What is an IT project manager? Everything you need to know about project management and where it goes next

Project managers play a crucial role in successful IT organisations, but the project management profession is set for big changes due to automation and new working practices.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

What is a project manager?

A successful project manager is in overall charge of the planning and execution of a particular project, and an IT project manager plays a crucial role in the day-to-day work of the tech department.

The Association for Project Management (APM) says project management is the application of processes, methods, skills, knowledge and experience to achieve specific objectives. Project management is distinct from 'management' in that it has a final deliverable and a finite timespan, unlike management which is an ongoing process.

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Paul Yates, director at recruiter Harvey Nash, says an IT project manager is responsible for leading teams – whether via direct line management, through a matrix within the wider organisation, or across external third-party resources – to deliver specific programmes of work.

"They will either deliver business-driven projects, such as a new customer relationship management system, which is probably initiated by the marketing team, or technology-driven projects, such as needing to upgrade systems. They will be responsible for the business case, project planning, resource management, delivery and deployment of the defined outcome."

What skills does a good project manager need?

Professional project managers need a wide range of capabilities; often technical expertise, and certainly people management skills and good business awareness.

Project managers excel in a number of core competencies, including the management of schedules, costs, human resources, risks, and the expectations of stakeholders. While the effort of project managers is associated with isolated initiatives, their work takes on an iterative nature and experiences from one programme of work feed into the next.

"A project manager will often set the methodology for delivery and they need to be able to track and manage all the components of the project, highlighting risks before they become issues, while ensuring all stakeholders are considered and engaged through the project lifecycle. After deployment and delivery, the project manager should lead on 'lessons learnt' to ensure the organisation is learning from its mistakes," says Yates.

While IT project management requires technical aptitude, the success of a project manager is often closely associated to their softer skills, particularly due to the importance of dealing with stakeholder expectations. Increasing numbers of IT projects are owned by line-of-business departments, so cross-business communication and collaboration skills are key.

How can I become a project manager?

If you want to become a project manager, then you'll need experience of working on projects, such as being part of a team supporting a project. Getting a taste for project management will help you to find out whether managing people and process is the right role for you. 

When it comes to working as a project manager in the IT industry, there are numerous potential entry points. There's a strong chance you're already working in IT and the experience you've gained – maybe as a developer, project coordinator or as a business analyst – has given you a taste for developing a career in full-time IT project management. Project managers can add qualifications in a methodlogy like PRINCE2 to develop a foundation in IT project management skills.

Project managers can also jump sector. While there's an obvious advantage to having a strong technical background, many of the skills for an IT project manager – leading people, scheduling tasks and analysing results – can be taken from one industry and applied in another. IT project managers, however, do focus on tech-specific elements, so a good understanding of hardware, software and data will undoubtedly help. 

What's the demand like for IT project managers?

2020 has been a strange year for everyone, including IT project managers. Many businesses have chosen to place innovative projects on the back-burner and to instead focus on what might previously have been seen as day-to-day operational priorities.

Yates says demand for project management skills dropped overnight when lockdown kicked in. As organisations responded swiftly to deal with the new reality facing businesses, attention turned to operational infrastructure and priorities included boosting existing networks, cloud services and security toolsets.

Non-essential project spend was by and large cut, says Yates – and so were many project management roles. Yet change is on the horizon. Companies that want to thrive in the post-COVID age are starting to think about new IT projects. That means the demand for project managers is beginning to rise, but with important caveats in terms of market opportunities and rates.

"Some organisations are revisiting their projects portfolio and slowly starting to think about recommencing projects, but with a high number of contract project managers on the market, we are seeing a softening of rates and it is very much a buyer's market," says Yates.

What does digitalisation mean for project managers?

Digital transformation continues to affect the role and work of project managers. Research suggests project managers believe they'll see bigger technology budgets and greater use of emerging tech post-coronavirus, according to research by Censuswide on behalf of APM.

Almost a third (30%) of project managers expect their business or team will make greater use of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation. A fifth of project managers anticipate their team or organisation will seek new suppliers for software solutions.

Will Webster, head of technology at APM, says lockdown increased the emphasis on the value of technology in facilitating new ways of working, which is a trend that is set to continue: "Technology will be essential to supporting increased flexibility and productivity. Nowhere will this be more important than in the project profession."

AI and automation tools could also have an impact on the project management role itself. Analyst Gartner suggests 80% of the work undertaken by project managers today will be eliminated by 2030, as AI takes on traditional project management functions such as data collection, tracking and reporting.

However, as in other areas of the IT profession, Gartner says the expectation is automation will boost performance, including the ability to analyse data faster, and allow IT project managers to focus on higher-value interactions. As standard data-based tasks get replaced by AI, project managers will then start to manage the demands of AIs as new stakeholders.

What does the rise of Agile methods mean for project managers?

Agile is one working method that continues to have a big influence on the work of project leaders. In opposition to traditional Waterfall methods, where a linear plan is created to reach set business outcomes, Agile methods involve a collaborative approach, where cross-functional teams work in an iterative manner to find solutions to business challenges.

Agile project management breaks large programmes of work into smaller cycles known as sprints. Consultant KPMG suggests IT teams in the future will need to work much faster than in the past, shifting from projects to products, scaling agile ways of working, and committing to automating core IT processes across the technology lifecycle.

Yet the move towards agile teams has also had an impact on the IT project management role. Trainline CTO Mark Holt says his aim is to create a culture of iteration across the organisation. He's says the key to staying agile is to avoid putting too much governance in place – and that often means not relying too much on project managers.

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"The one thing that I do see as the difference between what I would call the big IT shops and the e-commerce innovators is the number of project managers you've got. We look for small self-governing teams who are able to self-determine – they can take a project and run at it," he says.

Business and customer demands are likely to change rapidly in the future, so organisations will need to manage projects to deliver results quickly. Simon Liste, chief information technology officer at the Pension Protection Fund, says his organisation uses a hybrid approach to project management that draws on Waterfall methods and Agile processes.

"We engage with the business at all times – we make sure that change is embraced and led by them. That's all about trying to change the culture a little bit, so IT is not on the outside. We are all part of the business. It's just about us as a business collectively working towards appropriate and effective change," he says.

How are companies using IT project managers?

Digital transformation and new working methods might be having an impact on the project management profession, but the death knell is not sounding for IT project managers. Joe Soule, Capital One Europe CTO, says the demise of the project manager role is exaggerated: "We still have project managers – because some things are still projects."

Despite the tech industry's obsession with the creation of customer-facing products and services, some things are genuinely either a programme or a project. "And there's lots of change that still requires the deft skills of product and programme management," says Soule. "Organisations still have those challenges and it's an important role. But I think it tends to be focused on slightly different organisational challenges now."

Soule gives the example of large engineering functions, where project management isn't necessarily the best way forwards. If a company builds a product, then those engineering teams own and support that product – it's their role to keep the product healthy and secure. In that scenario, you don't want a project mindset, and you do want a product mindset.

"But there are plenty of places where there's one-off engagements on a topic and the organisation still needs the discipline of organisation and communication. So change professionals, which is how I kind of think of a group of jobs that sit in that world, are still incredibly important," says Soule.

The reason for that significance is simple – while the ongoing management of products and services is increasingly important in the tech world, the careful management of projects matters. "Change is still very much a reality for organisations. I think if you over-dial one way or the other, I don't think you can answer all the needs of your organisation," says Soule.

How is the project manager role changing?

Despite all the changes facing the profession, APM research shows confidence in the future of project management has risen over the past two years from 60% to 66%. Steve Bates, principal at consultant KPMG, is another expert who pictures a healthy future for project managers in the longer term. However, he also recognises the role is in a bit of a state of flux.

"I think project management has been undergoing a transformation for several years now. The nature of big projects, big portfolios involving hundreds and hundreds of people, has definitely changed. I think many of those are becoming smaller, more agile teams. So the nature of traditional project management has changed – and I can see that continuing," he says.

Bates suggest that the key skills for successful project managers are not just going to be based on the traditional triple constraints of time, scope and cost. Instead he believes other skills will come to the fore, many of which are closely related to the increasingly agile nature of project management work.

"Project managers are going to be saying, 'I'm a world-class communicator and collaborator; I use collaboration tools that allow me to look at the data on a project through a single lens; and I'm highly efficient in breaking work into smaller chunks – and I can do that across many smaller teams, as opposed to one giant monolithic team."

Rather than entering a period of demise, Bates believes the project management role is actually going through a renaissance. "I think some people said it was going to die or is going to be dead. I don't believe that. But I do believe it is fundamentally different than it was before," he says.

What can a IT project manager do next?

IT project managers have a number of career options as they develop their skills and experience. Many will take on a wider portfolio role, where they manage a programme of projects. Some project managers will swtich between sectors and companies to take on broader roles. 

Bigger companies might give project managers the opportunity to direct a project management office. Talented project managers, who liase regularly with the C-suite, can rise to the very top of the organisation and become a candidate for the chief operating officer role. Another option is to start out on your own and to use your skills to work as consultant offering project management experitse on a freelance basis to a range of clients.

How much is a project manager paid?

APM research shows the average salary of a project professional in the UK is £47,500. The average starting salary of someone joining the profession is £27,500. Chartered professional salaries can top £70,000. Payscale suggests the average salary for a project manager in the US is $66,137.

Certification is one way to boost your career options and your pay grade. The best known is probably the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification, although other options exist. Evidence suggests the median salary for PMP holders in the US is 25% higher than those without certification.

What does the future look like for project managers?

Rosy, despite the rise of automation and continued changes in working practices. Research by the Project Management Institute and Anderson Economic Group expects growth in demand of 33% through 2027, or nearly 22 million new jobs. By this time, employers will need nearly 88 million individuals in project management-oriented roles. 

While companies will be looking to start new IT projects that they might have paused through 2020, recent developments around the shift to remote working have left their mark on the profession. This change in working practices raises important questions about how the role will evolve during the next few years.

As well as the growing influence of AI on the profession, KPMG's Bates raises the fast-looming spectre of collaboration at a distance. While project management teams coped admirably during lockdown and the continued absence from the office, it's tough to know how teams will cope if and when remote working becomes the new normal.

"I do think that the challenge will be how do you do remote project management effectively," he says. "How do you get collaboration when you don't have that colocation and you're distributed across, potentially, a global footprint? It's very challenging."

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