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I have managed to get through the phone screening and have an in-person interview for the position of a Project Manager with an e-commerce company. I have a strong background in project management (5+ years), but it is in the Construction Industry. I have no background whatsoever in IT or Software development.

However, I am familiar with the tools, techniques, culture and processes of the company I am interviewing with (I know someone who works there and is helping me out). So, I know one of the main question I will be asked is, how will I bridge the IT domain knowledge gap. I am very serious about making this move and getting this job, so I have been reading up a lot about SDLC and Software development and have also prepared my answers.

I know it will be a steep learning curve for me, but I am willing to work hard and do what it takes. So I would appreciate if you could provide some advice on how to answer the knowledge gap question. Would also appreciate any advice on what courses/reading material I can read, not just for the interview but to advance my knowledge in software development projects so I can be an effective project manager in the IT/Software Development industry.

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    I'd suggest you quickly bone up on your IT skills (like you are trying). Nothing most IT people hate more than having someone running their show that has no idea what they do. – Rig Mar 11 '12 at 1:13
  • Thank you so much. All of you have made some great points and I really appreciate all the responses. – user3445 Mar 11 '12 at 23:41
  • @Tina - Don't forget to accept the best answer that helped you solve your problem. We're looking forward to your continued contributions on PMSE. Welcome! – jmort253 Mar 12 '12 at 0:47
  • @Tina You will always be at a disadvantage compared so someone who has written source code that has been commercially used. In two decades of working in software engineering I have not seen a single really good project manager who got along without software development experience. I don't want to discourage you but just make the point that in my opinion you need a few years of writing source code to become really successful in this industry. That is my experience and I'm sure others will disagree. I accept and respect that. – Manfred Mar 12 '12 at 9:33
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To my mind, any PM position comes down to understanding what has to be delivered, in what order, when, by whom and with what permissions. In construction, things are more concrete (excuse the pun!) perhaps than in e-commerce, but those fundamentals do not change.

Reading about software development life cycles is good, but what you need to understand is that most companies do not follow any of these religiously. What that means is that any person from outside the company is at a disadvantage until they get up that learning curve for how the company really operates.

What tips?

  • Focus on your PM strengths. Give real examples of:

    • How you fixed or worked around road-blocks in previous projects.
    • How you managed to bring in a project under budget / on budget.
    • How you managed to bring in a project under time / on time.
    • Show you understand EVMS or other project management methodology.
  • Admit you are learning how to apply PM to e-commerce. But give examples of:

    • How you learnt something new in the construction PM game.
    • How you manage difficult people.
    • How you understand e-commerce customer priorities.
    • How you understand the e-commerce company's market / product.
    • How you understand the underlying concepts in their SDLC (Agile? Waterfall?)
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    +1 for using the word "learnt" in a professional setting :) – jmort253 Mar 11 '12 at 1:47
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    +1 for giving me advice that I could use even though I didn't ask the question... and off I go on a new adventure :-) – Doug B Mar 23 '12 at 18:56
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I think you should go with what you've written down: you're studying to bridge that gap. Short of learning to program yourself, you're doing what every PM does, implicitly or explicitly.

I've never interviewed for such a position, but when you do, maybe you should say, "I've read X, Y, and Z, taken online course Q. What else would you (the interviewer) recommend I do/read/watch to fill in any gaps?" A "Beginner's Mind" (in the D.T. Suzuki sense) can go a long way towards getting things figured out.

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For some reason, there is a huge bias in IT around core IT knowledge and success as a PM. I think the bias exists in other industries, as well, but it seems to be elevated in IT. The fact that the IT shop exists solely because of the business in which it supports seems to be lost.

The bad news is, the largest hurdle you face is this bias. The good news is, this bias is not based in truth. There are a plethora of required attributes--knowledge, skill, personality traits, experience--that leads to a PM with a greater chance of success. To be sure, IT knowledge is an attribute, and a valuable attribute, but it is only one of many. In many IT shops, it seems to be the most heavily weighted--and, sadly, in some cases an absolute requirement--and that is what you have to overturn.

Do not talk about what you have to learn, talk about what you can do. Focus on those other attributes that lead to success--things like communication, salesability, holding the customer's hand through change, analytical abilities, leadership skills, confidence, teaming abilities, facilitation.

There isn't a leader in the world that knows every aspect of his/her organization. Many CEOs come from the sales side and have no idea how to build product.

This garbage that you have to come from IT to be a PM in IT is more about competition for the coveted PM role. It is an easy way to filter out a bunch of your competitors. Simply watch a PM in action of a successful project. (S)he is not developing, coding, testing. (S)he is selling, controlling, measuring, facilitating, building a team with high morale, working financials, working legal issues, removing environmental barriers, keeping the customer happy!

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One - estimation - project managers with IT background have good experience and are better at estimation of IT project-simple. If my PM is not from IT I could get away with saying I need 5 days to do a simple java program that does I/O which is fulla-crap. Now it's true you need to know only when managing people and not during an interview, but what if you are asked these types of questions?

The main thing you need to know if you are not from IT background is to bone up the knowledge on the tools/practices that the company has. That combined with your extensive PM experience will give you a better shot.

Not many CEOs come writing/developing code, thats because its lot better than managing/making people work and being behind them in making the project stick to schedule. Thats where people who could 'communicate' come in. They were the not-so-great nerdy programmers but knew how to answer the same questions asked by different types of people.

Last advise could be -again- knowing the domain/technology the company uses- whats it's strength, and weakness. Like for example using a multi-partitioned database for OLTP is a 'no-no'. You don't need to know how to partition a db, but knowing their strengths and weaknesses will make you understand the language the IT guys under you would speak.

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Good project managers don't require good IT skills. But project management for a software development company can be a bit different to other industries.

Joel Spolsky has some very good articles in regards to project management in general, I would arm yourself with a lot of the basic ideas he shares. (Here's a good start)

Also there are many industry standards and certifications, that you might not have time to master and obtain before an interview, but some general knowledge about them might help. (depending on where you are: PMP or Prince2 and quality standards like ISO 9000)

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    I'm not sure about certifications. The courses are too theoretical and IT people don't value too high those managers who have no idea what they are doing, but have a bunch of certificates. Willingness and learning is the key here in my opinion. – Zsolt Mar 11 '12 at 8:37
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In most of the cases a manager doesn't need an IT background, but in order to have respect from the colleagues you should have know a couple of things about what and how they are doing.

Concerning your interview, if I were you, I would highlight the people skills I have and I would give a couple examples of projects where I planned something and followed it through. Focus on the how. Nowadays, IT industry needs people who can manage programmers - not an easy task - and can deliver in time.

You can also benefit from following these guys:

There are more great guys out there, so the list is not complete (comment if you want to see somebody else on the list, and I'll update it).

I think you can also benefit from mentioning this during your interview, so that the interviewers see the you started to learn more about IT and you are really dedicated to the cause.

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Be very honest about what you do and don't know during the interview. A candidate with humility will perform better than someone who claims they have never had a project miss a deadline.

Once you are in the job you will need to learn. PMs who don't know IT can't adequately mange risk. They wind up as glorified secretaries.

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It is great to see that you are working hard to hone your IT skills but the bottomline is that you will never reach the levels of technical skills that other core IT people might have in your team, In my view your biggest weapons should be - trust (in your senior tech people) and an ability to elicit & understand technical information,risk management,leadership and creating a happy project environment.

I would suggest that you develop and market your skills around these areas rather trying to build technical skills from scratch.

Which 5+ years of non IT project mangement experience behind you,if you are able to draw parallels,exhibit general system levels skills and apply basic PM princicples to an IT project and have the above skills to augment that,then I believe you would be very effective as a PM.

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Some good answers and advice so far.

My suggestion would be to focus on what it is you bring to the organization. They're not interviewing you for an internship or on-the-job training, so stay away from what you need to learn, or how you're going to learn it.

Ultimately the PM is supposed to be the leader of the team, so focus on explaining how you're going to effectively lead a team when your understanding of the technical details is limited. Explain how you're going to foster communication and collaboration, how you're going to keep an eye on the big picture so the project's successful while others get into the minute details. Explain how you're going to work with the technical people to get an understanding of what they're doing, and that you're not there to tell them what to do, but rather to help them plan out their work, and to watch the job form the company's overall perspective.

Stay away from how much you don't know, and stick to how much your current abilities are going to come into play to bring the project in successfully.

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