by Phillip Smith, Vice President Operations and Services
I’ve seen many people in the IT industry think about shifting from a “software engineering” job over to project management. When I come across these folks in discussions, I stay on topic with the person long enough to discover their real motivation for change. I ask them to think about how they want to spend their workday, because it really is important to maintain alignment between the way people are wired and the type of work they are asked to perform.
So let’s talk about the general differences between the two “types” of people we typically see in technical roles vs. project management roles.
People who excel with technical work are a strong blend of “idea” and “action” in terms of the way they are wired. They love submersing themselves with great technical ideas and they are motivated to make use of all of the available tools and tricks. They often use their free time keeping up with new technology, simply because they have a passion about it and have an appetite to keep learning. They may stay up late at night reading manuals, or publications, or tinkering with things on their home network. I don’t want to discount the teamwork aspects of working with technology, because they are critical to success. However, working with technology does require a person to be comfortable with working many of their hours independently and somewhat isolated, because they are typically assigned tasks that require research and original thought that is performed at the individual level.
In contrast, project management work is very “people” and “process” centric. Most of a project managers’ time is spent building relationship and influencing people. They spend time facilitating meetings, gathering information, and communicating status or resolving issues. A project manager who is savvy enough to manage their schedule, cost, and risk through constant communication will be even more successful if they also love taking advantage of formal processes. When I refer to formal process, I’m referring to defined work patterns, tools, templates, and mechanisms for reporting and tracking. A project manager will go to sleep very quickly if you put him or her in front of a technical manual, but that same person will become energized if you strike up a conversation about earned value or resource leveling.
Again, my point comes back to the question of how a person likes to spend their day. If they are passionate about technology they are likely to be miserable if their job requires them to navigate organizational politics and never gives them time to work through the riddles of writing efficient code. To this I say, let them be architects and engineers—why ask them to be project managers?
I will concede that there are a few people around who are oriented strongly as a mix of people, process, idea, and action. These people are sometimes confused by the distinctions I’ve presented here because they are just as happy to be accomplishing something on their own in isolation as they are accomplishing things in a group setting where a lot of people interaction is required. These folks can leap from a PM role to a technology role quite comfortably. You’ll often find them excelling in various parts of the software development cycle as product managers, business analysts, technical leaders, or as quality assurance specialists. These roles require a mix of technical understanding and desire to work with people and process. So next time one of your technical people talks to you about doing project management work, ask them: “How do you like to spend your day?”