What’s the difference between a project manager and a technical project manager?
It might be easy to assume these are just two ways to refer to the same general job, but that isn’t the case here. Technical project managers fill a crucial role for certain teams and projects, bringing skills, knowledge, and leadership to the table that standard project managers don’t usually have.
A technical project manager job has a higher average salary than a standard or entry-levelproject manager role. Technical PMs may report to a senior project manager or technical program manager (and may be on a career path toward those senior roles).
In this post, we’ll cover what a technical project manager role looks like, along with the skills, knowledge, and tools a person needs to succeed in this role.
Defining characteristics of a technical project manager
A technical project manager is, first and foremost, a qualified project manager — a person who is well-versed in one or more project management methodologies and can plan, lead, and execute a project throughout the project lifecycle from project planning through completion. Like regular project managers, technical project managers may hold a certification in the field, such as the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification.
What sets technical project managers apart from their nontechnical counterparts is deeper technical knowledge (and usually years of experience). Often, this is technological and in a computer science or IT context. A technical project manager generally has some experience in (or understanding of) coding, development, and the other technical skills necessary for the project. Sometimes a technical project manager will hold an advanced degree in their field (along with a project management certification).
The role exists in other contexts beyond IT, and the principle is the same. A project manager overseeing a creative marketing initiative may not have any inherent design skills or marketing background. But a technical project manager does.
What does a technical project manager do?
Technical project managers are responsible for a similar range of tasks as regular project managers, fulfilling the same important role. But technical project managers possess advanced credentials or industry experience (or both). These elements color the way they fulfill these responsibilities and, in some cases, lead to additional responsibilities that an entry-level PM wouldn’t be capable of fulfilling.
Planning, scheduling, and delegating tasks
Just as in general project management, technical project managers plan projects, build out project schedules, and delegate tasks to specific project team members. Where general project managers do so in contexts where tasks and roles are generally understood, technical project managers apply these skills in specialized contexts. They use their industry knowledge as they understand who is capable of which tasks — and even what those tasks mean in the first place.
Typically, project brainstorming is reserved for subject matter experts. In conventional office settings, the project manager is more a scribe than anything, taking notes and listening rather than talking. But a technical project manager is one of the subject matter experts. As a result, the technical PM joins project brainstorming as an active participant, contributing original ideas and clarifying or pushing back on the ideas of others.
Managing marketing and project budgets
While the financial and marketing side of projects may or may not fall within a standard PM’s responsibilities, a technical project manager is more likely to have a hands-on approach to budgeting. In some contexts, the technical PM is also responsible for marketing budgets on a project.
Conversations and communication with all stakeholders
Up and down the chain (and even with external stakeholders), the technical project manager must communicate clearly, effectively, and knowledgeably about all aspects of a project.
Here again, the technical PM’s technical background is indispensable. Technical project managers must discuss a wide range of specific and technical topics with others. As they do so, they need to be able to speak knowledgeably and keep up with the highly trained specialists on their teams.
Important skills every technical project manager has
To succeed as a technical project manager, an individual should pursue, acquire, or develop the following soft skills and knowledge.
Strong communication skills
As we mentioned above, technical project managers constantly communicate up and down the org chart and even with external partners. They’re often tasked with delivering bad news (such as project or deliverable delays), and they frequently discuss topics or tasks where the boundaries are murky at best.
A great technical project manager thrives and communicates clearly even in situations where numerous variables are unknown, when tensions are running high, and when things generally aren’t going according to plan.
Adequate knowledge of programming languages
Technical project managers working in software engineering or IT must obtain adequate knowledge of programming languages and any other IT systems or concepts relevant to the company or its clients. Technical PMs don’t need to be all-star coders necessarily, but they need to be competent enough to understand the problems their coders are facing and to engage in problem-solving on issues as they arise. If the PM’s skills are strong enough that they can proactively offer advice or solutions, that’s all the better.
Schedule management skills
Every project manager must wrangle complex schedules with competing priorities. The technical project manager needs superior leadership skills to do this with one or more projects, helping team members balance their workloads and visualize a project's needs.
Technical PMs must also be able to apply these skills (including time management) to their own work, which is often self-directed and detail-heavy.
Integration management knowledge
Project integration is another key responsibility of project managers and technical project managers alike. This discipline is the process of weaving together all the seemingly disconnected threads of a project, from charter creation to coordinating between stakeholders and team members to resource management and making decisions about trade-offs (features vs. cost vs. schedule).
Project managers spend plenty of time building various project documents, many of which are crucial to this area of integration management. The project management plan comes just after the project charter — a much longer and more detailed document that can be an overwhelming task for new project managers.
If you’re drowning in integration management and project document creation, you might enjoy our post on how to create a project management plan that actually works. It even includes a free project management plan template you can start using today!
Superior organizational skills
Projects are complicated. They have an overwhelming number of moving parts, tasks, and people involved. And if you think about it, this is exactly why your company allocates resources to project management positions: Keeping projects on track was too much for team members to handle on their own, so your business brought on project managers to help.
Anyone tasked with keeping a project organized and on track (not to mention building detailed documents and schedules for that project and making sure to communicate the right information to the right people at the right time) absolutely must be an organized person — ideally, more organized than the average team member.
Tools that technical project managers are familiar with
Succeeding as a technical project manager requires more than the right set of skills, knowledge, and attributes — it also requires the right set of tools.
If you’re a technical project manager (or hiring one), you’ll need a variety of tools in four distinct categories.
1) Project management tools
First, you need access to one or more project management tools. Many organizations start by keeping track of projects in a spreadsheet app like Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel. We certainly have a fond place in our hearts for spreadsheets, and they continue to be useful in certain ways, but they certainly aren’t the end-all project management tools anymore.
If your organization is ready to bring on specialized technical project managers, then you’re ready to upgrade from spreadsheet-based project management tools to something more robust.
Teamwork is a powerful project management software platform built for creatives, agile teams, and developers. Whether you’re looking for agile, scrum, or a more traditional project management methodology, Teamwork is packed with features that will keep you and your teams organized, automate manual reporting and workflow processes, and more. Sign up for Teamwork for free now!
2) Team communication tools
Technical teams need a centralized platform for communicating about their projects. As teams grow more and more dispersed, the need for high-quality collaboration and communication tools becomes even more crucial.
Many teams enjoy using Slack or Microsoft Teams for chat-based synchronous or asynchronous communication. Google Workspace users have one or more choices in the Googleverse, though the company has struggled in recent years to provide a cohesive, consistent communication experience.
Both Slack and Teams include team-based channels and workspaces that can keep content organized and associated with the right project. (Just make sure to set up proper governance so that your project files don’t end up scattered across multiple cloud systems.)
On the video communication front (such as for virtual team meetings), there are plenty of options: Zoom, GoToMeeting, Teams, Slack for Business, and plenty more. Most offer more or less the same core experience, but business-focused features can vary between platforms. If you’re already using Microsoft 365 for other productivity tasks, the integration with Teams is hard to beat.
3) Collaboration and productivity tools
The line between communication tools and collaboration tools is much more blurry than it used to be. Tools like Teams do all of the above now, with built-in support for editing Office documents within the Teams app itself.
On the productivity side, Google Workspace is a great alternative to the Microsoft 365 ecosystem for organizations that aren’t enjoying the latter. Both Google’s and Microsoft’s ecosystems have various strengths and weaknesses, so it usually comes down to which suite offers more that matters to your business.
4) Risk analysis tools
Risk analysis is its own specialty within project management, and technical PMs who do significant work in this space benefit from standalone tools like Predict! Risk Analyser or Digital.ai Change Risk Prediction. Tools like these will help technical project managers accurately assess risks within a project and provide guidance to teams and stakeholders.
Manage projects seamlessly with Teamwork
Not every team or organization needs a technical project manager — sometimes, a generalist is sufficient. But as technical complexity increases (especially in software development and other information technology contexts), often an experienced PM with an understanding of the technical side of the discipline will make a massive difference on project outcomes.
Every project manager — technical, senior, or entry-level — needs the right project management tools to succeed. Teamwork is an ideal solution for tech-centric businesses that tend to rely on technical project managers, as well as creative firms, agencies, and a wide range of other businesses.
See everything that Teamwork has to offer: Get started for free now.