Technical Project Manager: A Curious Expression

An increasing number of job opportunities arriving in my inbox have the title, “Technical Project Manager”.  This is indeed a curious expression and gives me pause to question: Who created it? What’s gained by adding the term “technical”? What does it mean to me, a project manager?  The first thoughts that ran through my mind were:

Is this an individual with a superset of project management hard skills in scheduling, risk management, etc? (Then why not say that? Project Scheduler or Project Risk Manager)

Could it be an individual with domain experience, like software development, construction, IT, etc?  (Isn’t this already the case for virtually all project managers; project management is a skill set and knowledge base that overlies some technical profession, like engineering?)

Maybe they are seeking an individual whose primary role would be the technical domain lead (like, a software engineer), with limited project management knowledge? (Then why not call a spade by its name? Software Engineer Lead )

Possibly they don’t want to pay a premium for a competent project manager; someone competent in people skills, business operations, etc. But do they want an entry level project manager? Or are they seeking one person to do two jobs, at the pay of one?

Is it possible they differentiate between a business-focused and a technology-focused project manager?  (Ignoring the business aspects of the project in favor of the technology has a history of developing technologically great products that are business disasters.)

Laying out several job postings, each by a different company, side-by-side is of no help in finding consistency for the job title.  Although those that do use it use it on most of their project management postings; everything is a Technical Project Management position.  This leads one to ponder the project management maturity level of the organization, especially if their focus is extensively on domain expertise.

However, as I’m writing this post two things have come to my attention.  First, I was reading a blog string when I came across a post by Paul Tiffany, “…Technical Project Manager. This is an HR and IT line manager’s contrivance usually based on false assumptions regarding what constitutes an effective project manager. A good PM is not going to succeed because of intimate knowledge of Agile, but how to manage time, resources and scope to bring in a project on time and within budget.”  — That sounds reasonable, Paul.

Second, I was scanning the AMA Seminars catalog which regularly arrives on my doorstep and I couldn’t believe it, there on page 116, was a course being offered on Technical Project Management. Could this contain the answer I’m seeking?  One of the items that they promise to cover during the course is the “Definition of a technical project management environment”.  Isn’t this a catch-22?  I don’t know if I need to take the course until after I take the course.  All is not totally lost, they do offer a little guidance, it’s related to “R&D, construction, capacity expansion, instrumentation and control, plant outages and more”, the course does promise to cover the project life cycles of construction and pharmaceutical industries, and finally it is noted that this course is not for IT professionals (they are directed to take the IT Project Management course). The bulk of course material covers the run-of-the-mill PM 101 basic hard skills.  Well that makes things about as clear as the weather in Seattle.

Whatever … they all have me confused, and I’ve worked in the profession for decades.  The problem is the expression is not consistently applied, thus adding “technical” to the title does not clarify and only muddles the intended purpose.  Certainly it is not clear and concise communications.  The term “Project Manager” by its self is even better than “Technical Project Manager” because it leads the reader to the assumption the primary role is to manage the project. You know, the person in charge, not the one doing the work. Whereas, I am assuming that a Technical Project Manager is one that manages one or more technical aspects of the project.  You know, the person that ensures the work is technically correct and complete.

My humble suggestions are, if the intent is to clarify the position in the title:

How about being domain specific, like Software Development PM, Construction PM, Hardware Development PM, Agile PM?

How about including specializations, like COBOL Business Application Migration PM?

How about calling a spade by its name, like Lead Engineer/PM, Software Programmer/PM, Project Scheduler?

As a grizzled project manager with a very broad experience base across industries, companies and functional domains within each, what I’ve concluded by all of this is, Technical Project Management job opportunities are not for me because they are not looking for real project leadership. If there is one point out of this discussion I’d like to leave the reader with, it is best summed up in a quote from Harold Kerzner’s Project Management: A Systems Approach to Planning, Scheduling, and Controlling:

“You give me an individual who has good communications skills and interpersonal skills, and I’ll give that individual a job.  I can teach the people the technology and give them technical experts to assist them in decision making.  But I cannot teach somebody to work with people.”

After all that is what project managers do: Work with people across many disciplines to ensure the project meets the business goals (aka, get the job done).

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One Response to Technical Project Manager: A Curious Expression

  1. Hi Wayne,

    Nice thoughts. I couldn’t agree more with your observations, experience and suggestions.

    At times (more often than not), I’m surprised and I feel sorry that senior management expects the PM to be just a “do”er in technical domain. The reasons could be – lack of organizational PM maturity, difference in education, culture and operating style of management – or combination of all above plus some other factors ..

    I sincerely hope senior management at all organizations understand and appreciate the differences in roles of “technical project lead” (complete hands on technical “do”er whose sole responsibility is to worry about technical aspects of the project) and “project manager” (completely in-charge and responsible for the outcome of the project, who has reasonably sound technical/domain expertise, who has good interpersonal skills and someone who can get things done).

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