Many technical professionals will consider project management as an option when it comes to taking a step up the career ladder. Many will have worked within project teams, often having fulfilled a variety of roles, so they may well feel that they know everything there is to know about the job before they start. The challenge of managing other colleagues who have many of your own skills, experiences and concerns is also an attractive one for anyone who wishes to take their first steps into a supervisory role; the expectation is that the shared experience of the ‘coal face’ will provide a valuable connection and confer automatic respect for your instructions when it comes to directing the work of the team. But is project management really the ideal route up the corporate hierarchy for a technical professional- or, to put it another way, do technical professionals make good PMs?
The answer can be yes, but it’s by no means the given thing that many might assume. The priorities of a good project manager are not only different from those of the technical staff that they have to work with, but often contrast with them, and it’s sometimes harder for a person with genuine empathy for the situation of the engineering, communications or IT specialist to take the necessary step back and view the situation from the point of view of the project’s goals. Certainly, it is important not to underestimate the value of understanding the priorities and concerns of your team members, but it is equally crucial to maintain a balance and to give equal precedence to the other priorities of budget, commercials, resourcing, and timescales which make up the true performance indicators of the project management role - the indicators on which higher management will judge the progress and success or failure of the project itself.
Equally important is the ability to resist the urge to become ‘hands on’ with the technical aspects of the project. Many professionals who have made the switch have found difficulty in delegating their old tasks to others, possibly through mistrust (even unconsciously, we’re predisposed to think better of our own quality of work than anyone else’s) or through difficulty in adopting the ‘manager mindset’ that’s necessary to take responsibility for the work of others. Often, we’re able to rationalise our involvement in the interests of efficiency, feeling that it will be quicker and easier just to do the work than to take the time to explain the task to another and then manage them in achieving it. On other occasions, we seek the familiarity of detailed technical work as a sort of ‘comfort zone’; the feel-good factor of completing an intricate and detailed piece of technical analysis or development can compensate for frustration or lack of confidence with the larger project manager role. Needless to say, this is a recipe for disaster: at best, it represents time lost to the day to day tasks of project management, and the creation of a potential bottleneck stopping vital project knowledge from disseminating around the team; at worst, an unacknowledged fundamental problem with the project manager’s ability to handle the ‘big picture’, that causes them to seek refuge in the details while the oversight tasks go unfinished.
That said, with the proper preparation and an awareness of the pitfalls, a technical professional can make a very efficient and effective project manager. As is so often the case, it comes down to scope, in this case the scope of the project management role: understanding the intermediary nature of the PM, your function in representing at one and the same time the team to the project, and the project goals to the team; having confidence in your communication and organisational skills, where necessary supported by appropriate tools and methodologies; having strategies in place to support you in making the switch from colleague to supervisor, remaining at all times mindful that it will be your responsibility to - tactfully - tell experienced people how to do their job; and the ability to leverage your own experience and technical ability to create value for the project, while avoiding starving your other responsibilities of attention. If you feel that this is achievable, then perhaps project management is for you.