This is a question that challenges many technical consulting companies: Should technical project managers be technical? In other words, if you are managing a technology project, do you need to be well-versed in the technologies of the project or do you just need to be a great project manager?
Several years ago, I was working with one of the top technical consulting firms on a large scale network implementation. The firm had heard rumblings that the project was not going well and brought me in to determine if the rumors were in fact true. The company, after speaking with the respected lead project manager, concluded that these murmurs were probably unfounded but they needed to be sure given the large financial numbers involved and the importance of the client.
Though my assignment was with this particular networking project, the first thing that I did was investigate the project management methodologies of this particular consulting company. How did they recruit and train their project managers?
In this particular case, the technical consulting firm structured their employee development into two tiers: the management tier and the technical tier. The project managers received project management training and the technical employees attended technical classes according to the needs of the company.
This gave me an inkling as to what the problems could be, if in fact there were any problems.
Rather than first speak with the project manager, I elected to talk to each of the technical people. These people are the foundation of the project and I needed their perspective. With more than 45 technical personnel being charged out at a substantial daily rate, the project was near budget and due for completion within two weeks.
After speaking with these employees, their collective response was essentially this:
“My part of the project is going fine.” Do you think this project will be completed within the two week timeframe? “Not a chance!”
The rumors of project disarray turned out to be true, alarmingly so. So, what exactly was happening? Where and when did the train go off the tracks?
As sometimes happens in these cases–when a technology project is managed by a non-technical manager–there was nobody overseeing the whole of the technical side of the project.
To be sure, the project began with a solid technology plan. All of the technical personnel had their tasks and objectives to achieve and were doing so. However, no high-level technology roadmap is achieved without significant detours. It is these detours that were causing the unraveling of the project.
While the project manager was checking off the “items completed”, the whole was crumbling and he did not know it. The technical people knew it but did not express it to him for fear of upsetting the project manager.
In the end, we solved the problem by implementing someone to oversee the technical whole but not without significant delays that compromised both the relationship with the client and the budget.
This example is just one of many which begs the question: Should managers of technology projects be technical themselves?
There is no certain answer to this question.
As we see in this case, a technology competent manager would probably have realized that the whole was being compromised and he or she would have made changes to accommodate this. A well-schooled and experienced project manager, with minimal technical awareness, may have been able to come to the same conclusions if he or she had a strong working relationship with those charged with fulfilling the project.
One thing is clear in this matter: Every project needs a technical lead with the ability to ascertain and report the status of a project. If that person is also the project manager (which is often the case on smaller project), that is fine. However, if the project is on a larger scale as this one was, the project requires both a technical project lead and an overall project manager who work in tight conjunction with one another.