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How Can a Non-Technical PM be Efficient on a Technical Project?

Mar 08 '18

Digital projects can range from small feature improvements to large-scale site builds. Regardless of where the project falls on the spectrum, requirements can be complex in nature. So how can a non-technical project manager flourish while leading a project with complex technical requirements?

Client interactions

Clients need to feel confident with you as their project manager, even if you don’t have a technical background. But exuding confidence can be tough if you don’t totally know what you’re talking about. Here are some tips for improving client interactions:

  1. Be present during the meetings. Ask questions. Understand what the client is trying to achieve with each feature.

  2. Include your team. Add your tech architect or developer on calls that you know will have a technical aspect.

  3. Say it in your own words. You do not always need to understand the how. You do however always need to understand the basic workflow or purpose. For example, I know this thing talks to this thing and data gets stored here—even if you don’t understand exactly how the pieces function together.

Requirements-gathering and project planning

Requirements-gathering is the most important part of a project. If you don’t understand the requirements, you can’t manage the scope of the project, or sign off on the final deliverable. Here are a few tips for improving requirements-gathering:

  • Know the right questions to ask. This can seem difficult when you don’t have a technical background, so start by asking non-technical questions. This can actually give you an advantage, because it allows you to take a step back and look at overall functionality with a user’s mindset.

  • Review the SOW. Mark it up with questions to ask the team on a status call.

  • Use your resources. Add standups to the calendar. Have an internal kickoff. If you need to, go through each ticket one by one to write the acceptance criteria. Understand the sequence of tickets, and have the team identify tickets that are blocked by others.

Make sure you  understand the issue.. If you don’t understand it, you can’t explain it to the developer, and vice versa. Even worse, you can’t explain it to a client. Remember, they may not have a technical background either.

Managing estimates and budget

Estimating projects and tasks requires a lot of faith and trust in your team. It also necessitates  clear communication to ensure everyone is on the same page about requirements. Here are a few tips to become comfortable with estimates given by your team:

  • Review requirements. Make sure that everyone on your team is clear on a ticket or task before they make an estimate. Without clear acceptance criteria, the team can create assumptions that can lead to inaccurate estimates.

  • Question estimates. Trust your gut. If an estimate seems excessive, ask for a breakdown of why the task is so complicated. Ask if there is a simpler path forward.

  • Work within the CMS. Try your hand at fixing an issue and explore the site’s CMS. Ask your team if there’s a fix that doesn’t require code, and the instructions to do it yourself.  Your team will appreciate your effort, and you can help alleviate the burden of a pile of smaller tasks falling onto their plates.

The best advice? When in doubt, ask questions. The old adage is true—there are no stupid ones—and if you don’t understand your project, you won’t be able to deliver.

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