Jamal’s Musings – Should a Project Manager be a Technical Expert in his Area?

I remember once attending a lecture at the project management conference. The topic of the seminar was “One Week in the Life of the University CIO” and the presenter has shared very interesting details about the daily challenges of the “chief IT guy” at one of the largest universities in North America. He started his talk with a screenshot of his weekly calendar taken from his MS Outlook software and used it to describe the issues encountered and solutions his team was able to find to address the said problems.

At one point of time he directed our attention to a rectangle in his schedule and explained that in that particular case he had to conduct a final interview with one of the candidates for the project manager job at the university. The CIO added something to the effect of, “We got lucky because we were able to find a person with a lot of technical experience with Oracle Database 12. He actually worked on a couple of similar projects as a systems architect.” When asked by one of the participants about the candidate’s project management pedigree, the CIO quipped, “He did not have any specific project management training or experience per se, but he participated as a team member on a number of technical projects”.

This was not by far the first time when I have encountered this approach to hiring of the project managers. Furthermore, I dare to predict that most of the readers of this article have come across a similar attitude exhibited by their senior managers. The essence of this approach can be summed up in the following format:


When selecting a project manager for my next project I would rather hire a candidate with strong technical skills in the domain and weak project management skills, rather than someone with little technical knowledge, but excellent project management skills.


On a side note I have seen also several extreme versions of this tactic when the recruiters told me that the employer was specifically looking for a person who has experience with version 9 of the platform (apparently knowledge of versions 8 or 10 just wouldn’t do).

Let us for a second assume that this is the right approach and examine a couple of very plausible scenarios that may happen at your organization.

Scenario 1

You were deploying a specific ERP system, so you hired a candidate who had experience with that particular system as well as ERP-specific programming experience but possessed very weak planning and monitoring skills. Let us also assume that the ERP project went exceptionally well and was finished on time and on budget.

What happens next? Time goes by and suddenly your company decides on initiating, say, an e-commerce project.

What conundrum do you have to deal with right now? A person with weak project management skills and absolutely no knowledge of e-commerce domain. What are you going to do now? Fire this person and embark on a search for a new candidate? And if your answer is yes, then what are you planning to do, when a year later the company decides to embark on a SEO improvement project?

There is also another problem with this approach that started rearing its ugly head more and more frequently in many industries. With project becoming larger, more complex, they are now involving multiple departments of any given organization.

Scenario 2

Let us say that your organization decided to build a new airport. What kind of a project manager should you be looking for? A construction specialist? Sure, but what about the logistics aspect of the project scope (i.e. roads, bus routes and subways leading to the facility)? Also, building the airport without a proper marketing campaign to attract the leading airlines is a futile effort just like the Japanese discovered in the Ibaraki Airport construction project. And what about real estate, public relations, technology and engineering aspects of the project scope just to name a few?

What would the best candidate for this job look like in a perfect world? She would have to be an expert in construction, aviation, IT, marketing, real estate, logistics public relations and engineering domains if we were to follow the logic outlined above. Oh, and she would also have to be an experienced project manager!

Now, here is a million-dollar question: do you think such a person even exists on this planet? My personal answer to this question is “probably not”.

What conclusions can we make from the two case studies presented?

  • When selecting a candidate for the project management role at your company the project management skills and capabilities should always be a primary factor.
  • Candidate’s expertise in the technical domain is desirable but not an essential requirement.
  • Unless you are hiring for a contract position, the technical knowledge of the project manager may soon become irrelevant as your company moves from a project involving technology A to an endeavor based on technology B.
  • Modern projects tend to be large and complex endeavors involving multiple knowledge areas (as was demonstrated in the airport construction example). Finding a project manager that will be an expert in all of the domains is an impossible task.


About the Author

Jamal Moustafaev, MBA, PMP – president and founder of Thinktank Consulting is an internationally acclaimed expert and speaker in the areas of project/portfolio management, scope definition, process improvement and corporate training. Jamal Moustafaev has done work for private-sector companies and government organizations in Canada, US, Asia, Europe and Middle East.  Read Jamal’s Blog @ www.thinktankconsulting.ca

Jamal is an author of two very popular books: Delivering Exceptional Project Results: A Practical Guide to Project Selection, Scoping, Estimation and Management and Project Scope Management: A Practical Guide to Requirements for Engineering, Product, Construction, IT and Enterprise Projects.