In a world that’s becoming more technology driven, the role of the technical project manager – or TPM, as it’s come to be known – has established itself as a distinct subset of project management. While all TPMs are project managers, the reverse doesn’t hold true: All project managers don’t hold the technical distinction.
So what exactly separates the technical project manager from a non-technical PM? And what are the top technical project management skills a TPM needs to succeed?
Let’s dive in!
What’s a technical project manager?
First things first: What exactly is a technical project manager, and what distinguishes the role from that of the traditional PM?
Simply put, a technical PM plans, schedules, and manages IT-related projects – e.g., projects that support software engineering, app development, network security… you get the idea. And while the primary management needs of a technical project largely mirror those of a non-technical one, the requisite technical expertise needed to effectively manage these high-tech projects is what truly differentiates the roles of the PM and the TPM.
We already know that project management is a thriving career field. But with a growing need across industries for data collection and storage, cloud computing, and information security, employment in the IT field is projected to increase at a faster rate than the average for all other occupations.
All this IT growth means one thing: plenty of opportunity for technically savvy project managers. In fact, a 2016 article in CIO listed technical knowledge as the most in-demand project management skill.
Essential project management skills
Of course, the fundamental skills required of effective project management remain consistent between PMs and TPMs. Essential project manager skills and competencies include:
A project manager is nothing if not a coordinator of multiple moving parts that typically cross departmental divides; for this reason, a successful PM must be highly organized and able to keep meticulous track of every aspect of every project.
Every project is like a miniature military campaign – and no uniformed outfit ever won any engagement without a good leader at the helm. Project managers must be able to inspire team buy-in by articulating a clear vision, keep morale up by ensuring team members have the resources they need, and resolve inner-team conflicts that will inevitably arise along the way.
Naturally, the ability to communicate effectively with team members, organizational leaders, and stakeholders is a must for any project manager. PMs must understand not just how to best communicate to various audiences, but also what to communicate.
As a leader that must align strategic vision with deliverable outcomes, the art of negotiation is a critical tool in any PM’s belt. From budgets to timelines to resource allocation, the successful project manager is one practiced in “win-win negotiation.”
Proper planning starts with organization – coordinating project tasks in the correct order – but it goes further than that. Planning also requires the ability to schedule appropriately, monitor project progress, and make necessary adjustments along the way to ensure on-time delivery.
Top 3 technical project manager skills
While technical project managers need a solid set of all the skills mentioned above, the highly specialized nature of their work requires aptitudes and abilities beyond those of the non-technical PM.
Three key technical project manager skills are:
- Sound foundational knowledge of IT infrastructure and architecture
- Sense of balance between the roles of project manager and technical advisor
- Ability to communicate effectively in both technical and non-technical terms
Let’s examine each one a little more closely.
- Clearly, working knowledge of information technology systems is what distinguishes TPMs as “technical” – and as such, it’s the number one skill any technical project manager must possess.
Technical expertise is what allows TPMs to objectively audit the feasibility of desired project outcomes and align them with organizational capabilities and limitations. Technical PMs must be able to assess technical risks and competently answer questions from developers, programmers, analysts, and engineers; none of this is possible without a requisite level of IT knowledge and experience.
- While technical expertise is indispensable to the successful TPM, that knowledge can quickly turn into a curse if you allow yourself to get caught up working “in” the project more than you’re working “on” the project. It’s often difficult to determine at what point you need to stop focusing on technical issues and get back to the bigger picture of steering the project to an on-time, on-budget delivery.
Toeing the fine line between technical resource and project manager takes both a keen sense of discernment and a healthy amount of discipline – but it’s a skill that will be sharpened over time as you successfully complete more projects.
- Along with leading, managing, and working with technical professionals of all stripes, technical project managers often work hand-in-hand with non-technical PMs. Additionally, TPMs must be able to give clear, concise status reports and updates to organizational partners, leaders, and stakeholders who don’t necessarily have a technical background.
For these reasons, the ability to break down complex technical information in layman’s terms is absolutely critical for any technical project manager. And though it may seem simple enough, the truth is that this is probably the toughest essential technical project manager skill to master.
Here are a few ideas to help you better communicate to non-technical audiences:
- Never assume knowledge, no matter how simple or rudimentary it may seem to you. The “curse of knowledge” is a real thing that can lead to frustration for both parties, as you get flustered trying to figure out where the knowledge gap begins and your audience is inadvertently made to feel dumb. It may be helpful to provide a cheat sheet of terms and acronyms you’ll reference frequently when heading into a briefing session or meeting.
- Use stories, metaphors, and analogies to engage the audience and help illustrate ideas. This will be particularly effective if you can frame the situation in terms that your audience will not only understand, but actually feel the potential impact of. For instance, instead of diving into the technical weeds of a particular issue, show exactly how it’ll affect the bottom line if not resolved correctly.
- Be as succinct as possible. Studies have shown that our attention spans are at all-time lows – and that span can be even shorter if you’re bombarding an audience with data and technical jargon from the get-go. So, in conjunction with making your communication more non-tech friendly, try to keep it as brief and concise as possible too.
There you have it – the three most essential technical project management skills needed to thrive in your role as TPM. But even if you’ve already mastered these skills, you won’t be able to optimize your operations without the right tools at your disposal.
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