How technical do you need to be as a successful project manager?

Project managers are in demand. According to the Project Management Institute, 25 million new project managers will be needed worldwide by 2030. That’s because a good project manager brings a unique combination of soft, hard, and technical skills to the table.

Put simply, it’s not an easy job. Managing a team from beginning to end of a project can leave project managers juggling budgets, deadlines, stakeholder interests – all while delivering a great product. And the impact of a successful project can be massive. Ninety-seven per cent of organisations say that good project management is vital to businesses achieving their goals.

But what defines an effective project manager? What are key project management skills? And how much technical expertise is needed?

Essential project management skills

A skilled project manager will have several proficiencies. These are often separated into hard skills and soft skills.

Hard skills of a project manager

Hard skills allow the project manager to do their job effectively. Examples include:

  • Organisation: Whether organising their own or a colleague's time, they’ll keep the project running smoothly through excellent time management.
  • Budgeting: One of the most vital measurements of success, the project budget must stay within agreed limits.
  • Negotiating: The project manager must sometimes be tough with clients and suppliers to ensure that the project stays on track.
  • Risk management: Every project involves some degree of risk. The project manager should judge how much risk is acceptable through critical thinking.

Soft skills of a project manager

Project managers do not work solo. They must liaise with, and manage, human beings. That requires soft skills:

  • Communication: The most meticulously planned project in the world would fail if colleagues did not understand the requirements. Communicating plans and changes to the project team is essential to success.
  • Leadership: Project managers must lead by example. Good leaders motivate colleagues, increase productivity and foster trust – something that can be even trickier with the rise of remote working.
  • Adaptability: Having to face challenges and communicate changes is inevitable in any project. 

These skills help managers to organise and lead on most projects. But do project managers need technical knowledge to complete projects successfully? Or is it all about communication?

Why technical skills are beneficial for project managers

Technical skills are highly sought after. For example, roles such as IT and software development are forecasted to grow by 14 per cent in the next decade. But the definition varies across industries. Let's take software development as an example. In this case, “technical skill” means knowledge of the technology stack used in a project. As such, technical understanding helps in several ways.

Firstly, communication with colleagues will improve. Project managers must liaise with colleagues to understand technical terms and concepts that will impact the project. If there is a fundamental lack of understanding, there’s a chance something could go wrong. Likewise, project managers can help troubleshoot problems more effectively if they understand them. 

Technically skilled project managers will also have increased credibility within their company. They will lead more advanced projects and may be in line for promotions sooner than less skilled colleagues. In fact, their technical expertise may have got them the job in the first place.

Shouldn’t project managers manage?

Shouldn’t a project manager’s main responsibility be to manage the project? Certainly, technical knowledge can help them to communicate between clients and colleagues. But the primary role is to manage – keeping everything and everybody on track throughout the project lifecycle. There are also many situations where a non-technical, ‘fresh’ viewpoint is valuable. 

Technical knowledge can be deep, but it can also be narrow and limiting. This is why project managers often pick and choose their approaches.

For example, a project manager’s range of skills allows them to take an agile approach to a software project when they might usually work in a waterfall-based infrastructure environment. They may have a methodology specialism, but fundamental skills allow managers to work on different projects. Which methodology to use should be an informed decision made with the project’s success in mind. 

Should project managers be certified?

Although not a requirement, specialising in a project management methodology offers several career benefits. The same could be said for certifications. Although only around half of project managers hold an official certification, those that do could be in line to make 22 per cent more throughout their career. 

And in that way, certifications, specialisms, and technical knowledge have their similarities. The desirable fundamental skills of project management are why project managers are in such demand. Specialisms, certifications and technical skills may just help them go further. 

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