Tech geek or people person?





Technology keeps advancing at a mind-boggling pace, while developers struggle to keep up. A shortage of skilled IT workers has many major tech companies scrambling for ways to retain top talent.

IT giants Google and Facebook have been going to new extremes. In one case, Google offered one of its engineers US$3.5 million in restricted stock to reject a job offer from Facebook. (He did.) In another bid to please its developers, Google gave its Dublin, Ireland staff an average pay rise of €5,000, plus generous Christmas bonuses.

Organizations are also ramping up recruitment efforts, giving rise to a conundrum: Should you look for an IT project manager with outstanding technical skills—or one with dazzling interpersonal powers?

The trouble lies in the fact that there really does tend to be a disparity between these types.

“Most people who are ‘techies’ don't want to manage people,” says Ron Gallagher, a technical recruiter at Mekaza Staffing, a project team-building consultancy in Roseville, California, USA. “Rather, they want to be hands-on— programming, engineering or troubleshooting.” IT project managers, on the other hand, “want to see projects through to fruition regardless of what technology is involved,” he says.

Project managers, by their very nature, must have good communication skills. Until recently, many companies didn't demand high-level technical skills from them.

“There are plenty of jobs out there for project managers who don't necessarily have a technical background,” Mr. Gallagher says. “There are business roles for IT project managers, particularly in healthcare, that not only don't require a technical background, but actually discourage it because companies don't want somebody who's going to be pushing IT.”

> TIP While the debate rages on, IT project managers should make themselves more marketable: “Job seekers can learn the necessary technical skills by either going back to school or taking a course,” recommends Rachael Maddocks, Russell & Partners, Sandbach, Cheshire, England.

In this debate, people skills trump technical prowess in the field of project management, attests Pietro Casanova, an independent information and communication technology project management consultant based in Puglia, Italy. “While it's important for IT managers to have sufficient basic knowledge about IT processes and technology, primarily they must be able to manage people. They have to make sure that team members can do what is needed of them and that they can coach them properly.”

An increasing number of hiring managers and IT recruiters are broadening their definition of the ideal IT project manager. In some cases, that means abandoning hard-and-fast rules for a people skills-oriented approach.

“Nowadays, I'm taking a further look at an IT project manger's natural inclination,” says Marci Schnapp-Rafael, CEO of executive search firm TeamQuest Systems, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. “Are they someone who moves things along? Are they a communicator? Which candidate has the natural ability, the inclination and desire that best matches the role of a project manager?”


Without a doubt, IT project managers must be skilled in business imperatives such as meeting tight deadlines and allocating precious resources. But recruiting someone who lacks the necessary technical skills can pose enormous risks to an organization.

For one, tech-challenged IT project managers are at the mercy of their developers to oversee a project's more sophisticated aspects—a situation that can significantly undermine their authority. What's more, a failure to fully grasp a project's technical requirements can result in poorly defined goals, undetected gaps in team skills and an overall lack of project accountability.

Organizations shouldn't even consider hiring someone who has no experience in IT, Ms. Schnapp-Rafael argues. That doesn't mean candidates must be developers or computer programmers, but “a project manager has to have the necessary technical skills,” she says. “You can't be an event planner with no experience using technology and then all of a sudden become an IT project manager.”

Some in the position can go from a technical background to managing people at a later stage, says Rachael Maddocks, operations director at executive search firm Russell & Partners in Sandbach, Cheshire, England. “That's the best career path. That way they serve out a few years on the technical side of things and then take on a more mentoring position.”

Finding the right fit comes down to a candidate's career trajectory, says Rob Chorney, director of operations at Ian Martin, an engineering, healthcare and science IT staffing firm in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. “We want to know if someone is travelling along in the slow lane, in the middle lane or speeding in the fast lane,” he says. “Rather than assess someone's résumé based entirely on the technical skills they've listed, we instead like to look at what types of projects an IT project manager completed successfully within a particular period of time.”


Many times it comes down to who's hiring. There are two types of people who seek out IT project managers, and they tend to have drastically different views on what makes an ideal candidate, according to Mr. Chorney.

Line managers, who are directly responsible for employees’ work, “tend to be much more interested in a person's previous achievements, what their track record looks like, and where they've been able to demonstrate leadership and past success on projects,” he explains.

Human resources departments, on the other hand, “tend to be more inclined to look for IT skills that are easier to spot on résumés.”

And that, Mr. Chorney warns, can create a chasm between the type of IT project manager who best suits the position and the one who is perceived as impressive on paper.

Those who will have the new hire report to them must open a dialogue with human resources and explain exactly what traits they're looking for.

“The ultimate buyer is the person who has the internal need for an IT project manager,” Mr. Chorney says. “But because in most organizations, human resources is an important part of the hiring process, candidates first must be able to convey the fit appropriately to someone in that department. In the end, it's a complicated equation for people to navigate.”

Keep in mind that while tech skills can be learned in the classroom and on the job, no amount of schooling can prepare a job seeker for making the transition from a strictly technical position to a more managerial role, Ms. Maddocks says. “Some people take to project management quite easily, and some people struggle with it and prefer to remain purely technical,” she says.

In the end, though, organizations need IT project managers who can complete a project on time, on budget and in alignment with business goals.

“We see it all the time—people who have fantastic résumés and have taken all the right courses,” Mr. Chorney says. “But ultimately, companies are looking for people who can get the job done smoothly and successfully. In other words, a specialty in change management will garner attention from both line managers and human resources. But the individuals who are able to articulate how they used theoretical knowledge to deliver past projects are the most sought-after candidates in the market.”

Whether an organization places greater value on tech knowledge versus people skills, ideal candidates are becoming more difficult to find and retain. During the recession, high unemployment meant many workers, but little work. Now, that's changing.

“As the labor force's pendulum swings back to more work available,” Mr. Gallagher says, “hiring managers are rethinking their definition of what makes for a superb IT project manager.” PM

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