Should Project Managers be Specialist or Generalists?

Reader question: Does becoming a Project Manager make me too much of a generalist?

Reader question: I was a Java programmer working on financial applications. Now I’m a Project Manager and feel I’m losing my hands-on ability to program. Does becoming a Project Manager make me too much of a generalist?

First, thank you for your question. Like Java programming, the role of Project Manager (PM) can move you toward being either a specialist or generalist, based on the projects you choose (or are required) to work on. Regarding losing your “hands-on” ability to program, yes, if you have stoped programming, your programming skills will diminish. That said, as you lead more and more projects, your skills as a PM will increase. Don’t look at it as simply losing your programming skills, consider it trading off one skill set for another.

As a Java programmer, your primary skill is your ability to program in Java. Programming specialization comes from always programming in a specific business area, for example financial applications. The same is true from a project management perspective. The primary skills of a PM includes project planning, task estimation, project tracking, etc. Specialization or generalization comes from the types of projects being managed. If they are all in the same functional area, for example Human Resource (HR) systems, then over time you will be viewed as a specialist in HR related development efforts.

As you can see from the previous paragraph, being a PM, in itself, makes you neither a specialist nor a generalist. It simply gives you a valuable skill set and a great career. The trick for you is to decide if that is what you wish to do. Some PMs decide to specialize in IT process and widen their methodological background by becoming certified in ITIL, Agile and other areas. Then, they join and/or lead their company’s Project Management Office (PMO). Other PMs, as previously described, find a specific business or technical area they like to work in and only take on projects within that specific area. The advantage of this approach is that specialization can in time, bring with it, thought leadership, professional branding as a subject matter expert in your area, and higher pay. Still other PMs decide to be PM generalists and manage projects of all types, inside and outside of IT. This approach expands the types of projects they get to work on and enhances their marketability because of their wide variety of experience.

Given that you have previous experience programming financial applications, your greatest marketability as a PM will most likely be project managing financial-oriented software development and/or implementation projects. I say this because, as they say in the entertainment world, you’re a “triple threat”. In entertainment, that means you are a singer, dancer and actor. As a project manager, it means you have subject matter expertise (financial systems), an understanding of software development (as a previous programmer), and have the ability and experience to lead projects (your project management knowledge).

Widening this advice to all readers, not just the gentleman who emailed me his question, my question to you is “What type of PM do you want to be?”. Know that there is no right or wrong answer to this question. There is only what is best for you. If you get easily bored by continually working on the same type of project, then becoming a project management “generalist” may be best for you. It will provide you with the variety of topical areas needed to keep you excited and engaged. Conversely, if you have strong subject matter expertise and passion in a specific area, then becoming a “specialist” in that area enhances your marketability on those specific project types. Simultaneously, this expands your knowledge in your area of expertise as well as your project management skills and experience.

One of the beautiful things about begin a PM by profession is that you have a highly marketable skill set that is needed in virtually all professional endeavors, inside and outside the of IT. If you are true to yourself and follow your passion. With hard work, learned skills, a successful track record and a little bit of luck, your career as a PM will be both personally and professionally rewarding.

If you have any questions about your career in IT, please email me at eric@ManagerMechanics.com or find me on Twitter at @EricPBloom or @MgrMechanics or at ManagerMechanics.com.

Until next time, work hard, work smart, and continue to build your professional brand.

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