Can a Non-technical Background Stunt Your Growth?

Becoming a project manager is definitely something that interests me.  After spending the last few years working with project managers on a daily basis, I think I have acquired some basic knowledge.  However, where I work, the vast majority of project managers come from a technical background.  Previously, they were engineers who worked their way up.  It makes sense; they know the products and can speak coherently to the customer about specs, processes, etc.  So it has me thinking, how can someone like me with an accounting/finance background become a successful project manager?

So I read a few articles online, and it seems that the overall response is that a person does not need a technical background to become a project manager.  Well, that’s good news, but how do I overcome the technical deficiencies in order to be successful?  The following are a few ideas that I pulled from these articles:

Use your strengths

I mean this in two ways.  First, if you are not technically strong, then hopefully it means you have management/leadership skills.  Use the “softer side” of management to lead your team.  People skills such as managing conflicts, creating a positive, collaborative environment, and motivating are all valuable and useful skills.  The second meaning comes from the people themselves.  I once was told that being a good manager does not mean that you know all the answers but that you are able to surround yourself with all the right people.  The people you are managing are full of knowledge; lean on them to help you through the technical material while you learn the ropes.

Educate yourself

So you might not have a technical background, but if you see yourself staying in a certain field for a while, then it might be time to put the student hat back on.  This doesn’t necessarily mean going back to school to take a class, but it does mean putting forth an effort to learn.  Pay close attention to everything that is going on around you, ask questions when you don’t understand something, and even do your own research.

Admit when you need help

In other words, do not pretend that you know everything.  Acknowledge when there is a gap in understanding.  Show your team you respect them by not faking it; they will respect you more if you ask for the help when you need it.


Overall, if you can utilize your management skills from previous experiences, put forth an effort to learn your new environment, and work to understand your team, then a program management position can be within reach.


What was your background before becoming a project manager?  How has it helped you to succeed?

Have you ever worked with a project manager who did not have the technical background in regards to the project you were working on?  How did you feel it affected the project?



8 thoughts on “Can a Non-technical Background Stunt Your Growth?

  1. “I once was told that being a good manager does not mean that you know all the answers but that you are able to surround yourself with all the right people.”

    I wholeheartedly agree with this comment. However, matrix style organizations, make this nearly impossible to implement. In these types of organizations, it makes the hurdle a little harder to overcome. Nevertheless, it is entirely possible that if a PM pushed a functional manager hard enough, he or she can make it happen. Do you think the management and organizational structure a company chooses creates a barrier to entry? I think it limits the candidates and might hurt the company by having a technical-heavy structure as opposed to a more diversified project management structure.

    “To know, is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge.”

    Although this quote may seem depressing at first (especially after the many years of education and work we have experienced), when you reflect on it really means that there is always room for improvement. Asking your team how things/ processes work and why they do so will also help build trust and instill confidence in your team members as they are key contributors to the project’s success. Plus too much knowledge never hurt anyone.

    Thank you for sharing… I will try to keep these in the front of my mind in the workplace and even outside of it.

  2. Molly –

    Great post. I am actually going into the type of situation you are talking about. I have just been hired as a project manager for projects that will be composed of tasks that I haven’t completed before.
    I know that I can be successful, but only by adhering to the points you made in your post. I don’t care what people think when I ask question after question. Because at the end of the day, I am responsible for the progress of this project. So I want to know EVERYTHING about it. So far in my new position I have been looking for all the knowledge holders that I can find to provide me with as much background as I can get.

    I know that I am not the smartest person on the planet, but I am smart enough to know that I need to surround myself with smartest people I can find. If you are the smartest person in the room, then you need to find another room.

  3. I joined engineering project management from a software engineering background. My software engineering skills definitely helped me in project management, but I feel it is not required. On the same note, I didnot have any technical experience with other types of engineering (hardware, systems, mechanical, etc.) fields, but I still have to work with Team-leads to run the project. In short, as long as your team leads have sufficient background, you can handle all the management responsibilities to move the project forward.

  4. Hi Molly,

    I think that you can certainly be a great project manager without having a background that mirrors the product/project that you are managing. I’ve seen three people who converted from being technical resources to project managers. Two of the three have not been very successful because they were still trying to act as technical resources and unable to leverage the project manage tools and skills. Most recently, the SVP of R&D referenced one of our software project managers and stated that he wanted more like him because he used to write code. He was corrected when another VP stated that the project manager did not have a coding background and was, in fact, a mechanical engineer who moved over from hardware project management. The VP then went on to note that, the project manager in question was just that good at his job.

    So, it may be hard to get your foot in the door without a technical background. However, I have found that technical background doesn’t always translate to successful PjM. I think if you want to make the move, you have already given yourself some great advice. Good mentor-ship is really important to get up to speed on the technology.

    Good luck!

  5. One caveat that I would like to add to Molly’s excellent post is that all the members of a project group would probably have to be patience and understanding. Not necessarily everyone would welcome a project manager that does not know the technical side of things. Therefore to make a bad situation work, the project manager should express patience and understanding in order for the other members of the group to reciprocate it.

    On the realistic side, it is possible for a non-technical background to stunt your growth if someone with a technical background is more prepared to take your promotion. This is why patience and understanding is important or else otherwise a project manager with a technical background would be taken every time.

  6. This is a great post because although you were talking specifically about project management jobs this advice is really quite universal. The job market today is not a rigid thing, many times a person can find themselves in a job that they do not have a background in. Using the simple solutions listed in this post can make a world of difference in that situation.

  7. Hi Molly, I totally agree that having the right attitude and humility can help make someone grow into a successful project manager. Certainly, having the technical skills related to project can be a great asset, but in my opinion I believe the right mindset outweighs everything else. Part of being a successful project manager comes from careful and thorough planning. Even if he or she does not hold detailed knowledge, being able to properly organize and manage teams based on the type of knowledge they hold, your chances of successfully completely the project increase and won’t really depend on you having detailed knowledge.

  8. Like another poster above me quoted you

    “I once was told that being a good manager does not mean that you know all the answers but that you are able to surround yourself with all the right people.”

    I have to agree. Henry M. Paulson said exactly this. He said that he was not the smartest man for the job of Secretary of Treasury but that was fantastic at surrounding himself with people much smarter than himself. No matter how smart on person is a team of intelligent people will have more cognitive power even if every individual on that team isn’t necessarily as smart. Being open minded enough and humble enough to know your weaknesses will make you a stronger leader overall. I think you hit the nail on the head with that quote. Fantastic.

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