Career Spotlight: Project Manager

Project management is more than just running the show and giving orders -- you've got to be a diplomat, too.

Career Spotlight: Project Manager

Technology professionals often think about pursuing project-management opportunities, but whether they end up filling that job role depends on factors far beyond their technical expertise.

Would-be project managers may like the idea of being in charge of a project, but the skills developed as a network engineer or programmer do not always make for an easy transition to project management. Project managers often have to leave behind their hardcore technical expertise for other concerns, such as motivating workers and managing budgets.

"It's being 90 percent diplomat, 10 percent technician," says Joseph Mendoza, director of program management at Kineticom, a San Diego technical talent firm. "A project manager should not be a supertech in one subject but should be knowledgeable in many subjects."

Project Manager Basics

Project managers work with clients, colleagues and other stakeholders to determine a project's scope, devise its budgets and schedules, manage communications and handle all the disparate elements needed to deliver results.

"If you want to be able to deliver what is needed on time and under budget, you're headed for project management," says Sid Kemp, author of Project Management Demystified. "If you are willing to work with people so everyone gets things done, project management is right for you."

Dan Cobb, vice president of national sales with Kforce Technology Staffing, says techies who crave hands-on work with the latest technology will likely move into design, architecture and consulting jobs. Others may be cut out for project management.

"For those who have a talent for leading technical teams, are able to articulate technical requirements to business personnel in both written and verbal form or who just have a need to see the conclusion of each engagement, the project-management path is the one typically chosen," says Cobb, who has 10 years of project-management experience.

Education and Training

Techies can move into project-management positions without degrees and certification, but it is increasingly difficult. Companies often seek out candidates with an MBA or other advanced degrees. Project-management certification, typically from the Project Management Institute, is often considered a plus, especially for those with several years of experience looking to advance in the field.

As the field matures, more project-management professionals are learning the discipline through seminars, college courses and other formal training, says Douglas Arnstein, president of San Francisco-based Absolute Consulting Group. They study topics such as tracking projects, managing resources and assessing risks. A number of universities, he notes, now offer master's degrees in project management.

Moving Up

Project-management pros say a technical background is the norm for managers of technology projects, but it isn't a must; much depends on the organization. But information-technology projects are most often led by those with an IT background -- just as projects in other industries are led by project managers with specific experience. "Most tech project managers have technical experience, and most companies only seek those with technical experience to manage tech projects," says Arnstein.

To move into project management, you will typically need to prove your leadership abilities by working as a team leader or taking on other substantial responsibilities. Show off your abilities in these areas:  

  • Multitasking
  • Resource management
  • Written and verbal communications
  • Projecting a positive, can-do attitude
  • Defining specifications
  • Motivating others
  • Team leadership

"The ability to communicate effectively with all the players, whether at the technical, financial or business level, can determine the success or failure of a project," says Cobb.

Keeping Up

Hal Macomber, a principal of Lean Project Consulting, says project managers should be conversant in various in-vogue methodologies for technology projects, especially as companies choose between less-formal methods, such as extreme programming, and more procedural ones, like Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI). "It would be crazy to join an organization and not know where they are on the continuum and where they want to move," he says.

Learn more about project management careers.