PM Articles > Executive View > Perfection Not Required, Flexibility and Fit a Must

Perfection Not Required, Flexibility and Fit a Must

by Cinda Voegtli

Today I want to tackle a couple of typical questions I hear about what a great PM needs to be (or not) and do.

1) Does a PM in a technical environment need to be "technical" themselves?

2) Does a PM need to be a charismatic leader? (Or what does it mean for a PM to be a "leader"?)

When pondering the difference between good PMs and great ones a few years ago, I addressed it with an informal poll of some colleagues who manage project managers, mostly Directors and VPs. I asked what they valued in their project managers—who they depend on, who is indispensible, who are the best and the brightest—and the responses were very specific and thought-provoking.

On item #1 above, here's one of those executive quotes, from a VP of Engineering describing one of their most valuable PMs: "She commands the teams' respect across functions—she is respected for her knowledge of customers and our system and is proactive on cross-functional issues such as deployment that can cause big problems after delivery. She is also a vocal 'teacher' about how to do it right which helps bring our developers up to speed. And they accept her knowledge, even about 'dreaded process,' because she's respected."

I knew this PM. She was "technical." She was a software developer by background. She was not, however, writing code on her projects at this point. But she was perceived as suitably "in the trenches" in key areas in terms of value-add coordination and problem avoidance.

She knew from her development experience, and what she had learned managing projects or pieces of projects, where the particular problems were hiding for this company's type of projects. She knew what to ask, she knew what the design reviews should cover, she knew what kinds of things might get left out of specs, she knew what integration testing should look like. This was one of her interesting strengths. She was an integration testing goddess—test strategy, preparation, coordinating fixes. By the time I met her, she was not handling all the very detailed aspects of roles such as integration coordination herself. But boy she knew how to work over the plans and stay on top of the status in a way that was meaningful to her teams. She was not asking, "What is your percent complete?" She knew how to ask about progress and judge what was really going on, in a way that helped find problems others might not have seen yet, and ultimately help avoid or fix issues. Contrary to being seen as a meddling micro-manager, she was counted on to be a great extra set of eyes. She was trusted, sought after, counted on. And remember, she was NOT considered a developer anymore. She was thought of as a project manager. But her knowledge base and how she used it was a key source of her PM credibility.

I experienced this unexpectedly myself while teaching a project management basics workshop to 120 engineers. The room was split roughly equally into 3 types of people: individual contributors whose bosses thought or who thought themselves that getting some PM basics would be a good skill set addition; engineers managing projects part-time and/or occasionally without having a PM title; and actual full-time titled PMs. I did my thing, covered practical use of PM techniques on technical projects, wove in stories from my tech project experience about particular scheduling challenges, risks, etc., all very real-world examples of typical tech project issues and nuances, layered on top of the basic PM tools. After the class, one of the people who came up to talk to me said this: "My boss suggested I come to this and I was skeptical about all this stuff. But as soon as I heard a couple of your stories I knew it would be OK. You've obviously been there, done that, used PM in the real technical world." I found that very interesting; it was like he was almost suspicious of PM until he got some real-world indication of credibility.

I actually think that's fairly common—the people on our teams do look for domain credibility in their PMs. After all, they spend their days in the domain—IT apps, embedded system development, biotech, whatever. Why would we expect them to be happy about being instructed, monitored, coordinated by someone who doesn't understand the world and the details and the issues they deal with everyday?

One last story about being technical or not as a PM. A friend of mine is an IT director at a major computer company. He has a phrase: "I have no use for content-free project managers." He has a group of 300 developers and works with project managers both inside his group and outside. His pet peeve is project managers who come and say things like, "The schedule says you're supposed to be 40% complete by now but you marked your task 35% complete. When are you going to be back on track?" In his mind, that project manager is doing no one any constructive good, and they get a reputation as being a paper-pushing status person. Even if someone else in the company has set that poor project manager up in a status-reporting-only role, that PM has lost all credibility with this pretty influential IT director.

My friend stated further that he ends up with a real staffing and resourcing problem with content-free PMs. "We have to attend intense planning meetings where we're mapping out releases that touch 30 different systems. We're trying to budget and coordinate and plan releases that make sense. Sometimes the architecture and interrelatedness of these systems dictates what can and can't be put together into a release. If my PM doesn't understand at least enough about the systems to understand and speak up about potential mismatches—release plans that wouldn't make sense—then I have to put two people in that 4-hour planning meeting: the PM to understand the schedule aspects, and someone else to cover the release plan sanity check stuff. I don't have two people!"

Now, you may argue that a company should expect to put two people in, and big companies have the different roles like architect or systems engineer to do it. But this guy is in a big company, and he's saying that with staffing the way it is, even his big company is not staffed to do that. (Ha! I smell an opportunity for PMs to differentiate themselves … more on that when I talk careers.)

Now, does all this mean you can't be a great project manager if you're not an engineer? NO, in my opinion. I think the key is not necessarily exactly what type or how much or even whether you've personally done technical design of x, y, or z type systems, etc. It's whether you understand enough about the particular kind of development, or systems, or customer applications, or whatever, to understand the team's issues, and truly able to help ward off problems without them spoon-feeding you information. Like my IT friend says, "content-free project management is not welcome here," because it's not efficient and it's not value-add (enough, anyway). And the key is, you DON'T have to have done every type of development to be able to make these kinds of deeper contributions.

I know this from experience. All of my direct development experience was embedded systems hardware and firmware and some software. But since my direct development days, I've managed projects or consulted on things ranging from IT data warehouse projects to medical devices to software games to websites to factory automation equipment to biotech drug development and launch. Each time I had to learn new things, lots of new details about where the risks hide for this of development, or what reasonable estimates are for this kind of work, or what testing is needed, or what regulatory issues there are. But the fact is, my understanding of basic development lifecycles and project management principles, and my desire to learn, and my willingness to get on top of enough detail for a particular industry and add some value to a new type of team were enough. That means (good news) I truly do believe you can be a technical enough PM even if you were never a developer yourself. It's all in where you put your attention to add value to your team's work.

On to a few words on the charismatic leadership aspect. The PM in the first example—highly respected—was very interestingly, NOT a charismatic leader. She actually totally hated "doing the leader thing" as she put it, in terms of what she thought that was supposed to be. You know, rah-rah on the project, standing up in front of her team, keeping them motivated. She was a quieter person, not an extrovert in terms of being highly verbal and liking to speak in front of people. Quite the opposite. However, watching her in action, I felt she led by leading the way in a very effective, on-the-ground credible manner. Everything she said and did with the team was aimed at getting the project requirements right, watching out for pitfalls in the development, keeping people in sync technically and cross-functionally—sometimes simply by having the right conversations with functional managers, sometimes by working the issues herself. She relentlessly led the team forward by doing, doing, doing, and demonstrating the right things to do, just by what she focused on, how she prodded for issues, and what she asked hard questions about. She eventually realized that when the team needed some emotional uplift during tense times, she didn't necessarily have to turn into some back-slapping hearty person she wasn't, or become a serious "selling" type executive presence. She had the respect of the team and she could be herself and speak in her own style to voice support for them, appreciation for their work, desire to solve their problems, and how important what they were doing was for the company. Her style of leadership, based on her credibility and her actions and her sincerity, was enough.

So as I say in the title of this post, another thing I've come to believe about PM greatness is that there is no one right definition of what a great PM is. You don't have to be perfect, you don't have to be the same as someone else who's considered a great PM. But I do think you have to be willing to read the situation you're in, be flexible enough to learn new things and provide what the team needs, and do it in a way that fits the company culture and team environment and what that particular group of people needs from you in that project situation. I actually find this to be exciting and liberating—an opportunity to make a difference as me, an opportunity to exercise some creativity and define a PM role that works for me and for everyone else.

Next time, a few thoughts on what this all means for maximizing our career opportunities.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Thank you for helping me describe why I'm a great PM. I know that sounds egotistical but I am really good. I have had a few interviews in the past week and each one was looking for a Sr. PM whose skills fit the PMP mold to an extent that they were overlooking the quality of a PM and his/her credentials. I have a background like yourself, with the exception that I started out as a hardware tech, moved into network build and design and then into system analysis. Then after a few years I moved cross platforms to programming and then into program analysis. I returned to school and got my Masters in Computer Science and a Masters in Project Management. I have over 17 years as a PM.

But I am finding it hard to find a job because I don't have a PMP certificate. In places where a PMP in not critical, they are saying I'm over qualified. Others say that without a PMP I am not a "recognized PM". I feel I have the ability of person 1 and person 2 in your article, a very good PM with the ability to fix and complete even the most misaligned project, in the worst condition you could imagine.

Again thanks for helping to set the record straight. I am going to use a few quotes from the article when I have my next interview to help sell my skills to people that really don't understand what a PM is or does.


Thanks for writing. You are not the first person who has commented to us on the PMP issue - e.g. "What do you mean I'm not a real PM, I've been managing projects for 15 years." I am curious to know from you and others what the source is. Is the PMP issue being raised at an "HR screening level"? (I guess not if you actually were able to get in for the interview. But I do believe in some organizations you can't even get an interview if you don't have the PMP.)

In companies where they'll at least talk to someone without the PMP on the resume', I wonder what differences they perceive in the "PMP mold" person vs. someone who's been in the trenches managing projects...

I'd encourage you to not give up. The companies who said you were overqualified must want a project coordinator rather than a true project manager and leader; or else they just have awful budget constraints. The companies who were worried about "recognized" PM may have some legal or regulatory concern (similar to how some industries require a certified Professional Engineer to be covered.) I believe that there are PM opportunities out there with companies who just want to get the job done. I know many of our member companies have people who go for the PMP because they're interested in it, but the company has not mandated it; they have a much larger number of people managing projects without any certification. They are concerned with hiring people with real project experience and the PMP is secondary.

I do hope others will comment from their experience. I'm curious as to what others see happening out there with the understanding of the project manager's role and value and how the PMP factors in to hiring decisions.

On the PMP thing, let me add my nickel's worth as a certified project management professional. If you want to be able to "talk them down" from demanding a PMP, I think the operative question is "What is it about the PMP that you find appealing?" If you have the knowledge of the PMBOK areas, the PMI lingo and the experience down, I'd make THAT my sales pitch. And if they call you on it, offer them a commitment to get the certification if/when they hire you and foot the bill. If you have the experience, language and knowledge, the exam is do-able. And while you may feel like it's an act of selling yourself out, if they value it, it's worth allaying their concerns.

I put my credentials with the blog because I wanted to make a point. I didn't become an EVP (Earned Value Professional via the Association for the Advancement of Cost Engineering) because I felt it would make me a better EVMS manager. I did it so that I could take that off the table as a potential sticking point in discussions with my consulting clients. If they want proof that I'm legit to do earned value, we're done there.

But that said, I think the real challenge is finding out what's BEHIND their desire to have a PMP. And then proving that you're the answer to that desire.

And if they REALLY just want the three little letters, offer to do it...on their nickel.

I don't think content free PM's can be effective except in narrownly defined areas.
I am Project Managing some renovations around the house at the moment, it's the things that I don't know about that trip me up. Imagine if I was acting as PM on a building site. It would be a disaster as I don't have the domain knowledge. Put yourself in those shoes. Could you PM a high rise?

If I had a position requiring a PMP, I would not be interested in someone who offered to take the exam at my expense. I might not recognize the applicant's strong desire for my position or in project management as a career.

This might be time for the "just do it" advice. Why struggle, pre-interview or post-interview, to prove your worth without certification when acquiring it would solve the issue and open more opportunities?

Perhaps poor but an analogy none the less, I always seek out the board certified medical doctor (MD). I’m not in the medical field and, while I logically know that a non-certified MD may be very good, I at least know that experts in the field have designed a test that my MD passed and continues to recertify.

From corporate experience, the PMP is sometimes used as an evaluation criterion to move to higher-level project management positions. Since the application for PMP requires specific knowledge and experience levels, it prevents a “first-timer” from being placed on a large project or in a senior position. In this case, the PMP requirement for external applicants may, in part, be the result of internal career path criteria and a clue that you are not looking at a lower-level position.

As a PMP with over three decades of Project Management experience in Software Development, Information Systems, Engineering, Production and Security projects from both the business side and technical side I understand Gordon Whites comments. I also have instructed Project Management and PMP courses.

Recently I have been involved in Feasibility Study Reports which involved not only the recommended alternative solution to a problem, but also the project management requirements to implement the recommended solution. This caused me to think about whether a PMP credential is required, and why or why not?

What does a PMP certification indicate? Primarily that the individual speaks a common language with other certified Project Managers and has an understanding of Project Management theory. Using the same terminology can be very valuable in communications. Knowledge of the theory does NOT mean that the individual knows how to apply it!

As Gordon and Cinda pointed out, the broad experience does give the basis for an individual to understand risks and getting the job done. However, many companies give the title of Project Manager to Technical Leads who have years of experience with a Project Manager title, but little experience in managing a major project.

I believe there are two reasons for requiring a PMP.

FIRST, many of the highly qualified Project Managers now are PMP's. Many of the Tech Leads are not. By requiring the PMP you are eliminating many of the Tech Leads (or Project Coordinators) from applying. By adding 5 (or 8 or ...) years of experience with similar types of projects you are eliminating many of those with PM knowledge but not the needed experience.

Result is that instead of getting over 100 resumes (with 30 being qualified) for that Project Manager opening, you are getting maybe 10 resumes with 7 being qualified. As a hiring manager which makes sense????

SECOND, I know a number of long time Project Managers who say "I don't need a stinkin' PMP to manage projects".

Their attitude indicates that they do not consider the other person's needs, only their own little part of the puzzle. Most projects which I have seen fail were not due to project management or technical problems, but were due to people problems. Many projects by definition inflict change on people and do change people's jobs and careers. Someone who is not willing to consider what a hiring manager needs, is also more likely to attempt to impose their will on stakeholders. Result will be conflict which causes less successful projects or failures. Good Organizational Change Management requires this, but it is at best given lip service by PMI.

I would recommend Gordon take steps toward becoming a PMP. Perhaps take a PMP Prep course at a Community College, or from a PMI Chapter, or one of the numerous classroom or online courses.

Now, if you can get an interview, you can say that you understand why a PMP credential is valuable to them, you never needed it before and put off getting certified, but now are taking steps to get certified.

Since the project management profession is evolving toward requiring PMP certification, anyone not getting the PMP is automatically eliminating themselves from consideration for a large number of opportunities. Is the PMP perfect? Far from it, but that is another topic for another day. It is the tool many hiring managers use to screen applicants, and if enough people say they will not get certified, then that PMP criteria will go away. However, so many Project Managers are getting certified that it appears very unlikely the PMP requirement will go away.

Good philosophy (It lines up with mine exactly!)
Do you know of any business process modeling technique (or software) that can model this type of project management style? What I mean is that it can model coaching, dispensing Authority yet not Responsibility, Rolling Wave planning, etc?

Great Excellent Article!!

In my mind, you hit the nail on the head in your analysis of a PM and what technical skills are required.

Some comments to all you technical IT boffins in PM industry. I am an individual with engineering and mining (coal and diamond) projects background (12 years), in other words, no I am not a mining engineer. I have been studying towards my post graduate in PM for the past 2 ½ years, and have one more exam to go then I am qualified. Gathering the comments from above, my perception is different. I believe that if a PM does not have the ability to be creative and analytical, the chances are higher that the project team will not be performing at their best. How do you choose a team member? How do you ensure that your project is delivered on time, within cost and scope requirements (that the client wanted in the first place) are met – what do you have in place to ensure that all these wishes for the client are fulfilled? I have seen in many cases where very expert technical PM’s do not understand how to do this? They can pull the technical part together but not the team. How many of your team members’ work together and how do you communicate the specs to the team? Do they all know what is expected of them? These are the softer skills that my PM lack of, so hence, I pick that up, and lead him in a direction. For me, it is not only the PM that is the leader. What I say is that it’s not only the technical expert but also the human behaviour expert – both of these make one great PM’s.
Gordon, on the PMP issue: what is stopping you to sit for the exam – only you?

Tania, great points, and let me say first off that I bet that anyone who's replied would agree with your statements such as "...if a PM does not have the ability to be creative and analytical, the chances are higher that the team will not be performing at their best." And yes, some very expert technical PMs do not have the flexibility and people skills to do that aspect of the job.

Related to my blog about the technical skills aspect, I certainly do not intend for it to be taken that the importance of the technical skills means the people aspect does not matter. I agree that it takes both. I just wanted to bring out how understanding enough about the domain and being able to put it to use constructively to help manage the project can be an important part of a PM's value-add.

I DON'T think someone has to "be an engineer" to do that. In that vein - a VP friend told me this week that he had gone back to growing their PMs from inside, because when they had hired two different experienced PMs from outside, those people couldn't seem to pick up enough about their business and technology to be effective enough as PMs. He was quick to say- "I don't think these PMs need to be engineers or even highly technical - but they've got to learn enough about the ins and outs of what we do to ask the right questions, probe for the risks, get the right people involved..." That boils down to an ability and willingness to learn the right things for the environment.

On both counts - technical aspects and people aspects - going back to Gordon's original post about the value of the PMP... I don't believe any of us are worshipping the technical aspects of the job OVER the people aspects at all - just responding that neither of those abilities come primarily from PMP-type certification activities.

Thanks for posting.

Another thought on Gordon's comments:

I have found that a better way of determining if someone will be a good project manager, other than resume content (including certifications), is to talk them through scenarios and see how they would address them. Most of the meat of project management is not necessarily knowing what the knowledge areas or process groups are, but rather having a working knowledge of several techniques and practices, and knowing when to use them in real life situations. In interviews I ask questions to determine how they would approach specific situations - not because I am necessarily looking for a specific solution to a problem, but rather because I am looking to gain an understanding about how they solve problems.

Taking that into consideration, in your situation I would suggest you be prepared to describe how you would address certain situations that show off your problem solving abilities and your abilities to adjust to certain situations. In my mind this is proof that you posses the experience and knowledge that the PMP is intended to indicate.


Thank you for a thought provoking article.

My company is a government IT consulting firm with a number of 'no-content' project managers who are assigned to manage Enterprise Architecture and Application Development projects with Line of Business Subject Matter Experts (SME).

SME's complain that the no-content do not add value. They cannot determine what is qualitative ouput beyond just tracking schedule variance.

Customers who are recepients of the project output are also frustrated due to inability of such project managers to articulate the project status, and question the PMs' dependability in signing off project deliverables and billing.

We are thinking of moving these 'no-content' PM's to report to Line of Business managers to develop insight in on SDLC methodologies, techniques and relevant quality management. We also are establishing a Projects Support Office to employ PM's who have a combination of technical expertise and PMP qualifications.

Very interesting article!

Just a thought about the PMP certification. Think about it in terms of just what it is - a certification of an industry recognized stuctured methodology. It certifies that a person who has the credential has attained a level of knowledge and experience using that methodology - but it is not by any means a measure of quality of a "great" PM (that's normally evaluated during the interview process).

I share Carl Pritchard's experiene that obtaining the PMP certification has also helped me avoid this as a sticking point with potential employers (although I have been using the methodolgy for over 10 years - I have only been certified for 2).

My advice to Gordon, the certification is not difficult to obtain for someone of your experience. Just do it and get it over with. You will be glad you did.

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