management problem.

  15. Well thought out and given some of the postings on Dice for Project Managers, consistently timely. I continue to grow annoyed at the definitions posted for Project Managers, especially in the ERP space, whether it be on the ‘Functional’ or ‘Technical’ side of the solution, my comment is always the same, “you do not want a Project Manager, you want a Team Lead who can do the PM work in their spare time for free’.

    I recently wrote on this same subject. I have to wonder, who is telling clients this is a sound strategy.

  16. This is a very provoking article. Yes we need career PMs. The Business Case focus, the management focus, the drive all that is required. The problem is when you have a PM that does not know enough about the topic area to know that the team leads in place are not up to scratch. The PM happily eats up everything the team leads propose, estimates, problems, etc. I have personal experience of certified and experienced PMs in IT who does not really have a IT development background inheriting a team already in place, who were basically useless and they really dropped the poor PM. By chance I got involved when some issue were being experienced, look at the detail and realised the design was bad. The leads were bad, but the PM could not see that, and the leads did not know themselves to being bad. A functional PM would only discover the issue after repeated failures. A PM with Technical Background might have a better chance. But I agree, the fact that you can do a technical job can contribute to your leadership, but hiring 1 person for 2 jobs is not the right way to go.

    • Good points. However, I would still fault the PM in your example because they did not a) ask probing questions to insure the leads were being honest and b) the PM did not take the time to validate the data with the sponsors, other key stakeholders, etc. The old ‘trust but validate’ adage.

      90% of my projects have been in the IT field. Yet I was hired as a PM to do a major construction project and was very successful even knowing absolutely nothing at all about the field. So I know from direct experience how transferable PM skills really are.

      You CAN be successful in projects without an understanding of the underlying technical details. You just need to use your PM skills to dig out the truth versus just completely trusting everything everyone on the team is telling you to be accurate. This is what I did on the construction project and it worked out great.

      Thanks for the comment.

  17. My job hunting experience the past five weeks has brought home to me that employers are divided into two camps regarding project managers. The first group wants the PM to have technical skills and be able to split his/her time between managing scope, schedule & costs with hands-on engagement with the developers. The second group wants someone who will devote their time to the traditional concerns of the PM – scope, schedule, costs, earned value management, and so on.

    There is apparently a firewall between the two groups and employers in the first group are so hard over about their view that one actually hung up on me 25 minutes into a call when I said I was not a programmer. I might have dodged a bullet by not going to work for them.

    On the other hand, a number of recruiters I’ve talked to do recognize that there is a distinction and that it is important to only submit a more traditional PM to an employer who has that perspective.

    Finally, employers themselves don’t always seem to know what they want. For example, a large manufacturer of recreational motor vehicles advertised for an IT project manager with a job description comfortably in the realm of scope, schedule, cost, etc. However, it become clear from talking to the another recruiter who knew the potential employer that what they really wanted was a business analyst to do SAP work / data mining in their corporate retail data center.

    In another case a firm that does software development for electronic devices advertised for a PM, but when I asked them a question about what tools they use to produce resource loaded schedules, they dropped me from further consideration. It seems that the developers felt they could self-assess their own. progress.

    In my last job success was based on not only bringing to bear mastery of project management software tools, but also using the soft tools of facilitation, communication, and plain old people skills management. Yes, some firms are hard over about technology, but others still want the PM to be more than a bundle of its and byes. I hope to find one like that soon.

  18. “A PM should not be able to occupy a 40 hour week with status meetings.” ?
    A PM’s role is much more than attending status meetings…even if the PM is not a technical PM.

  19. Priyaranjan

    Whether a PM is required to have relevant technical skill to give technical inputs to a technical team depends upon completely on the company.

    1. Most technology companies would require PMs having know-how of the technical work actually going on in the company. Especially in R&D software the trend is like that where the PM is expected to play somewhat a dual role however without getting too much into it. In these companies, PM participates in technical/architecture discussions if not in development.

    2. Other companies whose work/project having larger scope or the scope changes regularly often employ PMs and make them independent of the technologies involved. These companies are mostly end-product manufacturers who rarely focuses on technology(as most of it would be out-sourced)

    In a other word, I would say , companies that focuses more on research and technologies expects PM to figure out all technical aspect of a complete project. Say a PM has to execute a ‘task A’, there are chances that the task ‘A’ has many limitation and could be discarded after a technical associate finds some system limitation. Hence in a situation like this, the company expects the PM to find out such technical details while planning. A PM without a good technical know-how is rare in such companies.

    Remember, the PM is also responsible for resource allocation, resource hiring and employee satisfaction(at least from work prospective) hence a PM with technical bent earns huge respect in technical companies.