A reader was reading Characteristics of Great Project Managers and asked, “Do you feel that to be a great Project Manager one need not know completely about the technology involved?”
No. Project managers need to understand enough about the technology so that they can make tradeoff decisions (or help product owners make tradeoff decisions) about what will actually make it into the release. The more PMs understand the product under development, the better decisions they will make–or guide the project team to better decisions.
Here are the two extreme situations I would like to avoid: the un-knowledgeable PM and the PM who would rather be the architect. I’ve worked with several organizations who thought that PMs in other industries, such as event planning, would make great PMs of software projects. Nope. Not a chance. The PM needs to understand the process of the project. And in addition to the process, understanding enough about the product and the tools can help a PM assess risk and manage it during the project.
In my experience, the PM as architect is just as bad. This PM understands the process and the technology and ignores the work of the PM. If the PM is focused on development instead of managing the project, the project suffers as much (although differently) as if the PM was ignorant of the project.
So that means I don’t have a recipe for how technical the PM needs to be. It depends. It depends on how technical the team is, whether there is an architect, whether anyone else can assess risks, how self-disciplined the team is. The more iterative/incremental development a team does, the more self-organizing the team is, the more the PM can attend to the collaboration skills of the team and the negotiations with the product owners. The more the PM has to drive the project, the more the PM needs to understand the technology.