This is an interesting question and I’ve seen numerous discussions and comments on the subject. There seems to be strong arguments for both sides. In first trying to summarize from a neutral stance, the technical side believes the PM will better understand the nuances and issues of the project and can therefore better communicate from an informed perspective to the other team members therefore resulting in and overall better run project. Bottom line if you know the technical details then managing the execution of the work successfully will come as a by-product. The ‘non-technical’ side counters with proper responsibility and engagement with those technical experts so the PM can focus on managing the project and look at all aspects of the administrative requirements. Bottom line a good, experience, and competent PM given the proper team members can successfully manage any project.
Remember the 1995 movie, ‘Crimson Tide’ from a book written by Richard P. Henrick. Denzel Washington plays a Commander Ron Hunter (First Officer or 2nd in charge) who is newly assigned to the submarine, ‘USSN Crimson Tide’. Gene Hackman plays Captain Frank Ramsey, a tough, experienced naval officer to whom the ship’s crew idolizes and are very loyal to him. During their first cruise, there’s a partial message that due to a civil war with new leadership there is a potential war with the United States and Russia and the crew is placed on high alert. Then due to an equipment failure they receive a partial message ordering the sub to launch its nuclear missiles against Russian targets. The Captain sets about the process to launch but the Commander disagrees until they can repair their communication equipment, get the full message, and confirm the orders.
The drama tests the US Navy’s process and procedures with the entire crew under an extremely tense situation given the consequences if they are right or wrong. If you haven’t seen the movie I won’t give away the ending however to my point, I will recall a scene toward the very end of the movie where post a Navy Board of Inquiry, Rear Admiral Anderson (played by Jason Robards) in review of the situation addresses both men as to the consequences of the incident starting with the statement, ‘you both were right and you both were wrong….’ and then discusses what a mess they made with the incident and how the Navy will need to change all procedures, etc.
The point to my paragraph above is the same point to the technical vs. non-technical Project manager. Both views are right or they are wrong as a project which is a unique and temporary effort that needs to be implemented by the project team can be successful depending on how they approach it with the resources they have. A technical PM will hopefully realize they need either assistance or forced focus on the projects’ administrative requirements such as scheduling, budgeting, risk, quality, and communications in the same manner and non-technical project manager will require assistance with the detailed technical aspects of the project. Let’s assume the engineer is competent and experienced enough to realize where they need help with the project skills and the project manager realizing they need help with the technical skills.
Most project of sufficient size often requires the leadership of both same as a Captain and the First Officer both as a single entity that trust and cover each other and bring synergy together. I’ll be honest, I consider myself ‘non-technical’. I learn enough about the technical aspects to ask the questions and have worked very well in that relationship with a technical person in both roles where I was either primary or secondary or ‘two-in-a-box’ in charge of the project. Frankly in all cases, the engineer didn’t like or want to manage the PM aspects of the project and was glad to have me do it and vice versa. As Parkinson’s law states, Work expands to fill the time allotted.’, we were both so busy in the successful execution of the project that we let each other due what we did best and ensured we communicated flawlessly with each other so we could execute flawlessly. Pairing up can be a very successful model and scaled to any size project or program.
Recently I have seen a lot of interest in people becoming a, ‘technical PM’ that both engineers and manages the project. Several do it successfully but it’s usually for smaller projects and they are very busy in covering all aspects of the projects. As the focal point of contact all questions and inquiries from the team members to the most senior stakeholders, it’s a demanding position. My suggestion is to go rent the movie Crimson Tide and as you contemplate about which position on the submarine you agree with, what you think about the technical or non technical project manager debate then post a comment. Oh - and don’t forget the popcorn! JGH