So You Want To Be A Project Manager?

by Mike Harding Roberts

Been there, seen it, done it

Only ex-programmers really know how to manage software projects. Nobody else really understands why it's so important to pin down the requirements, get the design right, get the development environment established and so on before coding begins. This is not to say that all programmers and analysts are paragons of project management virtue - if only it were so!

Everyone loves time recording, don't they? How many hours you spent doing task A or task B or chatting about the football or blowing your nose. And for what? To give some guy in the project office a job collating the numbers, which we all know are a fiction anyway.

And what about all those forms and documents, all that bureaucracy which seems to have a life of its own? Well, it seems to keep the project manager happy and to satisfy the methodology police. But just think how much quicker we could do the project if we were left to get on with it without all those project management overheads!

And what does the project manager do all day anyway? Of course he has to do all the obvious things like get resources, define roles, plan, track, report and so forth, but maybe there are some less obvious things project managers should do as well. Make the project fun. A happy workforce is a productive workforce. Hold kick off meetings, arrange social and team building events, reward success - a pat on the head or even a small amount of the folding stuff. Walk about and keep in informal contact with the team. Good project managers don't only know how to operate the hard-edged project management disciplines, they are good people managers too.

And good project managers have other characteristics. They manage. They don't co-ordinate, preside, administer, spectate - they manage. They don't like surprises so they work very hard to prevent them: they plan in detail, try to foresee problems and eliminate them before they occur. They monitor rigorously so they know as soon as things are going off track. But when problems do occur they deal with them, they address conflicts, fight fires. Yes, they reward but they also punish. They make decisions, arbitrary ones when necessary. They get consensus when they can but dictate when they have to.

They scale the project management controls to match the real needs of the project so that they don't smother smaller projects with unnecessary bureaucracy. Then they explain to the team what the controls are for, why they are an investment not an overhead, how time records will be beneficially used and therefore why accurate time recording is worthwhile.

And you still want to be a project manager?

How do you learn to be a project manager? Go on a project management course obviously. But beware, there are many sorts of "project management" courses. Some teach you how to use a planning tool like Microsoft Project. A useful skill but you've learned how to use a tool not how to manage projects. Some teach the administrative strictures of a particular project management method but they may not actually teach you all that much about how to manage projects. Some project management courses offer a qualification, but the primary aim of these courses is to get you to pass the exam at the end of the course and again they may teach you little about managing projects. And then there are courses which do teach you how to manage projects. When choosing a course be clear what your objectives are and choose appropriately.

So, you've done a course, now what? You might think that managing a small project would be the next logical step. However, you will probably gain more valuable experience by being a team leader in a large project. When running a small project the budding project manager learns an unfortunate lesson: you don't need to bother with all that formal project management stuff - and they're right, you can be perfectly successful in small projects with little formal planning and control. But you then give that project manager a large project to manage. They know that an informal approach works, they apply it to the large project, and you have a disaster in the making.

By contrast, if you're leading an 8 person team in a 100 person project all the controls that big projects need will be in place (one hopes!) all around you. You will get to see exactly how it all works without having the responsibility of managing the project. This is excellent experience for would-be project managers. If your next job then happens to be managing a small project it's easy to scale down the controls. But it does not work the other way around - informality does not scale up.

"Excellent course but I've realised one thing - I definitely don't want to be a project manager!" This is occasionally the reaction from people at the end of a project management course and their rationale is usually: why would anybody want a job where success means everyone assumes it must have been easy, and problems mean you're going to get kicked. Equally (fortunately) some people have the opposite reaction: "yes, this is the job for me!" And these people are attracted by the idea that they can make things happen, make a difference and manage projects better than other people.

Project Management Articles:

Managing Risks in I.T. Projects

Managing Quality in I.T. Projects

The Tale of Three Project Managers

Project Management in the Public Sector

Business Leadership of IT Projects

Project Management Laws and Proverbs

So You Want To Be A Project Manager?

Free Online Project Management eBook

Project Manager

Copyright M Harding Roberts

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