Project Management Without Technical Knowledge

I recently received an email from a project manager who was trying to do their best, but was flummoxed by the technical staff (engineers) who were constantly speaking above the project manager.  I have been in this exact situation in the past with engineers and technicians that attempted to talk above me while making their points.  I learned the hard way that just taking that tech talk and attempting to relay that up to my bosses failed miserably.

I responded to the project manager with this email that I wanted to share with you as the reader.  Although I realize that everyone is different, I wanted to ensure I placed my L.O.V.E. (learn, offer, value, and educate) model into the answer.  In essence, I wanted the project manager to learn from the engineers using them as mentors, offer them thoughts in the form of questions, value what they had to say, and finally educate the project manager’s bosses on what the engineers found in a language that the bosses could understand.  I think I hit all those points, but you can judge for yourself.

I imagine that it must be very difficult in your position as a project manager with technical people around you, especially engineers.  I have two brothers who are engineers and sometimes feel inadequate around them.

So, given those background facts, what can you do to increase your “value” while dealing with engineers in your project?  First, I am sure you are aware of the many free courses that are available on the internet to gain some technical knowledge.  There are articles on specific technical areas and, although some are difficult to understand, some are really a good explanation of the technical arena.
There is an entire series of free courses from Stanford University (www.stanford.edu) that can give you some good background.

Second, and probably most important, is to use that “force” that is against you as a force for you.  If you are into any martial arts, you know that the way to defeat an opponent is to use their force against them.  My sister is a black belt in Tai Kwan Do and I am an orange belt in Judo and it was my sister who told me about using the force generated by the opponent against them.

What does that mean from your standpoint?  You have the opportunity to use every one the engineers as a mentor, a repository of information, a way to get information from them and let them value you as a colleague.  When I was a project manager, I had times when the technicians would constantly try to convince me that they were doing the right thing and use terms and definitions that I did not understand.  Technical people do this because they do not want to take the time to explain something.  They just want to do it.

What I would do is to think strategically and value their knowledge, but offer my thoughts.  For instance, a PhD was explaining his dissertation (which they LOVE to do by the way) which was tracking a pollutant in water using sensors.  I used his dissertation theme and transformed it into tracking possible criminals also using sensors.  He was thrilled and headed off to take his data points and use them for this new application.  Did I understand the technical parts of dissertation?  No way, but I did understand the concept and used that to translate it into something that was current and appropriate.  You can do the same thing.  The transcript of the email is below.  The name of the project manager, or the location of that project manager, is not included for privacy reasons.

When an engineer talks to you about a part of the project, translate it into something that you can understand and then let him/her agree with that translation.

For instance, if the discussion is about information technology infrastructure, the technical person may say something like:

Engineer:  “If we add these routers to the infrastructure, we will overcome the limitation of IP addresses that currently exist.  We have to get these routers in order to fix this problem.  The cost is about $10,000 per router and we need your okay to make this happen.”

First of all, you need to find out more about IP addresses and routers, which you can look up on the internet, but you can ask some basic questions.

You:  “In order for me to talk intelligently about this with my superiors and ensure that we get the funding for the routers, I need some more information.  First, how many IP addresses are there currently being used and how many are predicted for the future?  How many routers are there and how many IP addresses are they capable of storing or distributing?  I am assuming that an address that you are referring to is like a street address in that people can only have one per house or apartment, is that right?  Finally, how did you come up with that $10,000 figure?  Did you competitively price these routers?  Oh, and one more question, when do you need these routers so we can plan that in the schedule?  Let’s make a 30 minute meeting this week to go over some of the information so that I can explain it better to my superiors.  You sound like you have your act together with this thing, and I want to support you wholeheartedly.  In order to do that, I need as much information so I can answer the questions to my bosses.  Help me help you.”

I am not saying that this is a script or that this is something that will work every time, but what you are doing here is taking what you know and using that to leverage yourself so that the engineers will value you.  Remember that you are the project manager, so you have the responsibility to keep everything on track.  You need to have those engineers know that without your help, things will fail to succeed.

Be nice, be kind, but be firm.  You value their opinion and their technical expertise.  What they need to value is your organizational skills and your ability to keep everything on track.  Please let me know how it goes and keep being positive.  Remember that you are learning from them in order to increase your value and your offering.  Just by reaching out for help, you are acknowledging your willingness to learn.  Keep asking questions and taking good notes.  You will do great!

I hope that this helps somewhat with those that are in the dark with their engineering staffs.  Everyone wants to succeed; whether it be the engineers or the project managers.  Use their desires as just that and move to understand them the same as someone that speaks a foreign language.  We all want to understand one another, it is just a challenge at times (just ask my wife).  Keep the L.O.V.E. model in mind!

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