Do You Need To Know IT To Be A Project Manager?

If you're a budding project manager, or are thinking of becoming one, then one of the common questions you may have is this: "Do I need to know IT ?" You're not alone, really. Many of my readers ask the same question. They're not sure if they can make it as a Project Manager if they're trained in say, marketing or economics, rather than technology.

I'm not sure why this is so. Perhaps the term "Project Management" gives an impression that you're managing large-scale, IT system roll-outs, or people tend to associate Project Managers with technology. After all, many "projects" out there ARE technology projects.

In my view, a Project Manager does NOT need to know IT in-depth in order to successfully deliver technology projects. You need to appreciate IT to some extent, but you don't need to be an IT architect or guru in order to run projects successfully.

In this article, I'll explain why - by understanding some of the critical skills that a PM should possess. If you're interested in reading more about PM skills, check out my articles here and here.

do you need to know it to be a project manager 1Do you need to know IT in order to be a successful Project Manager?

1. Overview

If you've read my articles on project management, you'll know that I've written extensively on what skills a project manager should possess. There are many ways you can spell out these skills, but here's a good way to cut it:

  • Generic PM Skills
  • Industry Skills
  • Solution Skills

If you think in terms of those three areas or "skill circles", as I call it - it's much easier to understand what you need as a Project Manager. Let's understand each of these in turn.

Generic PM Skills. Now, these generic PM skills are what I call "profession skills". These are the must-know, bread-and-butter skills of a project manager. What every project manager needs to know.

I'm talking about skills like communication skills, stakeholder management, creating a project plan, managing resources, writing up quality and risk management plans, plus project status reports.

If you don't know these things, you can't jolly well be classified as a project manager.

Industry Skills. Any project out there is delivered for a particular industry - be it banking, telecommunications, utility companies, etc.

These are not, in my opinion, considered core skill sets for a Project Manager. You won't find these skills being tested in the latest PMP exam, for example.

They are, however, important for you if you want to "stand out" amongst the sea of PMs out there. Everyone's a PM these days, but who can talk about the trade lifecycle, understand equities, fixed income, FX and their derivatives? Or who can talk about single premium insurance products, annuities or endowment insurance policies?

Solution Skills. The third class of skills relevant to a PM are "solution skills". If you understand a solution, be it a credit risk IT solution, data analytics, Target Operating Model design, or transfer pricing - then you have a "solution skill". Most people tend to have two or more of these over the course of their careers.

do you need to know it to be a project manager 2These days a Project Manager needs to know a combination of professional, industry and solution skills.

2. The Minimal Skills A Project Manager MUST Have

I think Project Managers must have a set of "minimal skills" in order to function. These are their bread and butter skills, much like a forehand swing is to a tennis player, or case law is to a lawyer.

The minimal skills a PM needs are the "Generic PM skills" I've mentioned above. I'll give you a few examples.

Communication skills. To clearly and succinctly communicate your project objectives, progress, business case, etc. to management. One of THE most important skills a PM must have.

Stakeholder management. To assure and help the people impacted by your project, or who have a stake in its outcome, to understand what the project will affect them, and how it is progressing.

Developing a project plan. Drawing up a project plan in e.g. Microsoft Project - not just typing it into the laptop, but carefully laying out tasks and assigning them to resources, in order to meet deadlines.

There are MANY other skills we can talk about, the above ones are just a select few.

Case Study: In my career, I've seen the likes of many project managers. The ONE thing that I've observed across all good project managers is this - they all know what it takes to deliver a project successfully.

They will at least know the tools, techniques and frameworks for achieving project success. These are the "Generic PM skills" I'm talking about.

However, here's a little caveat. In the late 1990s, when project management was still a new profession, you could get by with just those generic PM skills.

Fast forward to today, these skills are outdated.

I see it every day in the market. Being a consultant, I see my banking and insurance clients asking for expertise in credit risk. Knowledge of private banking client onboarding processes. Know-how in loan origination systems, etc.

That tells me one thing. You need to go beyond just generic PM skills to do well in project management today.

3. Differentiating Skills A PM Should Have

Try to picture this scenario.

You're a Project Manager in a Project Status meeting with very senior stakeholders from your client, a bank. You're running two weeks behind schedule, with a ton of issues surfacing during User Acceptance Testing (UAT) of a new Credit Risk System ABC. You're panicking a little on how to break the news to everyone.

Imagine you're Project Manager A - who is PMP certified, knows Microsoft Project in and out, has his resource estimation all done, variance to budget all calculated.

One of the stakeholders, the Head of Credit Risk, asks you: "You mentioned the VaR model is not crunch out the correct percentage as one of the defects from UAT. What do you mean? Why is it that my peers in Bank X didn't have this kind of problem when they used this Credit Risk System vendor?"

You, as Project Manager A, will be in a pretty bad fix in that situation.

Now, imagine you're Project Manager B - who has worked with the Credit Risk System in three projects. You also know the nuances of the VaR model and it's a problem you've heard arise in another implementation.

If you had this knowledge, do you think you can handle the Head of Credit Risk better?

Of course!

What I'm trying to say here is that Project Manager B has a "differentiating skill" - the knowledge of the Credit Risk System and VaR models.

It is this kind of skill that makes a difference in the market today.

Sure, Project Manager B also needs to know Microsoft Project, resource estimation, etc. But that kind of "generic skill" is less in demand these days - it has been commoditized.

If you want to stand out as PM, you need to gain an industry skill or solution skill.

Now, if we're talking about IT - it happens to be a differentiating skill (pun intended). If you're rolling out a new email system or network infrastructure, and you know email servers or networks (to some level), then you would stand out against another PM who just knows Microsoft Project, planning, PMP, etc.

Case Study: I'll give you an example - of myself. I started out in a major IT services provider early in my career. I was a BA then subsequently moved to PM roles.

But I was a "generic PM" - believing that my skills in project estimation, planning, etc. would impressive clients.

And for a while they did.

But over time, it was clear I needed more - clients started to buy less "body shop PMs". They wanted industry knowledge. Solution knowledge. Insight into vendor systems.

So I joined a bank, then another consulting firm specializing in private banking.

Today, I can safely say my value has risen many times because (1) I know generic PM skills; (2) I know banking, particularly private banking and (3) I know many of the vendors and their solutions in the private banking space.

That is the kind of PM profile that the market is asking for.

do you need to know it to be a project manager 3Having one or two differentiating skill sets will help set you apart from other Project Managers out there.

How Much Of A Differentiating Skill Does A PM Need To Pick Up?

Now, we know we need to pick up differentiating skills.

But does that mean you go all the way and get a Master's degree in Computer Science or IT? Or go do a Finance and Economics degree?

No, I don't mean it that way.

Your core profession is still project management. You do need to know your differentiating skill sets (maybe two skill areas) to some level of depth.

But you don't have to become an IT expert to do well as a PM. You just need to know enough.

Case Study: Time for another example.

I once worked under a very good Project Manager. I hold this lady in high regard today. She was trained in insurance and held an Accounting degree - and didn't know much about IT.

But she was able to project manage a huge multi-million dollar IT project for a large insurance company. We had a hundred people on that project - clients, vendors and our team (we worked in an IT services firm then).

How did she handle it? Well, she focused on the PM basics, of course. Those are always important. But she had insurance industry knowledge as a differentiator.

And although she didn't understand IT and servers, test and production environments, etc. - she made sure she had IT architects supporting her in making decisions.

She was not an IT expert - but she could understand enough to monitor and have fruitful discussions with the IT architects on our team.

If an issue came up, e.g. a firewall problem preventing a batch job from running - she would understand it the best she could logically and then ask an IT expert if she didn't understand something. Most of the time, she managed to get an IT guy to fix the problem successfully.

This is the approach a good PM should take. Have the PM basic skills there, apply your differentiating skills and drive the project. And where you have gaps in your knowledge, try to read up and understand the area to some level, so that you can rope in and discuss solutions with an expert.

4. Other Professions

I wanted to end off this article by exploring the topic of "IT knowledge" with respect to say, a Business Analyst and IT Architect.

As I've mentioned over here, a Business Analyst is somewhat like a Project Manager. The most important difference being that a BA is not responsible for overall project delivery on time and on budget.

Now, does a BA need to know IT in order to gather good requirements for, e.g. a new Credit Risk System implementation?

It's the same answer as for a PM - the BA does not need to know IT in-depth.

But he or she should appreciate IT enough - e.g. enough to understand how users interact with the system, what kind of outputs they need from the system. This will help them to document good system requirements.

However, the BA does not need to know Java, C#, database design and development, etc. - all the hardcore IT stuff.

On the other hand, if you're an IT Architect, then YES - all that Java, C#, middleware stuff - should be at your fingertips - because those are your bread and butter skill sets. And conversely, an IT Architect should also know some of the PM and BA skills as well, to deliver their part of the project successfully.

Wrapping Up :

In summary, I hope it's clear that a Project Manager does NOT need to know IT in-depth to deliver system project successfully.

What they DO need to know is some basic level of IT, so that they can have fruitful discussion with IT experts who can solve problems where they arise.

In addition, PMs these days need to move beyond just a "generic skillset" and touting PMP certification as their selling point.

PMs need to differentiate more - and pick up skills in industry and solutions.

If there's one thing I see a lot more of these days - it's the gradual trend of the marketplace to favor employees who understand their business and industry.

So I'd recommend that as a PM, you try to pick up industry and solution skills as soon as possible.

That's all I have for now. Until next time, have fun reading up on project management!

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