Is it important that a project manager understand the technicalities of the project she is managing?
In theory Project Management is all about scheduling; finding out what needs to be done, how long it will take, and tracking the results.
There seems to be no reason why the Project Manager needs to understand the technicalities of the project.
I have discovered that this is not so. A Project Manager who does not understand the technicalities, has no idea what she is doing.
Firstly, the team loses all respect for a Project Manager who cannot differentiate between a check-in, a compile and a debug session. As a result they have no problem hiding information from the Project Manager - a guaranteed recipe for disaster.
Many years ago, before I became a Project Manager, I attended the daily meetings of a project, as manager of setups (the installation program).
In the engineering department I was hearing them talking about rewriting the Kernel - that's a huge job and is like a heart transplant.
In the daily meetings I was hearing the engineers inform the Project Manager that the project will ship on time - a few days hence.
Six months later the project was almost ready to ship, and I was convinced that I wanted to become a Technical Project Manager.
Had the Project Manager been technical, she could have asked what the team is up to, and understood that rewriting the kernel is going to be a long task.
Another reason for a Project Manager to understand what technologies are being used and what they do, is in order to catch inconsistencies as early as possible. As an objective bystander (after all, she is not going to write any of the code), she may often see issues which the people involved do not realize.
I have also seen ex-programmers turned Project Manager help come up with great (and simple) technical solutions; sometimes the people involved in the work do not see the forest from the trees - and a simple solution is best.
In my experience, I find that I can estimate the scope of a project before discussing it with the engineers. This way I can tell if the engineer is guesstimating in the correct ball-park, or if she is way-off. I can then discuss with them what they base their estimates on.
The Project Manager is more than the conductor on the bus, who does not need to know how to drive. She is also not simply the air-hostess who needs to ensure everybody is comfortable, but will never need to fly.
An efficient Project Manager needs to be a co-pilot; somebody who is aware of the meaning of all the pieces involved.