Project Managers: The Value of Understanding Technology

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Bridging the communication gap through technical awareness

Many project managers are extremely successful in their role by simply managing a project plan and checking off tasks as they become “100% complete.” They’re able to manage teams, create budgets, assess risk, pretty much perform all of the basic and yet complex project manager duties. And more importantly, they’re able to do these things without having to dig too deep into the technical details. They can lean on the technical lead to solve all of the technical issues.

But what would happen if that same project manager took it one step further to truly understand how all of the technical pieces fit together? What if they took the time to understand the technology and how it related to the project that they’re managing? Would that add value to the project as a whole? Would the project team have a new found respect for the project manager? Would managing upper management’s expectations become easier?

Yes, Yes, and Yes! I’m a firm believer that understanding the technology of a project that you’re managing truly elevates you from a task manager status to a “real” project manager. But what does “understanding technology” really mean? Some would argue that you’re not really a “technologist” unless you’ve done your time putting in countless hours of education, cranking out millions of lines of code, or surviving a production outage lasting longer then 30 minutes. Then, and only then, can you call yourself a technologist. In fact, after those battle wounds, you can even run a data centre out of your cube or hang an endless supply of network cables as victory medals.

But wait a minute; I’m not trying to be a developer, a technical lead or even a systems architect. I’m simply trying to get a project delivered on time and under budget, so why does being technical add any value to my ability as a project manager?

Ahem…no offence, but have you spoken to a techie lately? It’s like trying to interpret what Chewbacca was saying in all of those Star Wars films. Folks, that may be it, you’ve gotta be able to communicate with the people that you’re managing. Managing a project means managing people and if you’re both speaking two different languages, you’re in for countless hours of frustration and lost productivity.

Of course I’m not implying that all PMs out there should rush to become a “Chew bacca,” I’m simply suggesting that investing the time to understand the project that you’re managing – technically – will be worth your while for the sake of managing and delivering the project. Understand the technical issues and their impacts on each other or the project as a whole. Understand what it means when an application can start on a physical piece of hardware but shows no signs of life on VMware. Know what it means when you start getting error messages or warnings that you need to “increase the file descriptor size” on your Web servers.

If you can take some time to not only understand these technical issues, but also regurgitate them, then you’ve added value. How?

  • By improving communication with vendors to escalate the right service requests as needed.
  • By effectively communicating with the project team to understand status, technical issues and to help prioritise their tasks.
  • Competently assess risks and determine more accurate mitigation plans.
  • Proactively arm management with the right information about their current or future infrastructure.
  • Ask the right questions when screening candidates to work on your projects.

Most importantly, you can bridge the gap between what’s perceived as the “task manager” versus a true project manager.

You have to know when to let the technical team troubleshoot an issue or when to lead them to the solution. You have to know when to ask the questions, no matter how stupid you feel. And you have to know that you can only hide behind a project plan or a status report for so long. At some point you have to step up because as the project manager you are responsible.

In the end, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist or rather a techie, to be a good technical project manager. You can spend your life as a PM trying to find the ultimate task tracking tool, or you can plunge into the universe and mingle with the Chew bacca’s, even if it’s a galaxy far, far away!