What Is an IT Project Manager? Breaking Down This Unique Tech Career
If you’re a tech-savvy type looking into potential career paths, the information technology (IT) field can feel practically magnetic. Careers in this sector are often associated with competitive salaries and an increasing importance in our tech-driven world. But if you aren’t already deep in the industry, the titles and job descriptions may need some clarifying—and that’s certainly true for the role of an IT project manager.
If you’re wondering what an IT project manager (PM) is and why organizations across industries value this role, you’re in the right place. Put simply, IT project managers bring a mix of business-savvy, technical know-how and a strong understanding of how an organization operates in order to lead large IT projects.
“All businesses these days are in the technology business,” says Alan Zucker, founding principal of Project Management Essentials LLC. Zucker explains that pretty much every company needs to build and implement new software applications, hardware systems or technology platforms to keep up with their competitors. “IT project managers are the people who deliver these solutions.”
Interesting, right? If you’d like to get a better view of what IT project managers do, read on. We asked the professionals themselves to explain how their role fits into their organization, as well as some of the unique challenges and joys of the job.
So what is an IT project manager?
If you think this role sounds like a cross between technology and well, management—you’re right! “The role of the IT project manager is to facilitate the completion of the IT aspects of a project, demystify the tech and ensure it serves to meet the business’s needs,” says Elizabeth Harrin, director of A Girl’s Guide To PM.
“In my time as an IT PM, I also led the ‘business’ elements of the project.” Harrin explains that her role was technically in the IT department but usually involved more business-related work with an element of IT. “I’m not an expert in every technology that we use, and I’m working with everyone from full stack developers and web people to UX, platform engineers and telephony experts,” Harrin says.
In this position, IT project managers become the connection point for all the areas of expertise needed in a given project. They can explain technical constraints to business teams, and they can weave financial, timeline and company concerns into the technical stages of a project. “The PM's primary role is to work with people throughout the organization to meet the project’s objectives subject to constraints of time, cost, quality and risk,” Zucker says.
What do IT project managers do in their daily work?
“Every day can be vastly different for a PM, but the task type you'll spend most of your time on is communication,” says Kaelum Ross, founder of What In Tech. He says this typically looks like meetings, IMs and e-mails. But all that communication is far from mundane. Ross emphasizes that IT PMs are problem solvers and communicate to address issues, manage customer expectations and make sure the project proceeds as it needs to.
“Most of my time is taken up with communication and stakeholder engagement,” Harrin says. “Surrounded by technical experts, I don’t need to be hands on—I’ve done a bit of web coding, and I’ve crawled under a desk to plug in new machines, but generally my day is taken up with making sure expectations are aligned, roadblocks are removed and people have what they need to do their jobs.”
Another essential part of the role is working with senior stakeholders to give them a good picture of what is happening so they can make choices, according to Harrin. “Part of my role is translating the technical work of the project into language that they can understand.”
Aside from the clear emphasis on communication—it can still be difficult to really picture this job. That is likely because it really does change with each project. “The most challenging aspect of being an IT PM is also the most fun and exciting,” Zucker says. “Every day, there are new challenges to address. No two projects are exactly the same.”
What is the best thing about working as an IT project manager?
IT project managers typically enjoy a fair amount of ownership in the projects they work on. “Being a project manager is like owning your own small business,” Zucker says. Companies entrust their IT PMs with valuable resources to complete a project that will help the whole business.
“Early in my career, I was asked to take a leadership role in delivering critical projects to my organization,” Zucker recalls. “I had far more responsibility than many of my friends and peers. It was fun and exciting to feel like I was doing important work.”
“The best thing about working as an IT PM is the variety,” Harrin says. Her work has given her huge insights into how her business operates because she’s worked with almost all the other head office teams in the organization. “It’s a privilege—not many people have the same overarching view of the organization, but as I work on multi-disciplined teams, I see the bigger picture.”
What are the most important IT project manager skills?
You might be noticing that the IT project managers above described more work in areas of communication and management than in technical tasks. According to Ross, the keyword in this job title is definitely “manager.”
“You will manage problems, delivery risks, the customer, your team, deadlines and budgets.” Ross says IT project managers don’t need to be technical experts but having some solid technical knowledge will definitely help you succeed in the role.
With that in mind, we used analysis software to review over 190,000 IT project manager job postings and identify some of the most commonly sought-after skills. Here’s what we found.
Top technical skills for IT project managers:1
- Project management
- Software development
- Project planning
- Stakeholder management
- Systems development life cycle
- Customer service
- Business process analysis
Of course, these are just a partial snapshot into what organizations may be seeking. IT project management is a broad field that can come with plenty of opportunities to branch out in expertise.
“Project management is—for me and my colleagues—an incredible role to grow a huge array of skills that benefit both your professional and personal life,” Ross says.
“I've learned how to be a leader, organize very complex situations and communicate effectively on a multitude of different levels.” Ross adds that those who want to learn more technical skills as well can find a lot of methodology and technical application in the role. “You get to learn the big picture of technology and what it can do.”
From here to IT project management
Now you hopefully have a better idea of what an IT project manager is—a crucial bridge between all of the teams and elements that need to come together to complete a technical project. If the IT project manager role sounds appealing to you, you might be curious about what it takes to get there. To learn more, check out our article, "How to Become an IT Project Manager: What You’ll Need to Stay on Track."
1Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 191,795 IT project manager job postings, Dec. 1, 2019 – Nov. 30, 2020)