An effective project manager boasts a strong portfolio of soft skills and hard technical knowledge. Without effective soft skills such as negotiation and management, a project can easily stall due to infighting or inertia; and without technical knowledge, a manager can’t stay on top of what their people are actually doing.
Because they must often wrangle disparate groups of people from within an organization, project managers boast effective organizational skills. That’s not just a matter of creating a few spreadsheets and attempting to keep track of everybody’s time (although that’s certainly useful in many circumstances); it also hinges on empathy, which a good manager uses to help team members recognize and overcome obstacles.
As many projects also hinge on convincing people outside of the team to complete tasks or lend support, project managers must also have considerable negotiation skills. If someone doesn’t report to you, how can you persuade them to devote hours of effort to your project? The answer often lies in recognizing what those stakeholders want or need, and figuring out how to deliver it to them in exchange for their time and effort.
Then there’s multitasking. It’s a rare project manager who doesn’t have a ton of things going on all at once. Multitasking isn’t just the art of balancing your time and ensuring that the right tasks get proper attention; it’s also about stress management. Good project managers can discern what’s important, what they can set aside for the time being, and what they can effectively delegate to other members of the team.
For example, let’s say that you’re building a mobile app for an e-finance company. Your team needs a “clean” dataset that’s owned by another, separate set of data scientists. When you consult with those scientists, they say they’re too busy to scrub the data and convert it into a form that your people can use. An effective project manager will attempt to discern those data scientists’ blockers and needs (empathy) and use that information to try and free up some bandwidth; it may require going to those scientists’ manager and negotiating over schedules. Meanwhile, you still need to deal with the project’s other requirements (multitasking) in a way that won’t burn you out.
The great thing about project management is that it offers a way for tech pros to “hack” their career. No matter where you are on the career ladder, a manager may be willing to give you more project-management responsibilities if you can demonstrate organization and other soft skills. You can also leverage a variety of experiences to persuade a hiring manager or recruiter that you have what it takes; a side project in which you’ve hired and guided freelancers and friends, for example, is a good way to highlight your skills if you’re applying for a formal project-management role.
A manager with a deep understanding of the programming languages and technologies underlying a project is in an especially strong position, experts say. That sort of knowledge can be leveraged in order to create realistic timelines and to effectively leverage team members’ skillsets.
However, someone moving from a purely technical to a managerial role needs to exhibit a bit of caution here. As a manager, you might have experience working with a particular language or platform—but always remember that you’re there to manage, not plunge deep into the technical weeds. Leave the day-to-day grind to team members, and focus your energy on coordinating their efforts and planning out the project’s parameters.
If you’re looking to level up your career by becoming a project manager, certifications always help. The Project Management Institute, for example, offers a few, including a PMP (Project Management Professional) certification for experienced project managers, as well as CAPM (Certified Associate in Project Management). Your manager may also prove willing to pay for project-management courses, either online or at a local school.
According to the most recent Dice Salary Survey, the average project manager salary is $112,339, making it one of the more lucrative positions in tech. For some technology professionals, that might be incentive enough; but for those interested in furthering their career, project management offers other benefits, as well, most notably a chance to understand more intimately how teams and companies work. Those interested in higher management can find lots of opportunities here—once you’ve run some big projects, you might even start thinking about how your skills transfer to running divisions or even companies.