Can a developer successfully move to a project manager role?

In my field as a developer, I’ve found that when working with technical project mangers there can be miscommunication on priorities and level of effort of projects or tasks.  This seems to stem from a lack of strong technical background and understanding of the specifics required to complete each tasks.  Because I serve as a manager of developers, I’ve often considered whether I would be able to step in as a project manager to help my team and company and I would have the technical background in order to understand the process.

I found this article titled “Can a Technical Developer Find Happiness as a Project Manager?” (link below) that addresses this very issue and I found it very interesting with some thought provoking questions that address my exact position.  I serve as a technical manager but often fill a need as a project manager in certain situations.  This article indicates that this is often the case with technical managers but that they are often not happy serving in that manager role.

Personally, I have found managing people to be very fulfilling and hope to continue on this path but I do find the role of project management interesting and a new challenge.  But I also think the role of a technical project manager could be a new challenge with opportunities that I do not currently have a technical manager.  With the experiences I’ve had with technical project managers, it seems that there is a gap when it comes to technical experience that could be filled by former developers moving into that role.

The problem we all encounter though is how do we deal with stakeholders and people with unreasonable expectations.  Would the technical background provide more credibility with stakeholders and then more weight to the validity of estimates?  Or would it make no difference?  Has anyone encountered this kind of situation?  Did you see more success when dealing with clients and stakeholders with technical expertise?

Of course, technical expertise must be paired with strong communication skills.  I’ve found that those with strong technical skills but weak communications skills can still be as ineffective (or potentially worse) than someone with strong communication skills but weak technical skills.  It also is common for developers to lack those strong communication skills.  I feel that I’ve bridge that gap well but it may not be as simple for other developers hoping to move into management roles.  I know a few technical managers that lack the soft skills often required to be successful at managing across disciplines.

Has anyone else moved from a solely technical role to a management role?  Have you found it fulfilling or are you restless?  Have you served as a project manager on some level?  Is this something you would consider pursuing?

Article Link:

8 thoughts on “Can a developer successfully move to a project manager role?

  1. I have to agree with you here in that I would prefer a project manager with some technical background of the project they are managing with the caveat that he/her have to be able to communicate. I mean you can have the best project management skills but if you don’t have a technical aptitude regarding the project then I think that is somewhat risky. Projects can get done, I just think that it is a risk.

    I am leaving a development role to become a project manager. The projects I will be responsible for will require me to learn on the job as well as rely on the skills that this MBA has provided me. However, I will have some application projects as well. I am excited about the chance to grow, and will let you know how it goes. 🙂

  2. It seems someone with technical expertise may have difficulty refraining from applying their expertise and actively working on the project versus managing the project. Having said that, I do think having expertise in the area of project you are managing can help build credibility with the team and assist with communication. I have seen project managers with operational expertise succeed in my company, but often they get asked to do more than simply manage the project.

  3. I think with your technical expertise, you would be great doing project management work. I think that project managers don’t need to be subject matter experts, but if you come from that particular field it is very helpful. Due to your experience, you have a different view and many learnings that can be applied if you were to be project manager. Many times, project managers may potentially expect unrealistic things, because they can’t relate. Your experience would serve you well in this role.

  4. Hi Crystal,

    I moved from a research capacity in R&D to being a product manager. It was tough initially and took me some time realize that I wasn’t on the “front lines” anymore. That is, I wasn’t testing the products first hand and not really seeing and experiencing them first hand. I found that I had to learn to rely on the technical experts to tell me about the product performance. I had to learn how to put on my marketing hat at think from a different perspective. It took another year for me to learn how to best merge my technical experience and background with my new role. I think that it is challenging to move away from what you know for fear of losing your “domain knowledge.” However, I think that in order to really embrace a new role, you have to let it go somewhat in order to really grow. Despite what many seem to think, multitasking isn’t always a good thing.

  5. I would agree with the comments everyone has already made, in that if you have the right skills, a move from a technical role to a project management role would be more than achievable! I was a requirements consultant before moving into the Project Management world, and I loved being the subject matter expert on our client’s requirements, being able to dive in and help with testing, etc. The biggest learning curve for me as a new project manager was learning to step back and away from the details, and stay high level within my new responsibilities, and then work on perfecting those new skills that I was using day in and day out.

    The challenge with this is that you have the background technical knowledge to act, but you should neither act or get involved in the details. That takes a ton of self control and “self-checking”.

    Personally, I made the move for a few reasons (and validated that project leadership really was my true passion):
    1) Like you, I felt I can provide more value to the company and to my own career path by pulling up a few notches and into more of a management track
    2) I wanted to oversee and manage the entire project start to finish, rather than only one piece of it (e.g., Requirements, or Development). I wanted to broaden my perspective and experience, and learn more about each aspect of our work
    3) By nature, I am extremely organized, fact-oriented, but also in-tune to how people around me are feeling and doing.

    Lastly, if this is something you are debating trying, I would say go for it! Even if it seems scary, if you have the communication, stakeholder, and task management skills, you will slowly gain the rest of the skills in your new role and will adjust ‘out of’ being the technical expert.

  6. Stakeholders will always want the numbers and figures what is this going to do for me now and in the long run. I am not a manager, but I have had the opportunity in my previous position to deal frequently with a board of directors and put some input in important decisions. Stakeholders care want to know what the project will do for them at the end, so when proposing an idea it is important to be upfront and honest. They will drill you on this and that, but it is important to take it as constructive criticism. Their job is to ensure the company and the project will make money, whereas your job as a manager is to ensure that project will deliver on its promise. There have been many times where I have left a meeting and thought man they just ripped that project apart, but when you sit back and look at it usually it can be seen that their concerns were legitimate and maybe they thought of a different issue than you did.

  7. I went to project management from software engineering background as well. Technical skillset from software engineering definitely helped me in project management, but it is not required. Also, I have to manage other types of engineers (mechanical, electrical, hardware, firmware, etc.) where I have no technical background, but as long as you have a team filled with all technical areas of coverage, you should be fine running the project without much technical background.

    Communication, leadership, and team-building skills are a ‘must’ for project management.

  8. You make very good points. I think you’re in a unique position with a strong technical background and new project management skills that will give you a lot of career flexibility. In my experience you would be an invaluable asset. Your points are very valid – often it seems the technical managers are skilled at the details but not so much on the “big picture” business aspects of projects, whereas other managers are more skilled at the business side but have a hard time managing the important technical pieces that makeup the project. If your interests are in project management, I think you can have a very fulfilling career and I think you will find that you will continue to benefit from your technical skills in more ways than you might think.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *