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This question has been stuck in my head for a long time.

To become a project manager in the IT sector, should one have development experience, or a strong focus on general project management skills? Which one is better and more suitable? Are there any relevant reasons for both?

17 Answers 17

10

No, you don't need development experience (i.e. having been in a developer role) to become an IT project manager:

  • Technical development and Project Management call for different skillsets. A good developer does not necessarily make a good PM and conversely, a good PM can do a great job without having any development skills.
  • Other roles can lead to IT PM: Business Analyst is a common one, or test managers/leads, quality manager, infrastructure lead, etc.
  • That said, a sound understanding of technology is important in a IT PM role, so if you have never worked in IT it's pretty difficult to get and do an IT PM job, even if you have done project management before.
14

Having made the transition from a developer to a project manager and having also worked for project managers that do not have development experience, I would say it is possible to be a project manager without being a developer. However, I think you are much more respected by your team and can make more educated decisions if you have previous development experience.

The team I was on with a project manager who was never a developer did not trust any of the decisions the PM made. He was making decisions based on non-software project experience. Many of his decisions did not work in the software realm.

  • 1
    yes. you are right. one of my friend faced that kind of experiences. She had to struggle a lot because her PM thought in a way based on non-software project experiences. Whatever he demanded for, his team members had to finish in short time, etc. Somewhat leads to unrealistic things. But overall , I think that only depends on the skillset of a PM whether one came from IT background or not. – kitokid Oct 14 '11 at 2:31
  • @SchwartzE what kind of decisions (what field: business, technical, other?) that PM made, so he was not trusted? – Bartek Kobyłecki May 28 '12 at 8:14
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    This is the correct answer. I find the with ex-military PM types...we're not capturing hill 47 here, we're writing some codes. – jim May 30 '12 at 21:12
7

Although, I believe, there is no absolute definition of PM role in IT sector, it primarily includes activities like

  • Leading the team in figuring out what the project is. Planning, scheduling, and requirement gathering.
  • Shepherding the project through design and development. Taking care of communication, decision making, and mid-game strategy
  • Driving the project through to completion. Leadership, crisis management, and winding up.

A PM must also be responsible for representing all the three perspective, Business, Technology, and Customer, of any project. These three points of view should always overlap. The PM plays a key role in making this happen, by proactively using his GENERALIST nature to unify all three views into one. PMs with strong inclination towards development, normally, miss the other two perspective, which doesn't do any good for the project.

6

This has been argued on many forums and I have never seen a consensus emerge. In fact, people dig in their heels and success becomes predicated on the presence or absence of this single variable, when in fact the prediction of PM success is EXTREMELY hard to make and due to thousand of variables, many random and unknown.

There are too many stories of people jumping industries and domain with great success, not only in project management but also other business disciplines, to rule in that one must be of a domain or industry in order to be successful. Similarly, there are many stories of someone growing up in an industry / domain only to fizzle out as a leader or manager.

All projects are unique, performed at different times under different circumstances and environmental conditions. To assume a single flavor of PM will be successful in all of those projects is a bit of a stretch. And to assume there is such a thing as a single flavor of PM is equally a stretch.

You would best served to remove this notion of an absolute predictor of success from your thinking, e.g., the presence of industry expertise guarantees success while the absence guarantees failure. And, remove the idea that this complex process of prediction of success can be made with a single variable.

  • I couldn't deny what you said :). – kitokid Oct 14 '11 at 2:34
4

After tens of years of experience in IT, as PM and developper before, I feel that the most difficult thing to do is workload evaluation.

Unless you consider agile methods (and even though), it is at the root of any project.

To get this workload evaluation, you have to discuss with developers, argue with them, not pushing for lower cost, but instead trying to explore difficulties. You can't have this dialog if you didn't get designing / coding experience.

So yes, in general as the question does not state any specific context, I definitively vote for yes : it is very important to have that experience.

3

I agree that development experience can be helpful while managing IT projects, but it can be also an obstacle to be a good project manager. Being a developer you think like developer, this is ok. But manager who thinks like developer is not good because then he focuses on code, application, technical issues and not on people and their work, need, satisfaction, etc.

There is no clear answer "yes" or "no" because it depends on many factors. For instance, the biggest team, the more 'human issues' arises so manager must focus only on that matters. It would be good to have lead developer who is responsible for technical issues and can help developers, so manager doesn't have to play that role. If the team is small then manager with development experience is a good option, because then he can help his developers in technical problems.

The more experience you have the better (development too). But use this knowledge wisely - be a manager and think as a manager even if you were a developer before.

3

The question at the root of this discussion thread is not sufficiently specific. There are project managers specializing in software development and/or implementation projects, there are project managers specializing in the implementation of infrastructure projects and there are project managers who feel at home in both contexts.

Regardless of specialization, it is paramount for the project manager to have extensive hands-on expertise in the respective subject matter. According to the Prince2 manual there is no need for the project manager to have specialist skills. After nearly 40 years in the IT industry, including 25 years software development, 10 years hardware design and 20 years project/program/portfolio management, I can vounch that the manual is wrong. A project manager with strong specialist skills will constructively challenge the lead designer and will push him/her to higher performance. A project manager with strong specialist skills knows that software developers have a tendency to either significantly underestimate or overestimate the effort to deliver a certain product, and will more accurately estimate the duration and resource requirements. A project manager with strong specialist skills is more likely to make the right decisions in crisis situations. However, infrastructure and/or software development skills are not the only type of skills important for an IT project manager; the project manager needs to have top business analysis skills, along with all project management and all the soft skills for successful delivery of projects.

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    Hi Milo, welcome to PMSE! I really appreciate your perspective on this topic and your great, well thought out ansswer! You may find this question of interest as well. Again, welcome to PMSE! We look forward to seeing more of your contributions :) – jmort253 May 27 '12 at 1:10
3

The question asks about development experience. My answer assumes this references coding experience and, based on that assumption, my answer is no, I don't believe development experience is necessary or even a "should have".

I lead a team of 25 IT project managers. The vast majority have no coding experience or training and are very successful. They do fully understand the software development life cycle and the usual risks associated with software development and delivery (if that's what is meant by development experience then my answer changes). Project Management is a profession with its own disciplines, best practices, tools and skill requirements.

Perhaps this isn't the best analogy, but when I had my house built my general contractor coordinated all activity while having no experience as a bricklayer, a roofer, electrician or plumber. It didn't keep him from understanding the process, dependencies, budget tracking principles, risks and schedule. Eighteen years after being delivered on time and to budget, I still have a home with quality brick, roof, electrical system and plumbing. Quality professionals in each role are key.

  • +1 - The example of the general contractor pm in construction project management helps hammer home this point. – jmort253 Jun 28 '12 at 19:46
2

No, development experience is not required. A solid understanding of project management techniques and skills is generally more important than direct experience with development.

However... the two can complement each other. Experience with development, or technology in general, can be helpful in obtaining a position as a PM in the IT sector. It can also provide some useful insight into the project resources, team roles, and team interactions.

A good PM can succeed quite well without development experience, but I've seen mediocre PMs who made some significant blunders that would have been avoidable if they had a better background in development processes (or, in fairness, a better understanding of PM principles).

2

A successful PM will need to have some basic developer knowledge but probably not much more than the hobby-dev level (know the correct terminology for open source vs. MS dev, know what source code management really means, that AJAX is not for cleaning sinks, etc.).

The exact level of knowledge needed depends a lot on the size of the company and the "techie" level of key leadership. If the top bosses are all developer types, then your lack of developer skill is likely to be seen as a weakness.

However, if most of the key leadership are business people, the ability of a project manager to act as interpreter will be much more important than development skill. If you can understand business needs, explain the business needs to developers, understand developer feedback, and translate that back into business terms, you are much more valuable than your developer "cred" might make you look.

2

In my experience, good project managers understand the people and domains involved in their project.

Some development experience could help an I.T. project manager understand the developers they work with, and would guarantee some knowledge of I.T. as a domain. But it’s equally possible to understand developers and I.T. really well without having been one, and to not understand your developers, or much about I.T., even if you’ve been one yourself for 20 years.

I.T. project managers also need to understand the customer, company bosses, and everyone else who sticks their oar in, so the absence of development experience definitely doesn’t preclude someone from being a great I.T. project manager. But they will need to find other ways to gain domain knowledge and developer insight.

2

I will say from my personal experience and the answer would be that no in general you do not need to have development experience under your belt to become a project manager. There is a totally different role for that and it is called technical lead, architect, SDS (software development services) head. I have been a project manager myself for almost over 2.5 years yet I am not a developer. Having said this however do keep in mind that apart from the general qualities a PM must have such as strong communication skills, optimal decision making, excellent project scoping and resource management etc the PM must atleast:

  1. have basic technical know how
  2. knows how to handle SVN and version controlling
  3. should be sound enough to know which tasks needs what amount of time
  • Can you explain why a PM would need to understand or know how to use Subversion? – jmort253 Aug 18 '12 at 3:02
2

From personal experience the answer is no. I started my career as a mechanical engineer, became a project manager for engineering project. Then moved into IT project management. I've managed development projects, implementation projects and infrastructure projects - all very successfully. I've been working in IT for almost 15 years and I still don't consider myself to be very technical. IT projects are essentially business projects - they exist purely to service the business in some way. I can talk to the business and understand their needs, many PMs from a technical background can't do that, although not all are like that It's the PM skills that count, the fundamentals of managing people, expectations, analyzing problems, listening, scheduling, troubleshooting, etc. That are important, not the industry background. A good PM can can apply their skills to any project.

2

If you don't understand the dynamics of software development, then you don't understand the project's risks. If you don't understand the risks, you can't be a good project manager.

Now, you need other things to be a good project manager: the ability to write a charter including release criteria and stick with it, the ability to say no to work outside the scope of the project (features or the project portfolio), possibly negotiation and influence abilities because of your organization, and more.

But, you can't manage the project environment if you can't manage the risks. And you can't manage the risks if you have no idea what they are because you don't know about software development.

I don't care how you acquire that knowledge. I only care that if you manage a technical project that you have that knowledge.

2

not necessary. I joined as a project manager without any experience. It's all depend on your talent and how you present in front of all.

I normally believe no experience is needed when you know how to handle clients and team.

always be specific

2

You need both!

...should one have development experience, or a strong focus on general project management skills?

After witnessing many technical projects (failed and successful) with both technical and and non-technical PMs, the best managers usually have both skill sets.

Which one is better and more suitable?

If the choice was binary, I would have to choose project management skills.

Even though I come from a development background myself, PM experience can be broadly applied, and the technical domain can be learned -- probably quicker and easier than a developer can learn project management.

Are there any relevant reasons for both?

The one big disadvantage for non-technical PMs is that they typically don't understand the unique challenges that are much different than other fields.

For example, they'll often assume it is like traditional engineering, and treat building software like constructing a physical building -- which doesn't work at all.

1

IMHO, as much as you dont need developer skills to be a Project Manager you definitely need some of the knowledge base to help you with managing an IT project. As mentioned in an earlier post, your team will have more confidence in your decisions because they know you are making them based on knowledge and not just taking in what the developers tell you hook line and sinker. When developers do a technical review/assessment of requirements and provide their feedback you know that they are right in their assessment or when they provide time estimates you can tell they are not overestimating. So even though you dont need to be a developer to manage an IT project, the knowledge base will definitely help you in your decision making and in managing your team.

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