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I am an average developer. I have good web development fundamentals and a CS major. I know what Object oriented programming is, MVC, server client architecture, APIs etc etc

Right now I am in a role where I am managing various digital projects and a digital product. It is going well, we have made a lot of progress over the past year, to the point that the company strategy has changed from agency projects to the product that they are building. My boss has always wanted this to be the case, it is now happening from the product having its best year in terms of sales. I played a key role in this from assembling and guiding the teams.

I am sometimes though questioning whether I am experienced enough technically to make a career out of this, and make good money. Recently I have been completely out of my depth when it comes to dev ops. We hired a consultant in who is taking the technical lead with that aspect of the product. This worked.

I am not keen to going back to being a developer, I enjoy project management much more and managing teams of people to work towards reaching a common goal by putting project management processes in place. I prefer working with stakeholders on the non technical side of the business helping them define their strategy as opposed to being full on the technical side. At the same time, I am aware that the more technical you are, the easier the job is - there are times where being technically minded has got me out of jams since I can help the technical team solve problems from investigating them.

So in short, are strong technical skills a key requirement for having a successful career as a PM?

  • Opinion related question - although PMI's recent decision to include technical knowledge in the talent triangle is a significant opinion. – Mark C. Wallace Dec 5 '16 at 13:17
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This has been debated for decades, probably. Technical PMs will swear you need their background while non technical PMs will swear you don't. In reality, you see both out there with varying degrees of success to the point where having a technical background becomes quite gray as a strong predictor of future success. The knowledge, skills, and abilities of PM are different than that of a developer and, by the time one gets into that role, he will have his own sets of strengths and weaknesses to offer and will figure out how to mitigate those weaknesses.

That said, there is also a bias in the IT space that will inhibit some and enable others to get a PM role in this industry. There is a huge technical bias in the hiring process that non technical PMs have to overcome. This is simply fact and plagues other industries, as well. In healthcare, for example, there is a bias towards healthcare practitioners to PM anything in that space, even if it has nothing to do with treating ailments.

The answers here will largely be opinion based because I don't think there has ever been a meta study performed on who is successful in IT projects and what their background was. So I can only offer my observations: I have seen both types be successful and both types be horrible in my 25 years in this business.

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    In my experience: salesability; being too IT-centric, forgetting that it is a tool for the business; unable to "talk" to the customer in the manner they need to hear something; lack of discipline using PM tools such as a formal risk process, cost and schedule control like EV and ES; some weaknesses around the business and human side of the equation, etc. – David Espina Dec 5 '16 at 12:50
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    Come to think about it, when I was a commercial developer I once worked under a tech lead, his man management skills were non existent. Every time the delivery was going peer shaped he blamed the developers for things going wrong, as opposed to looking at how to improve the delivery process without resorting to micro management that left those he was managing disgruntled. Till this day, I have never understood why he found management so hard, since I find soft skills easier than technical skills to obtain. So there must be some truth in what you are saying. – bobo2000 Dec 5 '16 at 14:18
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    My own experience: I think you generally get different leadership styles from technical and non-technical PM's. Non-technical PM's often get into trouble because of naivety regarding feasibility of features/timeline estimation and so on. Basically, they are too optimistic. And more tech-focused PMs often don't know what others don't know--certain things that seem obvious when you've spent years studying CS are NOT obvious at all to clients/B-school upper managers. This can cause communication breakdown, based on unstated "obvious" assumptions... And that can create just as many problems. – recursions Dec 9 '16 at 20:01
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    One issue that we keep bumping into in my company is promoting tech leads up into what are effectively managerial positions based on their strong technical background and skills as engineers. This has repeatedly led to managers (or project managers) with NO "people skills" or "emotional intelligence" whatsoever, no experience leading people, no negotiation skills, and bad communication skills. It turns out that these "soft skills" (or whatever you want to call them) are necessary, must be cultivated and practiced, and are UNUSUALLY UNCOMMON in the very best and brightest software engineers. – JBiggs Dec 14 '16 at 15:08
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    @JBiggs worked under a tech lead that acted how you described as a developer, nearly lost my job over it - he saw work black and white, either it is done or not, had no man management skills at all with knowing how to get the best out of somebody, also did not delegate work or put processes in place to make delivery efficient without resorting to to micro management. I resigned, learned from his mistakes and inspired me to go into management and after doing everything differently helped a company grow, with happier employees. Still don't get why his soft skills were so poor. – bobo2000 Dec 15 '16 at 13:51
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You can build a strong career as a project manager from any background. As you describe yourself as being an average developer then that is plenty of experience to describe yourself as 'technical'.

Besides articles discussing technical decay (for example) are widespread. Technical decay is the fact that as you accumulate experience you have to dump something from memory - so even if you keep on as a developer you will find that skills that you relied on in one decade are soon useless. The article linked suggests that your skills have a ten year half life (half your skills will decay in ten years).

To extrapolate if you stop being a developer I'd reckon that this half life would halve - so great 'technical' project managers will be half technical in five years & declining. If you don't code day-to-day for ten years then there is probably no going back.

So embrace the fact that if you enjoy the job you will be a good technical project manager & you will start as probably more 'technical' than any good developers who moved into being a technical PM a few years ago.

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You can absolutely have an outstanding career as PM without strong technical skills.

However, over time--you will find that having strong technical skills is beneficial, and it will set you apart from non-technical PM's on complex projects, especially when you are managing large & distributed teams of developers, analyzing timelines, product data, feasibility, and so on.

For what it's worth: I got my first job as a PM managing software projects right out of college, with a liberal arts degree (English Literature!). And I did very well, despite having no formal background in software development. Maybe that's not possible these days, but it does inform my opinion that strong communication skills trump being a strong programmer, when it comes to managing large teams of people.

In my own experience, I later studied part time for a degree in Computer Science, because I wanted to be highly technical, and felt like it was a weakness. However, this wasn't necessary--I did it for my own personal growth; I even changed jobs at one point, and lack of technical background was not a hindrance at all. So if you already have both skillsets, you are far ahead of the curve, and positioned for a good career already. Keep at it!

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    As someone who was brought into the software industry with no prior experience and a political science degree, and has moved from project management into technical requirements successfully, I have to agree with you. In fact, one of the major weaknesses I see in many companies in our industry is a lack of communication, negotiation, and leadership skills among management who have been brought out of an engineering position where they didn't need to have any "people skills". This seems to be pretty widespread and leads to morale issues and decreased productivity. – JBiggs Dec 14 '16 at 15:14
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No: communication skills are key.

That being said, if you have a strong relevant technical chops, it positions one to better to understand what is happening, why it is happening, and how to correctly react. It also enables one to correctly evaluate deliverables.

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Oh yes, if you have a strong relationship and good communication skills and know how to make people do stuff then you will succeed!

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