Earlier in my career, when I specialized in Project Management, I would often have this question posed during an interview, “Are you a Hands On project manager?” Most often, this was in the context of being interviewed for a business project that included an IT component.
I would always answer the same way: “If you mean, when the chips are down and people are here at 3:00 AM Saturday morning, will I be here with the coffee and donuts? Absolutely! But if you mean will I sit down and start coding at that point, then your project has already gone down the tubes”. Here is why…
The reality is that most projects need to have two different roles to be successful: a project manager and what is called a technical team lead. The project manager maintains a skill set that corresponds to leading projects. For example, a Project Management Professional (PMP) will be well versed Project Management Body of Knowledge’s five phases of Project Management: Initiation, Planning, Execution, Control and Closing.
On the other hand, a Technical Team Lead has expertise and skills related to the content of the project; engineering in some cases or software development or whatever else the project content is about. You can really replace the “technical expertise” with any domain that has projects. This is a completely different skill set than that of a project manager.
Just as the skill sets are different, so are the roles. A project manager must be working at “50,000 feet” ensuring that all of the parts of the project are running smoothly, watching out for the occurrence of risk and coordinating between the project, the business and, for example, any other vendors that may be working on the project. The technical team lead is working on the ground, solving problems and keeping an eye on the content of the project.
For many projects, the problems arise when there is a technical team lead or project manager fulfilling both roles. Bouncing back and forth between the ground and 50,000 feet can be very difficult, and even more difficult is keeping track of the overall health of the project while solving individual problems on the ground. The level of focus that a project manager must keep not to “lose sight of the forest for the trees” is very different from the level of focus that a Technical Team Lead must keep for the content of the project.
Many times I have seen project managers struggle when they were expected to cover both roles. It is very hard to work at both levels simultaneously, not to say having both the project management skills as well as the content skills. Frequently, very good technical team leads are made project managers because they know the content so well. This can lead to troubled project outcomes; when a technical team lead is confronted with a content problem, they go for what they know. But while they are solving the problem, no one is minding the project at a higher level.
The final piece of the puzzle is training. Often, a person that performs well in one role is promoted to the other, without receiving training or other help to acquire the proper skill set. I have seen many excellent programmers or business analysts who excelled at their roles being promoted into project management and then struggling. Proper training and support will help the technical person become a competent project manager.