Becoming a Technical Project Manager

Over on Reddit, someone asked about moving into a project manager role from their current job. I have some experience with this, so I wrote up a quick reply, and decided to share it here as well. Post copied below, with some slight edits, clarifications, and adjustments for a more general audience.

I’m an engineering manager at Uber. My previous jobs were an operations manager at Google, and before that a technology consultant at Deloitte. The latter is probably the closest to pure project management, although my current gig involves quite a bit of team and project management as well.

There are a few steps you can take, and some things you should consider as you try to move into project management. First, you should get in the mindset of framing your current work in terms of projects. Can you explain the planning, estimation, execution, and wrap-up of the projects? Did you identify your stakeholders and work with them throughout the project phases to ensure the project was successful? Did you define success criteria so that you knew when you were “done” and that the project met its goals?

These are several of the most important things a PM does. If you feel like you’re doing this work now, and you can describe the things you’ve worked on in these terms/processes, you’re basically already a PM and really just looking for a new company that will give you the appropriate job title. This can often make for a much easier transition. In fact, I might even recommend listing yourself as a project manager on your resume if you fit this description (although it is important to make sure you aren’t misrepresenting your experience/background, so be careful not to embellish.)

Another thing to think about is certifications. I’ve previously completed Certified Scrum Master (CSM) and Project Management Professional (PMP) certs, as well as ITILv3 Foundations and perhaps a few others at some point in the past that are slipping my mind. In my experience, most of these are a huge waste of time if your goal is actual skill development, but some companies look for them as strong signals of your experience and “seriousness” in the project management domain. PMP, in particular, is probably the most widely valued by companies. In my humble opinion, it is a waste of time in terms of making you a better PM, but it might help you get certain kinds of jobs. Perhaps its best quality is that in order to receive the certification you must have a certain number of hours doing professional project management, and presumably PMI (the organization that administers the PMP cert) goes to some lengths to verify your claims of professional experience.

All that being said, some companies are into certs. While this is a bit of a lazy generalization, it’s probably safe to assume that the more corporate a company is, the more likely that company will care about your certifications. For example, management consulting firms love them (because they often tie to what rate they can bill you out at, and are more widely respected within that industry.) Similarly, I’d expect companies like Oracle, Microsoft, etc. to weight certifications more heavily than less traditional organizations such as Facebook, Google, or Uber.

If you want to work in high tech, I wouldn’t worry much about certs and instead I’d focus on technical literacy. Basically, however technical you are, go become more technical. Read some books. Write some code. Think about systems design. Understand how something works at least at the system level. Could you explain to me what types of systems are required to run something like Facebook? Do you understand the basics of how a search engine like Google works? These might sound like tough questions, because they are. But, there is a pretty high technical bar even for non-technical PMs at a place like Google. You need to have the respect of the engineers you work with in order to be effective, and you can really never be too technical. Your ability to talk the talk and at least sometimes walk the walk will carry you a long way compared to being a pure project manager in a technology company.

Clear communication is also very important. I’ve basically built my career on being able to understand extremely complex technical concepts in enough detail to communicate them clearly to all stakeholders, and then to advise on making technical decisions while relying on my engineers so as to avoid getting lost/mired in the technical details.

5 responses to “Becoming a Technical Project Manager”

  1. Phil says:

    Hi Brad. Thanks for your article. I’m about to complete my PMP. Been working for the tech side of an insurance company managing projects. I’ve worked as a PM and Scrum Master. I don’t have a strong technical background and would like to improve my technical literacy. No idea how I could talk about how e.g. Facebook systems are built/run, but I would like to be able to give an educated guess. Any books you recommend?

    • bjshively says:

      Hi Phil! Thanks for your comment.

      So, I think one of the best things project managers can do is at least get their feet wet in the process of building software. It’s probably not feasible for you to go out and spend a year or three developing true expertise and standing up servers, deploying software to them, etc. However, you can understand at least the fundamentals that go into building a simple web application, for example.

      I feel like anyone that “manages” software development should have at least built some small piece of software to understand that process. For a great ‘just build something simple that works’ type of guide, I really like the book Hello WebApp by Tracy Osborne. It’s written from the perspective of a designer who taught herself to write code, and it takes you through all of the initial steps of building a simple web app, starting from an idea.

      I can’t give you a specific recommendation for a book that covers “how to build and scale a large web application” because I’ve mostly gained this experience from working in proximity to, and now directly on, these types of systems. However, I’d probably tend to favor articles over full length books anyway. The goal isn’t for you to go out and start building distributed systems. Rather, the goal is for you to be able to follow along with and contribute to a discussion about distributed systems, to understand the cost/time/reliability trade offs as they’re being made, etc.

      This article seems like a good overview of the things that go into building a scalable app on a particular platform (Amazon’s AWS.) I found this just by searching for building scalable web apps. Again, for someone in a PM role the expectation isn’t that I could give you AWS console creds and you could spin up instances, deploy an app, and adjust the configuration to scale it. But, you should know what I mean when I say things like “spin up instances”, “deploy”, “load balance”, etc. You should understand the core roles — application development, devops, possibly database administration, etc.

      Hope this is helpful.

      -Brad

  2. Jacob says:

    Hi Brad,

    Thanks for that article. One thing, which got me a bit confused: “I wouldn’t worry much about certs and instead I’d focus on technical literacy. ” – this is potentially the only way to get through to the business of Project Management (IT Focused) “on paper”, can you explain what would you recommend doing if not pursuing the certificates path for this? As a person that works in the support environment, I am missing the other side of the coin here – I am currently working on a project basis, but now a bit put off by your article as in – how am I supposed to get deeper technical knowledge to work for high tech companies, rather than do work on my own after hours, get certified and have faith it’s going to be all right?

    Thanks,
    J

    • bjshively says:

      Hi Jacob,
      As I noted in the article, whether or not certs make sense for you depends largely on the type of company you want to work at. I can tell you from my experience that at places like Google, Facebook, etc. certifications are not weighted heavily at all. However, if you wanted to go the route of a more corporate job — Deloitte, Accenture, IBM, etc. — certification may make quite a difference for some roles.

      Let’s say, for example, that you told me your long term goal is to become a Technical Program Manager at Google. This is actually the job I was planning to transition into before I left Google to work on the self driving car project at Uber. I was in an operations role and I was primarily focused on client services, business process management, etc. I’m definitely not saying not to go do work on your own to beef up your skills. Quite the opposite. But, it’s important that you focus on doing the right kind of work. In the case of Google, I’d much rather see you go do some work on personal software projects, even if they’re just small applications (think a Twitter clone, a personal blog built from scratch using a popular programming language, or an online shopping cart.) Now, you might be thinking “that’s software development, not project management.” You’re right, but only kind of.

      You could absolutely do what a lot of people do in this scenario. Just start hacking away at code with no clear sense of direction, no requirements/spec, and no clear definition of done. This would be fine for learning development, but wouldn’t help you out much in terms of your project management skills. I obviously am recommending something different. 🙂 Instead, I’d draft a requirements document. Break the work down into features, and then tasks to deliver those features. Define the dependencies among tasks (make a Gantt chart if you like, or not if a proper project plan isn’t your thing.) Plan a mini sprint or two. See how much work you actually get done using agile best practices to measure your work. Then based on the velocity of that sprint, adjust your planning and plan another sprint.

      It doesn’t even really matter if you finish your project at this point. You’ve done so much more real world project planning than many people ever do before working in the field. Requirements, planning, estimation, etc. This gives you so much to talk about in your next interview. If I were considering you for a PM role and you walked me through all of this work you’d done to scope, plan, and execute a project, I’d be very impressed. The only thing that would be better is actual extensive industry experience.

      Does this make sense? Let me know if you have other specific questions.

      Thanks!
      Brad

      • Jacob says:

        Hi Brad,

        Thank you very much for your reply – super informative and useful comment!! I absolutely understand and it seems like you addressed my… hmm… advanced question I’d say! Unfortunately (or fortunately, you will be the judge) I have another question! Working for google sounds to me like a proper “dream come true” scenario. Two things. One: I have no university degree. Two: My skills in software development are limited to html/css/uber basic JS and of course the almighty WordPress GUI editor. My line of duty is something between sysadmin and internal systems support exec. As a person without a degree, certificates in my mind are the only “proper” way to even put one foot through the google’s doors. The foot is an overstatement, more like “look through the window” kind of thing. I have been looking at the Technical Project Manager role mainly because I have an impact on the process. I build it, adjust it and change it. I am the change. However silly this sounds, just by thinking about it I get excited (I know, that this is probably caused by the fact that I’ve never had a chance to even step in the Junior role if this even exists)! I’ve been lucky enough to work within ITIL/Agile environment so I did the research on my own. What I’m missing is probably the proper approach to the project – instead of blindly building my own blog, I can do what you advised.

        The question is, how could I prepare for the role doing what I do now? Before your post, I thought certificates are the way to go but now I am not entirely sure.

        Any advice will be very much appreciated!

        Stay awesome Brad!

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