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Should a manager (or CEO) in an IT company have an IT background to perform in the organization?

My project manager at the company I work at, has no technical knowledge in the websites we build.

I think this is obviously acceptable, however when we get questions about how certain parts of the website work, I have to answer the questions.

Is it quite common for a project manager to not know the details of how each project works? And should this be the case?

  • I don't think this is a duplicate of "Should a manager (or CEO) in an IT company have an IT background to perform in the organization?". I was asking how much they should know about the project, in terms of specs.
    – Curt
    Jul 8 '11 at 15:22

You need someone who is responsible for the technical aspects of the project. There have been many cases where CEO's don't know a thing about software, but there are CTO's who handle this as the ultimate authority.

There are a bunch of problems with a PM not knowing anything about the technology.

  1. He won't be able to take an informed decision in case of conflicts (This is the biggest one - seniors become more and more useful only as they make momentous decisions using their knowledge/experience)
  2. He won't be able to grade/assess people correctly. (Causes attrition)
  3. He will have to depend on a "favorite" among the engineer pool for decisions. Though he might not acknowledge this, he will have one in mind and usually go by their recommendations, effectively making them a CTO. This wouldn't be a problem if that person is CTO material, Else causes priority inversion and effectively a failure of the project.
  4. He won't be able to evaluate various proposals (costs of hardware/ time estimates / people estimates and so on) - sooner or later leading to disaster.

Talk to him and find a way to get a Technical lead.

  • Thanks Subu. I just think I find it frustrating that work we are charging clients for, my project manager doesnt understand how it works.
    – Curt
    May 23 '11 at 8:48

Project managers that know how things work in details are rare and precious.

For the rest of them, it's your responsability to help them. It's what they expect from you.

The ideal project manager will care less about how features are implemented but more about how well your work environment is. He or she will try to protect and motivate you.

All technical aspects should be managed by you.

  • I think its understandable that a project manager wouldn't understand the technical details of a project, but should the PM know as much as the client, in terms of the workings of the system? After all, how can you manage a project if you don't understand how it works?
    – Curt
    May 23 '11 at 8:51
  • Curt: details certainly not, but enough to be able to take good decisions.
    – user2567
    May 23 '11 at 8:58
  • And "You" here is elusive. If it is a team that Curt is a part of, then there will effectively be a tug of war to be this Tech. lead. (This is not about issues that have a binary answer. This is more about decisions in the gray areas of a project). If the PM wants to continue this way he could - just get a Tech.Lead and could handle only the people management / release work alone. May 23 '11 at 8:59
  • @Subu Subramanian: you here, target anyone in the team.
    – user2567
    May 23 '11 at 9:01
  • I think in that respect I'm probably classed as the 'Tech.Lead', but without the job description!
    – Curt
    May 23 '11 at 9:58

While PM should definitely not get too much into details, he/she should definitely be acquainted with the overall project architecture, major modules, and moreover, major issues with the system (e.g. a specific CORBA interface) because you spend 80% of the time working on the 20% of the issues.

Your answers to questions should likewise be appropriate for his/her level of tech knowledge.


If the PM is hands off, it can work, but they have to truly acknowledge that they cannot do much more than deal with the resource scheduling and paperwork and leave the tech stuff to the technical folks.

One of the best PMs I ever worked with did this flawlessly, the only downside is that occasionally one of the project team gets pulled into a manager discussion.

The other dozens of this type of PM I have encountered half-listen to the tech details and go off promising things and making tech decisions. The absolute worst I ever had required me to explain the entire project at least once a week in one of the status meetings because she couldn't understand why we were doing the work we were doing at some point.

People that can do PM without the tech background well are VERY rare.

  • Having a PM who doesn't have much involvement in the project seems like a huge responsibility for the development team.
    – Curt
    May 24 '11 at 9:28
  • It isn't ideal, but I would take it over someone that thinks they are technical. With this guy he did enough of the management that it wasn't too bad.
    – Bill
    May 24 '11 at 19:21
  • Scheduling the work in so its on time etc. That would be pure PM right?
    – Curt
    May 25 '11 at 8:13
  • In this situation specifically there was a bit of a dance to getting additional resources pulled into the project. The dev team would "schedule" from the point of view of "we need to clone a prod db this week" but managers had to get involved to get someone assigned that week to do the actual work (the devs were not allowed) also there was a fair bit of overhead in negotiating deploy windows with the 20+ different business units and such.
    – Bill
    May 25 '11 at 17:54

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