Are You a Hands On Project Manager?

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.

10 thoughts on “Are You a Hands On Project Manager?

  1. Simple answer is Yes, and having read your article I can completely see myself in what you are describing but have to reject your conclusion.

    In 10 years of Project Management, I have yet to fail to implement a Project. Yes there have been slight delays, and sometimes requirements have been altered, but always they have gone in. This is more than can be said for some of the pure PMs that I have seen working around me, who because they dont understand and get involved in the detail, cant see the bull that has just walked into the china shop, or simply the bull !!!

    And the preference of my Clients, I repeatedly get asked to return, and the reason stated is the cross section of skills that I bring to the party and the approach that I take.

    I prefer Tea and Jammy Dodgers myself, unless there is an open Starbucks, but thats unlikely at 3am :-}}

  2. I tend to agree with this article. I do not understand Craig’s comments as to the purity of a PM. Project Management is a skill just as software development or mechanical engineering. In general there are quite a few technical people that have difficulty putting together a puzzle because they cannot see the pieces or the picture it paints. This does not pertain to all people but it is a general statement to get Kevin’s point across.

    My agreement with Kevin’s assertion has come with experience. This is not to say that I have not been in the lab building servers or doing other things, but it is extremely short lived as my responsibilities reside in communication with the different levels, whether it be stakeholders, customers or team members.

    I think it is great that you are able to bring projects in, but are they within the triple constraint?

    Thanks for allowing me to express my opinion!

    and I prefer not to be up at 3 am – but I will bring in Chinese for dinner!

  3. Thats the Web for you Daniel, it should be about free expression, and wouldnt it be a boring place if we were all the same.

    I guess having read Kevins blog article I interpreted it as pure PM from “50,000 feet” was the only way to go, where as from my experience, it is those PMs that are more likely to fail than the ones that are willing to roll up their sleeves, get their hands dirty and get in there to sort a problem out.

    There is no doubt a place for both.

    But I have to say, Chinese just wouldnt work at 3am, even having been warmed up in the microwave. Just too greasy, the indigestion would be a nightmare.

    • Kevin R Callahan

      Little did I know the torrent that I would be unleashing with this Blog Post! Not just here, but all over LinkedIn as well. There are those who agree and those who disagree; as Craig says, “That’s the Web for you.”

      I think that the volume of readers and messages speaks volumes (if you will excuse the pun)! It would seem that there are many who have experienced something similar to me, and I was not kidding about the early morning pastries; I wish that had been a one-time experience.

      To illustrate my point once again, I received a job notice by e-mail this morning, with the title of “Project Manager”. Here are the required skills:

      SAP, MS Project, .Net, CPG – Trade/Sales planning/forecasting functions

      Now, perhaps the company involved was presuming the person was qualified as a project manager, but to my eye this really reads like the requirements for a Technical Team Lead or Technical Project Manager who will be required to perform detailed technical work. If the project is small, one person might be able to do both the PM and the Technical. For a larger project, it would require both roles. In the latter case, a competent PM with a technical background should be able to manage the project without detailed technical knowledge.

      In any event, thanks to all who have and will continue to contribute to this dialogue!

  4. Ha hahh, indeed Kevin, sometimes a topic just hits the mark.

    On your job notice …

    I have yet to meet a Recruitment Consultant that has come through the industry. Typically they are generalists recruiters that have decided to specialise in IT because the typically higher salaries make their percentage commissions just a little nicer.

    What this means is that none of the words above meant anything to the person that was placing the Ad, they were just buzz words that they heard mentioned and strung them together.

    So an alternate interpretation of that Ad might be they want a PM that has had exposure to SAP & .Net projects.

    Still a bit worried about Chinese at 3am, Jammy Dodgers are a much better bet, plus you can buy them in double packs, one pack was never enough.

  5. I am relieved and energized to see this discussion taking place out in the open. For far too long, I and other PM’s I know have been willing and found ourselves coming in on weekends and paying for breakfast, lunch, dinner, midnight snacks for our technical teams.
    I love doing that and am very supportive of my teams.
    The ISSUE is that many technologists simply do not respect the skillset that PM’s bring to the table, if the PM is not “technical”!! Having been a technologist early in my career, I can say I was one of the culprits myself! I welcome any advice about this apparent lack of respect, because I tink it can seriously derail project success. Right now, the only solution I see is for Senior Mgmt. to “bless” the role of the PM publicly, and convey that value to the tech teams. I’m open to any and all suggestions!! By the way, have you tried Korean vs. Chinese in the early AM???

    • Kevin R Callahan


      A great comment! I think that you are right about the PM needing the support of Senior Management in order to be able to function. I do believe that one of the roots of the problem is that management often does not understand what Project Management is really all about. Please forgive the self-promotion, but that is why I wrote “The Essentials of Strategic Project Management”. The word Strategic is in the title to underscore to executives and senior management that the use of Project Management is strategic. The book is a high-level overview that can be read quickly to get a basic idea of the practice of Project Management. Personally, I have given the book to any number of senior leaders to help them understand what our practice is all about.

      Thanks for getting involved in the conversation Peter.


  6. Personally I don’t like the idea of a Project Management expertise w/o Industry expertise.Domain knowledge is important in making better project managerial decisions. I totally agree with you that if the project is “small”(10 to 10 to <25), I feel that the technical project manager should be able to prioritise his dual-role responisbilities, as a technical project manager should not jump into designing and architect the project instead of

  7. I’ve written about this before myself. A lot of companies think they are saving money by having a PM that also acts like a lead. On small projects, that might actually work most of the time. However, what you end up with eventually is project overruns and worn out project teams.

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