What is a Technical Project Manager?
The short answer: a project manager with deep technical understanding.
Now let me go deeper and explain the difference in having a technical project manager (TPM) versus just any project manager (PM) on your team.
The biggest difference is their technical aptitude for understanding data center construction, server, network and storage configurations…
…and the fact many technical project managers have hands on experience, which helps them understand the complexity of most project tasks.
Far too often PMs with [very little or no] technical background get tossed into a technical project and then flounder around confused or add to the chaos.
It’s already going to be a challenge getting the work done [for say a data center migration] but then add someone to the mix who only knows PMP principles and the game will be on reporting RED status updates for months. In most cases like this the IT Manager gets involved more than they should have to so deadline are not missed, or penalty fee are not charged.
Advantages of a TPM vs. PM
What you really need is someone with technical project manager skills who can engage with the technical staff at a high level and ask the right questions so the project schedule has realistic dates, and sets the right expectations.
Also a TPM who understands Scrum and Kamban is even more valuable.
Because Scrum knowledge will help when they work with developer’s agile processes; and Kamban will help them to organize and prioritize their technical tasks.
A HUGE key for a technical project’s success is proper planning! And a TPM who understands technology has the advantage over a PM forcing PMP principles to fit into the project plan.
3 Technical Project Manager Interview Questions
These three real world technical project manager interview questions are designed to be tough and increase your project success rate by filtering out [up front] candidates without technical depth and experience.
Interview Question #1
- Explain your experience in planning and managing data center migrations or consolidations?
- What were some of the challenges your project team encountered?
- And how did you work around them?
If the TPM candidate doesn’t mention network as a challenge, then follow-up with other questions about any network tasks.
DC migrations and consolidations are common assignments for technical PMs.
The TPM whom has successfully planned a migration of physical and/or virtual infrastructure to another data center location [or even to a cloud platform] will have experienced the challenges of complicated networking and storage issues.
They will also have mapped out applications, databases, and web servers for reconstruction on the other end.
The common project gotchas that arise are because of unplanned dependencies or higher than expected complexity.
Oftentimes the culprit is a PM who doesn’t get it when someone on the technical team explains the complexity of a task.
It just doesn’t compute and they don’t go deep enough into understanding the risks or they’re not setting the right expectation with the stakeholders.
Someone who answers this question with examples of moving network segments or circuits (or terabytes of data) is aware of complexity.
Answering these questions with relevant explanations of handling these (or similar) challenges successfully is a valuable PM skill.
Interview Question #2
- Explain your experience managing projects involving server consolation where 100s of physical servers were converted to a virtual platform?
- What virtualization platform was used and how were the hypervisor servers configured for high availability?
- What type of shared storage was used?
Most server consolidation projects happening involve building private clouds, or migrating to public clouds, or even a combination of both which is called a hybrid cloud. Ask follow-up questions to find out if the interview candidate has participated in these types of projects yet.
Server consolidations are common and the technical challenges encountered will teach new project managers the lessons they need to better prepare for unexpected problems.
Problems such as storage and network performance issues after the migration, or servers that require specific firewall ports to be opened so network traffic can pass from the database to the application and web servers.
Also there is usually a lot of hardware involved that needs a plan on how it will be set up and configured.
This all plays into the project plan and needs to be organized and tracked on a project task list (backlog), or if they’re using scrum these will be sprints.
A candidate answering this set of questions with answers that go into details on ESXi or KVM hosts for hypervisors, or VLAN configuration for management networks, or LUN configuration for SAN or NFS storage will validate they have been exposed to the common tasks involved in performing server migrations.
Other answers about solving network or storage over-subscription problems will also be validation of experience.
Interview Question #3
- Explain your experience handling the refresh of an applications stack from the application down to the infrastructure? For example: refreshing the hardware, operating system, middleware and re-installing and configuring the application.
- How did you plan this?
- What were some of the challenges?
- What would you do different the next time?
Don’t be afraid to go into a deep technical discussions. Add people from the technical team to the interview panel so they can properly vet the candidates, too.
This is common in environments that are out of compliance and old servers have been allowed to continue to operate long after the end of life for the hardware and software.
Now due to compliance, the business is forced to upgrade and refresh the application or risk security issues.
This requires a lot of planning and in some cases development of custom code for remediation of legacy issues with browsers or databases.
It also may be that the database also needs to be refreshed on a newer version and this can make things even more complex.
Someone who has been through this type of project experience will have learned the technical difficulties and will answer these questions with examples of incompatible databases, or 32 bit applications and operating systems that were uplifted to a 64 bit platform. Or possibly hardware dependencies that need to be worked through.
They may even answer with examples about failures because the application was so outdated it could not be migrated and required a full code rewrite.
Need help writing a TPM job description? Check out these technical project manager job listings on LinkedIn for examples <read listings>.
Increase your odds…
There’s no guarantee you will not have delays or problems with any technical project. But I can speak from experience that having a good technical project manager leading your project team will increase your odds for success!
When scoping a project it’s critical to understand technology and the complexity of making things work together. And probably the most important task for a TPM is setting realistic expectations with the business and stakeholders.
Sure you can have someone give bogus delivery dates because they don’t know any better, but that only leads to frustration due to long weekends to redo work, additional costs for add-ons, and RED status updates because of slippage.
Increase your odds of success by asking the right interview questions. And finding a true ITPM.
Are you a new PM without any technical skills? Here’s a post about where you can find technical training online.
Please feel free to add these technical project manager interview questions to your next PM interview.