What Makes An Amazing Project Manager?

Today's job market is seeing the morphing of traditional jobs and the emerging of new careers. Technical project manager, an in-demand position, is the epitome of both.

Technical project managers oversee projects such as developing new software, launching a website or any number of other tech-centric goals. Their job is keep the project on target and on schedule — assigning tasks, tracking deadlines, managing workflow and making sure that everyone has the tools they need to complete their part of the project.

Many of today’s technical project managers didn’t target that profession, but found their way into the role. Minneapolis-based Scott Grengs began his career as a software developer, eventually branching out into several technologies. Fifteen years ago, while working with Wells Fargo, Grengs was teaching other employees how to manage software projects. When an opportunity arose for him to step into a technical project management role himself, Grengs made the leap.

Margaret Meloni started out as a computer programmer but decided she wanted to transition into management. “I was offered a position to lead a team,” she recalled. “In a meeting one day, someone looked at me and said, ‘You’re the technical project manager.’” Her new career was born. Now, Meloni serves as a project management instructor for UCLA Extension and UC Irvine Extension. Additionally, she provides training and support through her website, www.margaretmeloni.com.

Industries employing technical project managers run the gamut, from banking, manufacturing and film production to information technology, healthcare and customer service. “The processes, tools and techniques are applicable to any project,” Meloni said. “My students apply them to their own world.”

There are myriad reasons companies hire technical project managers. In a typical scenario, according to Grengs, a company decides they need a technological solution built in-house. “Many businesses also use custom technology to get a competitive advantage over their rivals,” he said.

To achieve this, a technical project manager organizes the work it takes to complete a project and then makes sure team members have the resources they need. “It takes a lot of coordination,” Grengs said. “There’s planning what and when things need to happen, then, once the project is moving, removing or finding ways around roadblocks until the final product is delivered to the client.”

Positioning oneself for success as a technical project manager often begins with education and training. “It’s good to get formal technical project management training versus being thrown into it,” Meloni said. “There are many good venues available, including extension programs, online training, video programs, podcasts and e-books.” Grengs sees this formal training as a way to build on existing skills: “Along with a technical background, an education in planning is needed, as well as a Microsoft tool set.”

In this competitive job market, which skills make a technical project manager stand out above the rest? Topping the list: good oral and written communication, especially when acting as a liaison between the project’s technical people, executives and investors. “A good technical project manager has the ability to dwell in two worlds, the technical and nontechnical, and bring these worlds together,” Meloni said.

Diplomacy counts. “It’s important to have a conversation that brings forth information without putting someone on the spot or being condescending,” Meloni said.

The ability to negotiate and compromise is also vital. “The client always wants technology built by tomorrow, which isn’t always possible,” Grengs said. So the technical project manager needs to negotiate delivery based on the client’s priorities and the team’s abilities.

Finally, Grengs said, “Don’t panic.” The ability to stay calm in a crisis is important. Once you’ve shown that you can put out fires and get things back on track, you’ll know you’ve got what it takes to be a great project manager.

—Bekah Wright for UCLA Extension

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