Not All Technology Project Leaders Need to Be Engineers

Technology leaders need more than tech skills.

2000 years ago, paper was an advanced technology. Six centuries ago, it was the printing press. About 100 years ago, the typewriter was considered advanced. Less than a century ago, we saw the first modern computer. In the last 20 years, we’ve moved rapidly from computers to cell phones to smartphones and beyond, to the point where entire manufacturing plants can be managed from a smartwatch. (Although we really don’t recommend trying it.)

Tech leaders need a combination of team leader skills, both hard and soft skills, that go far beyond knowing how to do technical stuff. Now, before the engineers in our company walk out on us, let’s clarify. It is 100% necessary to have people who “do technical stuff.” They’re the meat and potatoes of technology companies like ours. We don’t want to downplay the importance of technical skills and engineers. We’d be nothing without engineers. 

We’d also be nothing without solid leadership. And we just don’t think that technical skills are the only indicator of a good technology project leader. 

Today, advanced technology is less about creating fire and more about IoT, AI, and cloud computing. Tomorrow? It’ll be something new.

Inspire people to have vision, to look up from focusing on what they’re doing to imagine what they could be doing.

The point is: the technical skills people that need to work with “advanced technology” will constantly evolve. However, the spirit, vision, and instinctual knowledge of people is something that “tech” leaders 2000 years ago had and that they’ll have 2000 years from now.

1. They need a holistic combination of hard and soft skills.

Project Manager, Project Director, HSE Manager, Engineering Manager, Manufacturing Manager, Project Engineer… name your position, and we’ll still insist on these hard and soft skills.

If you’re none of the above and found yourself involved in, or even leading, a technology project at your company? You can still be an innovative leader if you work on these skills. 

2. You can’t be an effective tech leader without being business savvy.

To understand why let’s look at some of the tasks an industrial IoT project manager has to tackle: 

  • Due to the complexity and scope of most technological projects, they usually require both IT and OT departments to work together. It takes a leader with problem-solving, negotiation, and collaboration skills to achieve this successfully. 

  • For the larger, company-wide projects, millions of dollars could be spent on everything from purchasing licenses, building solutions, buying hardware, installing, and configuration of equipment, designing, and implementing solutions. It takes a leader who really believes in the solution and can communicate it effectively to sell these budgets to CEOs and boards. 

  • The way people operate, think, analyze, make decisions, etc., is going to change. It takes an intelligent leader to guide the project team to a solution that will work for everyone. Then it takes a charismatic leader to convince the organization to adopt it. Projects such as IloT will inevitably bring change to organizations, and your team should be able to make that transition with smart guidance. 

Problem-solving, negotiation, collaboration, passionate beliefs, effective communication, “book smarts” and “street smarts”, and charisma? 

Sounds like business savvy to me. 

3. But they can’t be all business; they also need to speak (current) technology.

Obviously, the projects we’re talking about involve advanced (and advancing) technology. That means these project directors need to understand technology enough to truly know what’s happening in the project. You can’t convince people to adopt a solution you yourself don’t understand. You can’t keep a project within scope and budget if you don’t really know what is needed to execute it.

Of course, to be a successful technology project leader, you don’t have to be a technical expert per se. But you do have to understand the terminology used in each respective world in order to communicate effectively. You need to be able to envision the technical risks involved in your solutions. You have to be able to guide the experts in their respective fields in order to bring each part into the whole. Tech leaders need to know the extent of the capabilities of the technologies. What can you do with them? What’s possible? And what’s not possible (yet)?

And finally, you absolutely need to grasp the complexities of significant decisions and the business impact on, not only the project but the entire organization. 

4. They unite diverse groups, like IT and OT.

Operation Technology (OT) and Information Technology (IT) are different departments that play different games. They both have technology in their names but work with different sides of technology. 

IT looks after computer technology. They are behind the accountability of how software or hardware will be functional, including how one different piece of equipment communicates between themselves and the cloud. They are the backbone of most technological aspects inside an office. However, they don’t usually extend beyond their office. 

OT goes beyond an office. They are in charge of communication between machine and machine. This means that when industrial machinery is not working properly an OT agent will go to whichever location, gear up, and use their software and hardware to communicate with the machine in need of repair and fix the issues. OT often requires custom software to operate, and, since these devices won’t need constant updates, only a few people are specialized to tread OT equipment. 

Both are “technology,” but not necessarily the same language of technology. In the face of this challenge, it’s up to the technology leader to unite these two departments in order to build solutions that work right on the tech side and realistically on the operation side. 

We’ve seen this IT/OT separation conflict and collaboration solution play out first-hand. Just like so many in the IIoT field have seen, we worked on a project where OT wasn’t correctly adopting the solutions IT was giving them. Instead of pushing the matter and simply obligating people to use a solution they don’t believe in, we disrupted the way these two departments work together. 

  • We stuck IT in the middle of operations. It was a world they didn’t work in and couldn’t comprehend on a theoretical level. 

  • We took OT out of their processes and involved them in the solution-making to personally understand why they needed this tech. They learned how to make the most of it in the real-life world of operations. 

Only by disrupting the traditional operation of things were we able to move beyond “the way it’s always been done” to something innovative. That’s the potential a good technical project leader has when they unite IT and OT. 

5. Project leaders get the big picture…

It’s important for tech project leaders to maintain a broader vision of their projects. It’s up to them to make the big decisions that keep everything moving toward their final objectives and produce business value at the end of the day. 

With all of the moving parts and people involved in large industrial projects, it’s easy for perfectionist managers to get bogged down in the details or be too narrow-focused. Rather, a big-picture leader will see the value that each piece of the process adds to the overall value of the project. It’s not so straightforward of course, since it’s not an “A + B = C” type of order, but a network of pieces interacting in different ways with each other to create a whole. 

Your successful industrial tech leader will be able to visualize that network and keep the team moving toward that final value offering. 

6. …Without losing track of the details.

While keeping the visualization of the network of moving, transforming, and sometimes dancing parts in mind, project leaders can maintain a head for details. When team members propose solutions, it’s the project executive’s job to ask the right questions and poke holes in their arguments in order to improve them. 

The best work cultures are ones where teams and team leaders feel like they can challenge decisions and ideas, and propose solutions. 

Let’s say things aren’t moving forward… Now you have to look at what’s getting in the way. This technology project leader probably won’t be directly involved in fixing the project's problem. But you can be sure they’ll be keeping track of the progress of individual tasks and fixes within the different areas of the project. 

7. They’re visionaries.

Even with broad technical experience, business knowledge, and detailed organization, a technology project leader could still fall short if they lack vision.

What does a visionary leader look like? They are the ones who keep track of the details and create a work culture where decision-making is based on proposing solutions and analyzing all options to find the optimal outcome. They let people argue, ask the right questions, and question the solution until they get it right. Through their involvement in both big and small aspects, they understand the systematic view of the project. This makes them able to make the tough calls and own the results. They also understand that it sometimes means making mistakes on a smaller scale to ensure their speculations are correct or evaluating if they need to be reworked. 

The visionaries, assuming they have all the above characteristics, can see the potential and value to be had so clearly they’re already there in the future. A 5 million-dollar budget? Nothing compared to the $13 million they’ll avoid losing per year without their solution. That’s what vision is.

8. And they see potential beyond their particular project.

I recently got to meet one of the people intimately involved in a client project automating their wastewater treatment alert system. He told us about how they made use of the project during the February 2021 storm in Texas. They actually used the alerts they received every 20 minutes from the plant to judge if the whole manufacturing facility had power or not. That wasn’t at all the intended purpose of their industrial IoT technology. As a natural tech leader, he was able to see potential beyond the stated benefits of the project.

The difference between managers who know how to use technology and managers who live, think, and breathe innovation is their ability to think outside the box like this. They don’t just see the direct value and benefits of a technological solution but can imagine indirect and future benefits as well. 

But, tech leaders like this are rare.

If you’ve gotten this far down the list and thought, “Wow, so you want a unicorn or white knight or something.” 

You’re not wrong. These folks are rare. These managers are priceless. It’s not as easy as a LinkedIn job opening ad and a few bucks to find someone suited for this job. Technology like industrial IoT is a relatively new concept. And since it’s a constantly transforming one, it will always be on the cutting edge of new. That means you won’t easily find people who are all packaged up and ready to start on Monday. 

88% of companies Microsoft surveyed in 2019 stated industrial IoT was going to be critical to their success. However, only 33% believe they currently have the skills in their company to successfully execute these innovative projects. In 2020, they reported companies were having a hard time finding the right kinds of leaders.

You might need to create this leader. You might even need to become this leader.

How to build these tech leadership skills

How can you acquire these hard and soft skills necessary to be a successful tech leader? Don’t worry, you can develop these skills, even if you weren’t born a natural tech leader unicorn.

  • Encourage your business-oriented people to gain technical experience and skills.

  • Nurture the natural leadership skills of your technical managers. 

  • Devise collaborations between IT and OT that will inspire each to understand the other better. 

  • Put yourself in projects where you manage multi-department teams.

The employee from the wastewater management IIoT solution? He is now the manufacturing manager. He uses his experience with that one project to continue innovating and improving his facility in invaluable ways.

Inspire people to have vision, to look up from focusing on what they’re doing to imagine what they could be doing. You’ll probably see benefits from this extend to a lot of other areas beyond technology, in fact. 

Being a manager doesn’t make you a leader. Just like knowing technology doesn’t automatically make you good at leading tech projects. You can find good leadership in any role of an organization. Motivate anyone and everyone in your organization to be leaders in their own way. Strengthen their natural technical, business, and leadership skills. Teach those who don’t have these skills naturally. 

The heart of technology isn’t the technology itself. It’s the people. Want a successful technology project leader? Don’t leave it up to luck. Create one. Create several. This is the wild west of innovation. Have a blast.

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