Does a Project Manager need the same technical experience as their Subject Matter Experts?

To the subject of a project manager needing the same technical experience as the Subject Matter Experts in their team, I’ve run into Project Managers who say two things:

First: How they were passed up for a project because they didn’t have hands-on experience in a specific area.

Second: How they took over a project where they had zero hands-on experience in the subject but led the project to success.

That raises a question, should an experienced project manager who has no technical background required by the SMEs on the project team or teams but good leadership skills be allowed to take on a project?

To answer the question mentioned, we run into further questions this article intends to answer.

  • Has a person successfully lead a project without the skills of the Subject Matter Expert (SME)?
  • Why do companies require a Project Manager who has the same experience as the SMEs?

To answer these questions, we have to first look at two things: First, how most projects are designed, and Two: The fundamental role of a Project Manager.

How important is subject matter knowledge in project management

How most projects are designed

Most projects have a set of teams, each doing a different task. A good example would be a construction site. When building a house, there are various teams, each with its own particular set of skills. For example, you need a team of electricians for the electrical work and a team of plumbers for the plumbing.

Like the construction site, the same would go for many IT projects. A team of network specialists to set up the network connections between the computers, and a security team for the firewall and other types of security needed.

In both examples, there are multiple teams with different skill sets. In both cases, there is one project manager responsible for the completion of the project.

Definition of a Project Manager

We can get a good definition of a project manager by looking at two more popular certifications. There is PMI and PRINCE2 found in the Engineering and IT world.

The two organizations, American Institute of Contractors and CMAA, certify Construction Site Managers in the United States. We see all organizations have the same fundamental job role for the Project Manager.

A Project Manager is responsible for overseeing the daily work. Ensure the team or teams are getting their jobs done, seeing that schedules and milestones are in place and met. All of this while keeping an eye on the overall project finances of the project.

By ensuring the communication is ongoing, they can spot potential risks and changes to the project. Ensuring the project runs smoothly and is finished on time.

People who have run a project without the same experience as an SME.

Two people have explained how they could successfully lead a project without having the experience or know-how of the SMEs.

Example: The SAP Project

One person explained that they came from a background of working as an electrician and later an IT Network Specialist. All IT Projects he ran were with setting up Firewalls, Subnets, etc. He had no experience in designing databases or anything in that area. He took on the opportunity to take charge of a large SAP project.

His success was, he put together a task list based on the information given by the leads of the two technical teams. He had to trust their technical judgment. He kept daily meetings, and while the teams were discussing, he shared the minutes he was creating on-screen.

The biggest problem he had was giving the weekly report; the client’s sponsor would have profound technical questions. He resolved that issue by bringing one of the two team leads into the weekly meeting specifically for the technical questions.

He completed the project on schedule and within budget. He said the most important thing to remember in being a success is trusting your team. In his case, he was upfront with the team leads about his technical background. He claimed that, very often, a PM is afraid to show this lack of experience.

Example: The Construction Site IT Specialist

This person had no background in any form of construction. He took on a project to build a large house with five bedrooms, one Master bedroom, three baths, a large kitchen, dining room, and living room. With a three-car garage.

The company that hired him hired him because of his experience setting up IT Data Centres with multiple teams. He got a two-day crash course on what to expect.

The first thing he did was bring in all the team leads to get an idea of what has to be done first and in what order. Then, as the project started, he sat with each team-leader to get a timetable for all the tasks. Getting the Finish to Start, Start to Finish tasks down with a sign-off from each team lead.

He said there were times where a team had a problem. And he used the idea he read in the book The One Minute Manager by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson. He would have the people explain the problem, and while talking it out to him, they would come up with their own solution.

Since completing this project, he trained for the CCM certification, but he jumped into this field headfirst without checking the waters but was still successful.

Reasons wanting the experience

All Project Managers agree that 90% of the job is to ensure the communication runs smooth. Companies also want the Project Manager to be the voice of the project team to the customer. As the example of the SAP Project, the customer will have questions on the technical subject, and only a Project Manager with the same technical background as the team members can answer those questions.

Many managers say they prefer a PM with the same technical background as the team they are leading because they can better understand what their team members are doing and have a realistic view of the time needed to complete the project.

Once IT Project Manager explained how a team member was trying to tell him it would take an extra week to configure a VMWare Server. The PM knew that it only took four hours to do this and made sure the team member understood the PM knew.

In some cases, the Project Manager is also doing the same job as others on the team. Often on a construction site, you can find a team of electricians. The person setting up the fuse box or connecting the light switches is also the Project Manager for the Electrical Team.

In Summary

The answer to the question, “Does a Project Manager need the same technical experience as their Subject Matter experts?” would be, “It depends on the project.”

The times where technical skillsets are not necessary:

If you are on a large project, where you have various teams with various skillsets, as the example of the construction project, it would be crazy to expect the project manager to be skilled in all these areas. In this example: you would have sub-project managers or team leaders experienced in the subject area representing those teams. The Lead Project Managers’ job is to ensure these teams work together and have many other essential jobs to take care of, not going from installing sinks to putting in a light switch.

The times where technical skills are necessary

In a case where it is a small project or a project where all the teams have the same skill sets. In the example of a Construction Project. There are the teams with one primary skillset, like the Electrical Team or the Plumbing Team. In most projects, these team leaders would be sub-project managers.

In such a case, the sub-project manager or team leader would support the work the team is doing while ensuring the lead project manager receives correct updates on the status of their team.




  • Ken Tillery

    Ken holds a Master of Science in Global Management and currently works as a Global Project Manager and has worked as a Global Service Delivery Manager. Ken spent the last 15 years leading globally dispersed teams with team members located in multiple countries. Has also given classes on how to deal with cultural differences and related issues when working with project teams with members located across borders and continents.

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