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I've recently been assigned project manager of a project which requires moderate-high degree of technical skills in machine learning that are above my level. Originally a programmer, I have previously PM'ed projects that were less technical thus allowing me to contribute a fair amount. In my progress reports, most of my team members would praise the fact that I wasn't afraid to get my hands dirty and was able to help the rest of the team when they needed it.

Now, however, I feel like I'll be the kind of manager who doesn't understand the technical side of things and just does "manager/business work", which is very important but seems to get a negative rap in the engineering community (presumably because PM's seem to have more prestige and higher salary for "easier" work). I'm worried that I will lose the respect of this newly formed team that I was assigned.

How can I earn their respect, if possible at all? On one hand I feel I should I talk to my (non-technical) manager so they can replace me with a more technical PM who will be able to guide the team better, but on the other hand I want to take this as an opportunity to learn how to manage and more importantly earn the respect of teams where I am the least knowledgeable person in the room.

  • Please let me know if this question is more suited to the workplace stackexchange. – Brian Willards Aug 31 '18 at 5:09
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    What're your responsibilities as a Project Manager? Are you in charge of the team, or just there to do the administration? – Erik Aug 31 '18 at 5:25
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    Hi Brian, welcome to PMSE! Is there any reason besides your perception to have your hands dirty? As you said, it's a plus to know the technical part of the project, so long it's not deviating from your actual duties. I assume you're excelling on the project management area and there's still some spare capacity to assist on the tech side? Otherwise, I'd just suggest to focus on your actual role, leaving the door open to the team to help them whenever they need and you can - as a manager. – Tiago Cardoso Aug 31 '18 at 7:31
  • @Erik I consider my responsibility to get the project done as best as possible, so maybe being in charge would generate more success or maybe administration would help more. – Brian Willards Aug 31 '18 at 13:20
  • @TiagoCardoso thanks, I'm just worried that if I do just that then it won't be enough to earn their respect – Brian Willards Aug 31 '18 at 13:20
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I'm a manager of a software development team who was a designer. I started with almost no prior knowledge of writing code, other than simple html and CSS.

My initial view was that they are the experts in their field and I am an expert in mine. I am just using my PM expertise to help them become more efficient and better organised, so that their skills can shine. I take away all the noise so that they can concentrate on what they are good at.

At first I just did a lot of listening and only interjected when I could share my expertise about how to gain a work advantage or take away the distractions. If they see you can help them to work more efficiently without 'interfering' in their day to day work, I think you will win them over.

You've got to prove your value in organising and structuring their work, without seeming like a bully or the boss.

Over time you will learn some of what they do, especially given your technical background, and can then start to add to the technical conversation.

I can now hold my own in the technical conversations with my team, even though I couldn't write a line of code if my life depended on it. However, I still always listen lots and value their technical insight above mine.

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Define Your Terms

Before you analyze any problem, you need to define your terms. What do you mean by "respect?" What do you believe is your actual role on the team as a "project manager?" What do you think you're "managing?"

Validate Your Beliefs

Once you've defined all the things you believe, you need to perform some sort of external validation. Do each of those things mean the same thing to other members of your team, to the organization, or to the person (or people) you report to? Chances are there's some overlap and some discrepancies. You need to surface those differences!

Respect Must Be Mutual

Regardless of how you ultimately define all your terms, these are the primary definitions of respect:

a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements.

  • the state of being admired or respected.
  • due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others.
  • a person's polite greetings.

These things are largely earned, not simply given out of reverence or deference for your position. By respecting the other members of the team, and by working to understand their roles, contributions, and efforts, you can earn their respect in turn.

Be willing to learn what they're able to teach you!

How to Respect Your Team

The Agile Manifesto provides a number of related values and principles. Of particular note are:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools...while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.
  • Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
  • Simplicity--the art of maximizing the amount of work not done--is essential.
  • The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.

In other words, by taking on the roles of coach, cheerleader, facilitator, and process referee, you are supporting your team! If you are doing this in a visible and transparent way, you are more likely to be appreciated for your role in enabling the team to succeed, rather than being seen as a necessary evil.

In short, respect the professionalism of your teammates (or help less-mature teams cultivate it) and respect their personhood. If you can't do these two things, nothing else you do will have a positive interpersonal impact.

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this is a very important question. Books like Managing the Unmanageable suggest that it's important to have "some hard skills" and perhaps even help them solve a technical issue to earn the respect of your team. If you were a programmer, I think you could get a decent understanding of machine learning by taking an online course such as this one from Google, that will give you some insight on what they are talking about. In the end, this project requires programming skills, perhaps there's something technical you could help them do? or if you are a skilled programmer, even suggest some best coding practices? (Not all machine learning programmers have in-depth knowledge of best-coding practices)

On the other hand, I personally think that the value of a project manager is crucial and it allows the technical individuals to focus on what's important for them.

I would try to "win" the team members one by one by having individual informal sessions and explaining your role, your skills (maybe they could see how your skills will bring value to the team) demonstrating an interest in their work and very important: what are they expecting from you? (a similar question is: what problems they currently face?)

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