Many organizations believe that projects of a technical nature (IT, engineering, etc.) need a project manager with technical expertise. The technical expert can manage the project since they obviously know what they are doing. The problem with this is the assumption that a technical expert is both capable and willing to manage people, schedules, and budgets too. This may be the case but often is not. There is no doubt that a technical lead must oversee the design and construction of whatever is being built, but this is not the same as project management. Having been a software developer for many years then managing software development projects, I know from experience that it is difficult to do both jobs well.
Here are some definitions that clarify these project roles.
Technical lead– This person designs the product whether it be a building, car, or software package. This person’s primary job is to make sure the product will work as specified. This may include technical discussions and guidance for other technical team members. It may also include specifying how the product will be developed if there is not a standard methodology in place.
Project manager – This person works closely with the technical lead to create a project schedule, identify risks and issues, control changes, report status to management, track the budget and schedule, etc. This person must also possess soft skills to facilitate team communication, mediate team member disputes, provide motivation, etc.
The project manager and technical lead must work together as partners in executing the project. If the roles are clear and not overlapping, this works well.
It is very helpful if a project manager is familiar with the technical jargon and culture of the industry that the projects are executed in, but the PM does not have to be the technical expert and it usually works better if (s)he isn’t.