IT project management explained: How to run great IT projects
If you’re used to shipping features and new products, IT project management (ITPM) probably isn’t on your radar. But this is a mistake. The best companies rely on a solid foundation of IT infrastructure to grow, adapt to market changes, and keep their users happy.
In fact, the digital transformation market was estimated at a whopping $731.1 billion in 2022 — with no signs of slowing down.
IT project managers play a critical role in ensuring their company’s IT capability is dependable, up-to-date, and secure. And that’s no simple job. On average, IT projects come with more complexity and risk, and can quickly fall to pieces without proper due diligence, management, and leadership.
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In this guide, we’ll break down the art of ITPM, explain what an IT project manager does, and show you how the best IT project managers work, the tools they use, and how to become one.
What is IT project management? (with examples of IT projects)
IT project management is the process of planning, organizing, running, and managing information technology projects. Often, this requires a combination of people, resources, skills, and expertise to come together to deliver a successful project.
Fundamentally, IT project management is no different from any other type of project management. IT projects still require planning, control, teamwork, and leadership — and for that, organizations use IT project management frameworks to maximize their success.
Here are a few examples of common IT projects:
- Migrating IT systems to new servers
- Building websites or software systems
- Building mobile, tablet, or web applications
- Deploying new IT infrastructure, such as networks and hardware
- Updating or migrating database systems
- Implementing new IT processes, such as disaster recovery
This is by no means an exhaustive list. As a rule, if you need to change any part of your infrastructure, the chances are you need to run an IT project.
What does an IT project manager do? How is it unique?
IT project managers require similar skills and experience to other specialized PM roles, such as construction or technical project managers.
However, as IT projects often require a deeper understanding of technology, many IT PMs have a background in software development or IT support. This helps them to understand IT complexities, better engage with their stakeholders, and solve technical problems.
To understand the unique parts of an IT project manager’s world, let’s look at how it compares to a traditional PM role:
|Traditional Project Manager||IT Project Manager|
|Leads and manages a team of subject matter experts.||⚔️ Same situation: They’ll lead experts such as Software Developers, Business Analysts, Product Owners, or Infrastructure Managers.|
|Defines and manages the scope and deliverables for the project.||⚔️ Same situation: This is absolutely something an IT project manager does, often defined as backlog items or user stories that are broken down into sprints.|
|Tracks the work completed by the team and helps solve any issues that arise.||⚔️ Same situation: IT project managers do the same for their team, working with Developers, Testers, or Product Owners during ceremonies such as daily stand-ups, product demos, or sprint planning.|
|Works for a Project Sponsor who sets the vision and benefits case for a project.||🛠️ Similar situation: but with the Sponsor likely to be a senior IT manager or even the CTO/CIO.|
|Manages a defined project budget.||🛠️ Similar situation: IT project managers manage specific types of costs, including development hours, software licenses, and hardware items.|
|Identifies and mitigates risks to the project.||🛠️ Similar situation: IT projects are still risky, with project managers facing the threat of development bugs, failed deployments, and system downtime.|
|Works with team members to assess and sign-off quality standards.||🛠️ Similar situation: IT project managers work on some of the most tightly controlled projects, assisting the team with code reviews, integration testing, and user acceptance testing.|
The 5 phases of IT project management
The key to good project management is structure, which is no different in IT project management. The best way to create this structure is to follow a project lifecycle that chunks the delivery into clear phases.
Here are the typical phases you’ll see in the IT project management world:
This first phase is all about setting your project up and aligning it with stakeholders.
Here, you’ll define your high-level project scope, objectives, budget, risks, and timeline, pulling everything together to create an outline business case or project initiation document. Once a sponsor approves, you’ll assemble your project team and move on to phase two.
Now the project is set up, it’s time to get into the details by planning out how you’ll get from A to B. During the planning phase, IT project managers work with stakeholders to capture project/product requirements in a project management tool like Planio, map out the schedule of work, and confirm the budget.
By the end of the planning phase, you’ll have a detailed project and risk management plan and establish a governance structure between you, your team, and your sponsor.
Now, the fun starts as you and the team get on with delivering the project.
Often starting with a project kick-off meeting, your IT project team will begin developing new software, migrating data, or updating processes as per your project’s scope. In the agile world, you’ll start your daily standups and complete your first sprints.
4. Monitoring and controlling
Alongside the Execution phase, as an IT project manager, your job is to monitor and control the project’s health, focusing heavily on the triple constraint of time, cost, and scope. If anything starts going wrong, it’s your job to fix it and keep the team on track.
As you bring your IT project to a close, there are two things to focus on: delivering what you promised and handing the work over to the BAU (Business-as-Usual) team.
IT project managers are responsible for checking if the deliverable meets the requirements and then ensuring that the end users/customers/operators know how to use the new system effectively. Get that right, and you’ll have nailed IT project management.
Read more into IT project management, and you’ll see you can deliver these stages in different sequences depending on your project methodology — either Waterfall or Agile. The methodology you choose depends on the project you’re running, but as a rule of thumb:
- If your project is easy to scope or has a high level of risk, it’s best to choose Waterfall to provide the most structure. IT infrastructure changes, server upgrades, and hardware installations often fall into this category.
- If your project is more innovative, requires a test-and-learn mindset, or relies on regular customer feedback, you’re better off choosing Agile. IT projects such as website/app builds, process updates, and data migrations are best served with an Agile approach.
How to run a successful IT project: 8 steps for success
Now that you’ve got the foundation knowledge of IT project management, it’s time to get into the details of how to manage your own project:
Step 1: Find a business need or problem that requires an IT solution
All projects need a reason to exist — and IT projects are no different. Typically a project is started for one of two reasons: either a business has an opportunity or customer need they’d like to exploit, or there’s a problem that needs fixing with an IT solution.
As an IT project manager, your first job is to fully identify a project’s ‘why’ and distill it into a clear vision statement.
Real world example:
Georgia works as an IT Project Manager for MedCo Ltd, a distributor of pharmaceuticals in Europe.
Georgia was speaking to colleagues in the operations department who were complaining that MedCo’s order management system kept crashing. This meant they couldn’t process orders, and customers were unhappy. Georgia knew this was a problem that needed fixing.
Step 2: Find someone to sponsor the project
Every project needs backing from a senior stakeholder. Not only does this help drive the initiative, but it also helps secure the required funding and resources.
While often not the job of an IT Project Manager, if you’re working in a supporting role such as a Portfolio/Business Manager, you’ll need to ensure all projects have an appropriate business sponsor.
The business sponsor also needs to take ownership of the project’s benefits, justifying the reason to invest in the initiative. After all, a project that delivers no benefits isn’t a very good project at all.
Once someone senior has endorsed the idea and given it their backing, you’ve got the green light to proceed.
Real world example:
Georgia speaks with her Portfolio Manager, Sarah, about the problem with the order management system, and they agree it would make a great project.
Sarah and Georgia approach the Operations Director, Rohit, who agrees to sponsor the project. Rohit knows a new order system would streamline business operations, allow MedCo to process more orders, and improve customer satisfaction.
Step 3: Determine your project’s scope, schedule, and budget
Now that your project is endorsed and the benefits are defined, it’s time to work out how to get from A to B. This breaks down into four sub-steps:
- Start by assessing the scope of your project. Identify the work to deliver your vision while also stating what you won’t do (what’s out of scope). For example, you might specify the new product features to build or what new hardware items to buy.
- Create a high-level project schedule. There are several ways you can do this, including using detailed scheduling techniques such as the Critical Path Method.
- Determine the resources you’ll need to deliver your project. Take time to work through your scope and identify the physical items you’ll need (e.g., raw materials) and the people who will support you (e.g., Software Developers).
- Pull it all together and budget the entire project. While the cost of raw materials is easy to work out, put some extra focus on the costs of your resources, such as calculating daily/weekly/monthly contractor rates.
Real world example:
Georgia works out her scope, deciding that MedCo will develop a new order management system from scratch.
She estimates this will take seven months in total, with two months of design, three months of development, one month of testing, and one month to launch.
For this project, she’ll need the support of one Business Analyst, three Software Developers, a Scrum Master, and two Software Testers. There are also some cloud hosting and development licenses to purchase too. She adds all of these up to create the project budget.
Step 4: Pick the right IT project management methodology
With your high-level details identified, next, you need to think about ‘how’ you’re going to deliver.
The classic Waterfall vs. Agile debate will rear its head, but if you can’t decide, you can also go for a hybrid approach. In fact, studies have shown 21% of project managers take this path to help them get the best of both worlds with their deliveries.
Real world example:
Given Georgia’s IT project is a new application build and is going to rely on regular feedback from stakeholders, she decides to go for an Agile project approach.
Step 5: Identify your key risks and build your risk management plan
Before you jump into launching your project, take a moment to consider the risks ahead of you. This means analyzing your environment, planning your risk responses, mitigating risk impacts, and pushing through to deliver your project safely.
Real world example:
Georgia considers her risks by discussing her plans with a fellow project manager who recently delivered a similar project. With the existing order management system becoming more unstable by the day, Georgia’s primary risk is her long schedule, so she makes adjustments to the scope to deliver faster.
On average, IT projects come with more complexity and risk, and can quickly fall to pieces without proper due diligence, management, and leadership.
Step 6: Plan key tasks and milestones and move into execution
To get your team up and running, break down your scope into critical tasks and milestones and assign them to the best team members for the job. As you do this, you’ll start to see your schedule come to life (and also identify any potential bottlenecks or blockers before they occur.)
To make this easier, we’d recommend using an IT project management software tool like Planio that helps you plan and visualize your entire project in one place. With Planio, you can view all of a project’s tasks either as a Gantt chart, calendar view, or Kanban board.
Real world example:
Georgia breaks down the project’s work with her team. She sets milestones for the design and build sub-phases, assigning work evenly between the Business Analyst and Software Developers. As the testing phase approaches, she brings the Testers into the mix to ensure they can get started ASAP.
Step 7: Monitor your progress, get feedback, and provide updates
Especially with an agile methodology, the key to project success is to continually monitor your progress, get feedback from stakeholders, and update your ways of working as you go.
As an IT project manager, it’s important to keep your finger on the pulse, actively avoiding scope creep, going over budget, unexpected risks, and falling behind vs. the schedule.
Real world example:
Georgia puts good governance in place to help her monitor the project. She hosts a daily standup with her team to keep work on track and manage the scope while also scheduling a fortnightly finance meeting to assess the financials.
Step 8: Prepare for launch and closure
As you get closer and closer to finishing, you need to prepare for the launch of your new project or product. Here are a few steps to consider during the closure and launch phases:
- Fully test your new IT system, ensuring it’s stable and meets user needs.
- Document all of your technical notes for teams to reference in the future.
- Roll out training for users — ensuring they have the skills and knowledge they need.
- Keep some team members on standby to track and fix any bugs.
- Capture lessons learned to improve your delivery for next time.
Real world example:
As the project comes to a close, Georgia and the team run a range of training sessions with users on how to operate the system, using those sessions to identify and fix any outstanding bugs.
Next, they document all their work and hand it over to the IT support teams, celebrating the completion of a job well done!
What is the best IT project management software?
Like all project managers, IT project managers rely on great software to do their jobs, But unfortunately, a 2020 study found that only 35% of users were moderately or highly satisfied with their PM tools.
At Planio, we pride ourselves on delivering a tool that can handle the complexity of an IT project without creating layers of complexity for you and your team.
With Planio, you get:
- A clean and simple UI, with options for Agile or Waterfall methodologies
- Powerful task management workflows to keep your project moving at speed
- Integrated Git and SVN repositories for your development teams
- Easy visualization of your progress with Gantt charts & Kanban boards
- Team chat for integrated communications across your entire project
Want to try Planio for yourself (and for free?) Start a free 30-day trial of Planio to see if it’s right for your team. No credit card required.
3 tips for becoming an IT project manager
Being an IT project manager is a varied, challenging, and rewarding career. If you want to start on your own IT project manager career path, here are 3 top tips to get started:
- Master your project management basics. Mastering the fundamentals is key to becoming a great IT project manager. Focus on bolstering your core project management skills, including stakeholder management, communications, planning, budgeting, and risk management.
- Assess and develop your technical skills. Alongside the PM basics, it will serve you well to be technologically up to speed. Stay updated with the latest tech trends, gain a basic understanding of coding, and get comfortable using and understanding complex data sets.
- Network with other IT or technical project managers. If you want to break into the IT project management world, start building your network to pick up hints, advice, and guidance on navigating the technological world.
And of course, don’t forget to choose a project management tool that will make your and your team’s lives easier.
Start your free 30-day trial of Planio today!