There are two schools of thought about specialized project managers. On the one hand, you could argue that it is necessary for a project manager to have deep domain knowledge. On the other, a project manager’s skills can be said to transfer between projects, regardless of what the project delivers.
Over the years, our experienced consultants at Ten Six have worked with clients who have used both specialized project managers and those who apply their project management skills across different domains. There is no right or wrong way to develop your career as a project manager (or to develop the careers of the project managers working for you), but it is useful to consider the options so that you can choose what works for you and your company.
Being a domain expert
A project manager who is a subject matter expert in the domain of their project has normally come up through the ranks. For example, we see IT project managers who started their careers as programmers. They have deep knowledge of their sector and the technologies in use and apply these, along with their project management skills, to the successful running of a project.
Being an expert in the subject can be an advantage. If time is short and the project needs another pair of hands, you can muck in and help out the team. This gives you a more flexible resource pool. Typically, the subject matter expert project manager won’t know all the jobs in the team, but coming from a similar background to at least some of the team members will mean they can throw themselves into the ‘doing’ as well as the ‘managing’ if the project deadlines require it.
Subject matter expert (SME) project managers can also understand issues more quickly. They understand the language that the team is talking and can interpret it into a clear appreciation of the problem. Their management skills mean they can translate the issues into easy-to- understand language for project sponsors who need to make a decision.
They also have the benefit of being able to understand and appreciate the team’s workload and estimates produced by the team. Having done the job before, they will know how long tasks are likely to take, what can be done in parallel and how this impacts the project schedule. Putting two people on a task like pair programming or pair testing does not speed the project up, whereas putting two people on other tasks might help reduce the timescale.
Being a project management expert
Project management is a skill in itself, and many career project managers have honed that over years. On projects that require input from multiple teams it is impossible to be a domain expert in all areas. The value the expert project manager is their ability to put together information from diverse areas and build a cohesive team, applying their co-ordination and planning skills to get the job done.
There is no risk of letting one area dominate the project so an expert project manager can help keep the team balanced and focused. When you haven’t worked in a particular domain you are not shackled by the language of that discipline, so it is easy to communicate with stakeholders across departments without falling into the trap of jargon.
There is also no risk of getting too hands on and failing to keep a big picture view of the entire project. If you haven’t done the job of someone on the team, you can’t step in and do it for them, or alongside them. You have to plan resources more effectively to avoid situations where resources are crunched.
Who do you want to be?
It really doesn’t matter if you are a subject matter expert project manager or an expert at project management. Both types of project manager add value to projects and the companies they work for, and both can do extremely well in their careers.
However, it is important to note that there are some industries where domain knowledge is very useful. Building a bridge is very different to building some software, so even excellent project managers who can apply their skills across industries may find it difficult to suddenly take on a project managing the construction of a new car park.
Whatever path you choose, you do need ensure you know enough about each of the areas of the project to stop people pulling the wool over your eyes. You don’t necessarily need domain expertise for that – just a bit of common sense and a willingness to ask the right questions!