Saturday, August 16, 2008

Project Manager- Domain Guru or Jack of all trades?

Degree of domain knowledge required for a project manager has remained as an all time favorite topic of debate. Some people argue that, to become a successful project manager, one must possess sound knowledge of all the trades which the project is associated with. They justify this by saying that “How people will obey you or respect your words, if you don’t have a command over the trades you are dealing with. More over how you can direct people to perform certain things and evaluate results of their actions, while your expertise in those trades is below theirs?” The question sounds very logical but before converging to an answer, let’s listen to the other side of the argument.

The opposing party says project manager should only need to possess decent knowledge of the domain he is working with and there is no necessary of mastery over any trade except management. They argue that project manager always operate with domain experts who takes care of the technical know-how’s and his job is just to ensure everything goes well and smooth. This argument sounds very practical.

So what is the verdict? A poll conducted by ‘Planning’, a popular online community for planners and schedulers back the second argument which advocates blend of overall/decent knowledge of the domain and more people management skills.

Majority of people from technical background majors / specializes only on one subject. Nobody will take multiple degrees in various trades and get expertise in all. I bet you have never met a guy with multi disciplinary engineering degree!
So can’t a mechanical engineer project manage a petrochemical project which involves civil, mechanical, process, electrical, instrumentation and IT? The answer is YES! There are many such project managers who manage projects which are multi disciplinary. In fact all the projects are multi disciplinary up to certain extent! Most of the software projects are done for serving other industries which require in depth knowledge of the business process involved in those industries. Take an example for a software application for a financial institution. The project manager can either be a finance guy or a software guy. But most commonly the project manager will be a software guy, with a team of programmers, testers, and ‘Domain experts’. These domain experts will be chosen based on the nature of the target industry and will be sent to the client for studying the requirements. Now it is the project manager’s duty to integrate the need & tools (end user requirements and the software platforms/development tools).

How ever there is no doubt that the project manager requires decent knowledge on the software life cycle and preferably experience in projects of same or similar domain. Previous experience in the similar/ same domain helps to understand the customer requirements better and even advice them to align their requirements to industry standards.

Project is unique by its definition itself. If something is repetitive, it becomes an ‘operation’. Each project may expose the project manager to new technologies or even technical domains. The only way to tackle such scenarios is either to hire domain experts or to get the existing ones trained!

Technology is a vast arena and is ever evolving. So getting mastery over each subject the project touches is nearly impossible. A question that may arise in the reader’s mind in this context will be “Then, what makes a Project manager special from others in the team?”. The answer is: His people skills or ability to getting things done in the right way.

While domain experts and team members manage technology, the project manager integrates all their efforts. He is aware of the technical disciplines involved, but not necessarily an expert in all those. He has got tools / set bench marks for performance review.

In my view the ‘Rank of Expertise’ for various skills required for a project manager falls as listed below: [This is built on an understanding that ‘Project Management’ has got three corner stones, namely Schedule, Cost and Performance.]

Rank No1: People skills

People skills control schedule. Waiving off the ‘Luck’ and un controllable ‘Risk’ factor , schedule concurrence heavily depends on how the project manager liaison with various team members and agencies to get things moving in the right direction. People in the industry generally has got skills, otherwise they can’t survive. But getting the best out of the team members and coordinating individual efforts requires heavy people skills.

Rank No2: Financial know how

Project manager has people to work for him. There are technical experts / engineers who consume resources and take care of the physical things to be done on the project. The project manager is only overseeing their activities. But a project can’t be called as a success if it has got a cost over run. In the industry every action has got a financial angle. The reason of existence of the industry itself is to make profit!

A good project manager must have sound financial knowledge. He must know how to budget, how to monitor the cost and how to control the cash flow!

Rank No3: Technical Know how

A project manager who has got better understanding of the technology he is dealing with will have an edge. He will be better able to source the right talent for his project resulting in a well balanced project team. A good understanding over the technical things will ensure better monitoring of his team members’ performance. Apart from performing the obvious ‘Motivational’ efforts he can mentor technical things too. A technically sound project manager can’t be bluffed by his team members or any outside agency. This also gives him an edge in the financial negotiations with vendors, if involved.

Well, I understand some of the readers may argue that, Technical know how should be pushed to Rank No: 2 , but I have stated enough reasons which justify me to push it back to Rank No: 3 , after the Financial skills !


  1. nice blog! you have a lot of good information here. this entry in particular was interesting. i agree that people skills are the most important because if you can't manage a team properly, then none of your other skills will be worth anything. keep up the good work!


  2. Thanx Alex for stopping by.. and thank you very much for the comment!
    Looking forward to see you more often and would like to read your comments.


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