Should a Project Manager have Technical Skills in the Area they are Managing?

Should a project manager should have technical skills in the area of the project work? This is a  question I am asked frequently. Should someone running an IT project come from an IT background? Should a project manager managing a construction project have a construction or engineering background? Some people say they definitely should and some people say they shouldn’t.

The answer is actually quite simple – it all depends on the size and complexity of the project.

To begin with I need to clarify that technical work, whether its hardware, software, construction, or infrastructure related, is very different from project management work. Technical work requires a technical background, training and expertise about a particular field and using this experience to make technical decisions, often associated with the product of the project. Project management work, on the other hand is about managing the project. It involves the initiation work, the planning work, the executing work, monitoring and controlling work and the closing work. It is the developed of plans, monitoring of progress, controlling change and delivering a project to name but a few areas.

If the project is small, then it may be that the person charged with being a project manager may also be completing some technical work on the project and as such it’s a balancing act. At times they will do technical work and at other times they will do project management work. The project is simply neither big enough nor complex enough to warrant having specialist technical and project management staff.

If the project is large and complex then, without doubt, the person acting as project manager needs to be focussed totally on one thing and one thing only, the management of the project. I’ve often said that the easiest way to understand what a project manager is, is to replace reword the title to General Manager of  a project. We all know what a General Manager does and if they are a General Manager of a large organisation they come from a management background not necessarily a technical background. Or if they have come from a technical background the best general managers have made a conscious decision at some point in their careers to leave behind their technical background and embrace a new career as a manager. This is exactly the same as being a project manager. For larger projects the project manager must be focussed on managing the project and everything that entails, and not be distracted by the technical requirements  of the work to be done. On a larger project the team should be big enough that there are other people charged with being technical experts.

The biggest problem a project manager with a technical skill can have is the inability to let go of their technical background and move onto managing the project. At some point in their careers, to be successful, they must make the decision to become full time project managers and leave behind their technical background. If they don’t they will do neither job well. A complex project requires a full time project manager. Additionally, the skilled teams responsible for the technical work don’t need someone undermining and second guessing them.

This leads us to the emergence of a new breed of project managers who are entering the profession as professional project managers with degrees and diplomas in project manager and not the typical technical background. The entry of these people into the market will change the way we view the profession. We will begin to look for people with project management credentials and experience to lead projects.

There will always be a demand for both sorts of project manger though. We will always have a career path for technical experts to become part or full time project managers, and there will be a growing awareness and value placed upon those professional project managers whether they come from tertiary education, or have made the decision at some point in their careers to be a professional project manager.