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Hiring Project Managers

Hi all,

I've hired several developers in the past, and I'm quite comfortable doing so.  We've developed a number of standardized questions, and I feel that I have a good ability to judge a person's ability and skills based on their education, experience, and references.

We're now looking to hire a Project Manager, which I'm finding considerably more difficult.  We've made some hires in the past that haven't worked out for one reason or another, and I'm hoping to avoid it this time around.

I've worked with many excellent PM's over the years, and many that were lacking.  All of them came from varied backgrounds, and I have yet to find any consistent details to base our criteria on.

Does anyone have any tips for hiring PMs?  Questions to ask?  Any red flags that scream "run away!"

Friday, August 16, 2002

Take the scatter approach.

Eliminate those w/o PM experience.
Eliminate those w/o development experience.
Eliminate those w/o PMP certification.
Eliminate those w/o degrees.

That should make the list of resumes more than manageable.  If it isn't...

Eliminate those w/o an MBA or other grad degree.
Keep bumping up the experience requirement.

that'll get 'em
Friday, August 16, 2002

I've consitantly found that Project Managers that come from a development background and worked their way up to Pm are infinetly better then the Business managers who have picked up some tech know-how. 
  Without having ever hired a PM, (I have hired other programmers) I would encourage you to look for an organized developer who has consistantly been put into a management position, to a point where their management skills are just as strong as the their technicle experience.

Vincent Marquez
Friday, August 16, 2002

You should consider what type of PM you need. 

What business domain are you staffing a project mgr?  Will it be critical for him to be well versed in your industry?  Managing a search engine project vs. an insurance project will require different PM skillsets.  Some projects with very complicated business domains, the PM may play a part in managing the scope/functionality/biz rules of the project.  (Yes, ideally you'd have explicit business analysts/liasons)

Also, how technical does the PM need to be?  Sometimes the PM is simply a babysitter with his MSFT Project Gantt chart.  Is this what you need?  In other cases, it it critical having a PM who understands the associated technology. 

Friday, August 16, 2002

"Eliminate those w/o PMP certification.
Eliminate those w/o degrees.
Eliminate those w/o an MBA or other grad degree."


Robin Debreuil
Saturday, August 17, 2002

"...from a development background and worked their way up to Pm are infinetly better ...."

I have to second Vincent here. If you want a PM for a development project you most definately want one that has development experience. Im doing a gig now with a PM that seems to have no development experience, and we get the "hit and run"-management, along with the fact that I as a developer have been vetoed against implementing functionallity a certain way. I mean its not a PMs call to veto the developers on a "algortihm A vs. algorithm B" level, or am I missing something?

It is crutial that the PM has both technical & problem domain skills. This is not often the case, and I keep wondering why PMs get away with not understanding the problem domain very well.

that'll get 'em:

>Eliminate those w/o PM experience.
>Eliminate those w/o PMP certification.
>Eliminate those w/o degrees.

What kind of drugs are you on? Care to share some? ;-)

Saturday, August 17, 2002

The first lot I would eliminate the ones that have some PMP certification!

Saturday, August 17, 2002

What is involved in getting PMP certified?  Links anyone?

Saturday, August 17, 2002

"What kind of drugs are you on?"

My company just went through the process of hiring a business analyst, which pretty much functions as a project manager around here.  That's the process my manager used, but we had over 200 applications.  Only about half were from people that were actually qualified to do the job, but that still left ~100 resumes for him to sift through.  Our company values formal education too, so that's why I put in the more education the better.

I didn't make the rules, I just play the game.

that'll get 'em
Saturday, August 17, 2002

that'll get 'em
Saturday, August 17, 2002

I "third" Vincent and "second" Patrik on preferring program managers with deveopment backgrounds, except with one warning:

If the program manager has development experience, they should be able to show some proof of this by providing job/ client references that can confirm that they've worked on said project and that it really did turn out great.  And IMHO, it is better if the development experience is somewhat recent as well - best if the PM *can* actually do some coding if the need arises.

If they can't provide credible references and preferably actually show you some original work that they've done to back them up, then I would be very afraid.

I've worked under a program manager recently who supposedly had a long history of development experience and had the owner of the company (a very smart, but non-computer savvy businessman) hanging on his every word like gospel.

The reality was that like the PM mentioned in Patrik's message, this PM showed no evidence of basic programmer's know-how, much less any clues that he had ever worked on a "professional-grade" project at all.  To date, every project that involved this person ended up being either a total disaster or of barely-acceptable-to-mediocre quality.

I think that the problems stemmed from the fact that he was too arrogant (or too scared of being exposed as a fraud) to admit that he honestly didn't know the answers a lot of the time and that someone else might be more qualified to make a given decision.  Instead, he would tend to design within the limitations of his outdated knowlege which in turn forced all the developers under him to suffer the consequences.

And as far as organiztion / process?  Well, so far, he has scored a 1 on "The Joel Test"!!

Tim Lara
Sunday, August 18, 2002

>>Im doing a gig now with a PM that seems to have no development experience, and we get the "hit and run"-management, along with the fact that I as a developer have been vetoed against implementing functionallity a certain way.<<

If by "hit and run" management, you mean that the PM barges in, interrupts the developers, tells them (verbally, of course, because there is no spec) what their current list of priorities should be, looks over their shoulders and says, "Hmm...That's not how I would have done it, but I guess that will work" even though the widget in question has been coded EXACTLY as he verbally described last week, then I feel your pain, man!  That is why our last PM earned the nickname "Tornado" -  He would swoop in, destroy everything in sight, then disappear and leave all of us to pick up the pieces...

Tim Lara
Sunday, August 18, 2002

"I didn't make the rules, I just play the game."

Not sure why threw out a lot of qualified applications based on certifications or an mba - because it was too much work for you to sift through 100 of them and find the right person? Did they tell you to hire a PM, but don't put too much effort into it?

I don't doubt you did the right thing if that is your company policy, but for the record, you did present it as sound advice (originally anyway).  If you aren't using a real name standing behind your real opinion should be easy, no?

Robin Debreuil
Sunday, August 18, 2002

"If by "hit and run" management, you mean ..."

This happens often...when we have meetings I get the question, Whats the status of functionallity X?. And I go,

"function X is almost finished, I have some issues with the gigafoos, X can't handle them properly yet. It needs to be able to handle gigafoos, to interact with the function Y which I finished last week."

Then a week later he comes along and shows me his notes from this meeting and it says:

"Developer said handling of gigafoos is broken in Y"

1) PM often can not make sense of his own notes due to
lacking understanding of the problem domain, and the technology used.

1b) List of priorities changes based on 1).

2) No or obsolete specs (inaccurate specs)

3) No change management, ie. signed off Change Requests with time estimates and costs.


To answer your question of how I was vetoed against implementing alorithm A vs. algorithm B I presented a long list of "cons" and "pros" for each, with my recommendation.

I was overruled by him looking at the gannt-chart, with no regard to the quality of the suggested solutions. Only time.
And Im like, Oh, OK. but it will cost ten-fold to clean up the mess of this later, when the data quality becomes bad.


So it was not on the "use a for-loop instead of a while-loop" level.

Sunday, August 18, 2002

Robin, I'm going to repeat myself for you.  My manager sifted through more than 200 resumes and found ~100 that were qualified.  Now then, he couldn't very well bring in all 100 to interview, could he?  I don't hire, but I sit in on interviews on occassion.  It would take far too long to hire someone if you had to bring in 100 people.  So what to do?  Well, like I said once already, start bumping up the experience requirement, eliminate those w/o certification, etc... until you get the number of interviewees down to a reasonable number. 

that'll get 'em
Sunday, August 18, 2002

I remember being caught in a Dilbert meeting from hell with another developer, and 2 business users.  The disagreement was the normalization of one of the database relationships, and somehow my mgr decided to let the business users make the decision (don't laugh)

I was sitting there thinking what a classic disaster it was, as I'm trying to explain database concepts to a business user, and making my case.  I left the firm shortly after, but for many other reasons (for example:  the entire project had zero business justification) , but that was one of the defining "jump the shark" moments where I was asking myself "What the #$%$% am I doing working here?"

Sunday, August 18, 2002

"I'm going to repeat myself for you."

Fair enough, I didn't notice it wasn't you doing the hiring, sorry.

Education is always a check, as is certification, as long as its relevant and of some quality. However in my experience you always have to look at the whole resume. You aren't just looking for a generic qualified person, you are looking for a fit. Discounting qualified resumes based on a checkbox category like certification seems pretty extreme (I think certification has good value, but at most it says people with it are capable, not people without it aren't).

I can't beleive that someone couldn't pick their top 5~10 out of a hundred without interviewing the lot. Things like experience, education, work history, even references and hobbies are all qualitative things that give you some insight into how the person would fit into the position. A PM can really be a make or break position, the last thing I would worry about is how to thin the pile into something managable without sifting through them... You neither probably, but that is how it sounded.

Robin Debreuil
Sunday, August 18, 2002


You described EXACTLY what I have seen happen (eerily so), but you did a much better job of verbalizing the scenario than I did.

Scary if this is a common situation!

I think it goes to show that qualifications are important, but experience is CRUCIAL when it comes to PMs.

Just because their resumé makes it look like they SHOULD be able to do the job, it doesn't necessarily mean that they CAN do the job.  Make them prove it first.

Tim Lara
Sunday, August 18, 2002

Robin...  I often say what I don't mean. :)

It was more like this:

[stage:  boss sitting at desk looking through stack of resumes and mumbling, me looking over his shoulder]

"Has 3 years analyst experience... good.  Has 5 years technical writing... good.  Has a degree... good!"
[boss places resume in potential interviewee stack]

"Has over a decade of PM experience, PMP certified..."
[boss places resume in potential interviewee stack]

"10 years in development, 4 as lead software engineer - but doing mainly what we would have him do, BS in CS, all good!"
[boss places resume in potential interviewee stack]

So on & so forth..............

that'll get 'em
Sunday, August 18, 2002

Actually we haven't advertised a job since the bubble burst - its probably more that I don't realize what an employers market it has become. With your last description it is starting to sink in.

Those poor html programmers must need royal blood to get a foot in the door : ).

Robin Debreuil
Sunday, August 18, 2002

Certification does not matter.

Bin the uneducated, bin the inexperienced, let them cut  teeth with some multi national.

Don't waste time with anybody who's paperwork isn't at least impressive. If they can't write a good resume, you don't want them.

Talk to the rest, reference check.

Hire the most personable.

Monday, August 19, 2002

Darren has not replied with his needs.  I think knowledge of your industry is pivotal.  For example, in sectors like finance, insurance, etc.  When the business domain is not trivial, experience in the field or subsector (like fixed income analytics)  makes all the difference in the world.

Monday, August 19, 2002

Why not promote from within?

I mean, WHY?  WHY?  WHY?

Matt H.
Monday, August 19, 2002

I hope you don't mean 'promote' a developer.

In my opinion ....

Good companies don't consider project management a promotion for developers.  Rather, its considered a lateral move.

Monday, August 19, 2002

>I hope you don't mean 'promote' a developer.

Hear Hear. I was with a small company before, where I had the duties of programmer alongside some "normal" PM duties, which included:

1) Meetings with clients
2) Scheduling
4) Saying NO to stupid things
5) Saying NO to good things when they came up too late.
6) Trying to motivate people working on the project
7) Did some coding along with my co-workers.

Everybody did their part and the project was successful,
(on time & within budget).

What I did not do was

7) Draw Powerpoints to upper management
8) Draw ganntt-charts
9) Bitch at my co-workers to submit their time-sheets.
10) Become frustrated over low productivity in the team,
and hire more people.

The bad PMs I have had does 1-2 and 7-10, ONLY.

So, its not really always a bad move to 'promote' a person with developer background, since ex-developers usually earn trust and respect to a much larger extent than business-PMs.

For the record, Im now back as a full-time developer :)

Monday, August 19, 2002

You should stick to bullet points.

Dunno Wair
Monday, August 19, 2002

...which is maybe just as good as it seems getting a numbered list correct proved to be beyond my organizational skills ;-)

Monday, August 19, 2002

>You should stick to bullet points.

Haha, point taken. I saw it coming already.

Monday, August 19, 2002

>Good companies don't consider
>project management a promotion
>for developers

I dis-agree - IF you've got a promotion ladder
like joel has previously discussed.

Your project manager is a player-coach who
writes code AND manages people.  Another term
would be "Lead Software Developer"

Dave Cutler wrote the NT4 Kernel while managing
250.  Most people might not be able to handle 250,
but the average team size i've seen is around 5,
and I think it would be reasonable to expect that.

just my $0.02 ...

Matt H.
Monday, August 19, 2002

Not NT4.  Nt 3.01 or something.


Matt H.
Monday, August 19, 2002

Ok.  I guess we have a different definition of project manager.  None of the ones I've encountered ever wrote code.  I firmly believe that there should be a career ladder for people who want to remain in a technical role as opposed to a managerial one.

Monday, August 19, 2002

Some really interesting points here, let me throw in my two pennies worth.

I pretty much disagree with the general thread of this discussion that a project manager should come from a strong development background, with lots of development experience. In my experience the opposite is true.

I have found the skills required to manage/lead a project are *often* very different to those found in good developers. I've seen several brillant developers 'promoted' to project management roles just because it's the natural promotion path. This is fundamentally wrong. Brillant programmers should be programming because that's what they do best (and often what they enjoy most) - they shouldn't be shoe horned into management positions because that's the only route they can take to earn more money/get promoted.

I for one have no problem whatsoever (speaking as a PM) with a senior developer earning a lot more than me. No problem at all. In fact, considering I'm a relatively junior PM, I almost expect this to be the case.

My job is simple. It's my responsibility to deliver business benefit from the project and to help focus the team on those objectives. In my experience not only are a developers skills set not conjuicive to a management position, but having split technical/management responsibilities often causes a conflict of interest.

I do everything I can to clear the path for the team so they can focus on what they do best. Whether that be doing the sandwich run or getting rid of unneccessary status reporting.

On every technical project I have worked on I have always made sure I have selected a technical lead - a right hand man who is I trust completely on making the technical decisions. I have found this to be absolutly critical.

What I have read here suggests to me that the non-technical PMs you have experienced are just bad managers. Some of the things I have read here are shocking - but I don't think that naturally leads to the conclusion that non-technical PMs are not the way forward - because I think they most defintely are.

I must add I do have a level of technical understanding. I have a Computer Science degree and I have done some development. However, I was never going to be a great developer my skill sets clearly lay elsewhere and I made the conscious decision almost straight after I left University.

A really good analogy, although considering this is an American forum it may not mean much, is that of football (sorry, soccer). Soccer management is a very different job to  being a soccer player. Many top clubs in the last five years have recruited top players to become managers - very few have succeeded. Of the top 5 soccer managers in the UK at the moment, none were great players. Yes some players will become good managers - but most not. The skill sets required are just different and *often* not compatible. The same can be said for Project Management and developers.

Sorry if it's a bit long - I hope I didn't bore you!!

Ian Renfree
Wednesday, August 21, 2002

>>In my experience not only are a developers skills set not conducive to a management position, but having split technical/management responsibilities often causes a conflict of interest.<<

Given the hubristic nature of programmers in general, I do agree with this to some degree in that sometimes, the fact that a PM has programming experience can cause an ego-related conflict of interest.

There's nothing worse than a lead developer getting vetoed or sabotaged by a PM who has convinced himself that he was a great programmer "back in the day."

I know for a fact that some of the things I was really impressed with myself for developing years ago look incredibly lame to me now!

Tim Lara
Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Here's a link for this thread:

Tim Lara
Wednesday, August 21, 2002

The coach is a good analogy - though I would argue the coach has to know more about soccer than the players. He doesn't have to play so well, but he has to eat it for breakfast. Is this the same for pm's? Even if they aren't hot shot programmers, do they have to really understand software to the nth degree, or would a really good manager from a different field be a good pm?

Robin Debreuil
Thursday, August 22, 2002

>they have to really understand software to the nth degree

Does the waterfall method work?

If you think it does, then no, your PM's don't have to really understand software to the nth degree.

If you know better, then yes, your PMs have to adapt to and understand change.  So they'd better eat Software Dev for breakfast ...


Matt H.
Thursday, August 22, 2002

>> The coach is a good analogy - though I would argue the coach has to know more about soccer than the players.

That's an interesting point you make there Robin. I think we need to define what 'knows more about' actually means.

As I mentioned before I always like working closely with a technical lead. For me this works perfectly. It allows me to focus on the strategic and tactical side of the project, while the technical leadership comes from my colleague.  For those that know about soccer in England – it’s the way Sven Goran Eriksson and his assistant(s) work in managing the England national team. Sven is hands off and works on keeping the team focused, building confidence and select the team while his assistants handle the day to day training, improving player skills etc.

So from the strategic perspective, I do know a lot about developing software. I know how to deliver software that delivers on business objectives. However, the developers I work with know infinitely more than me about the detailed technical side. I trust them completely to deliver on their side of the project and (I hope) they trust me to oversee and manage the project.

>> or would a really good manager from a different field be a good pm?

YES!! Although I have predominantly managed software projects, recently I have been working for an Investment bank managing non-technical projects. I had no knowledge of investment banking whatsoever – but this has not made much difference. It’s all about recognizing your strengths and weaknesses.

I have an ability to deliver projects. That is what I bring to the party. I have built a team that compensates for my lack of domain knowledge – again including a trusted right hand man. Of course I have rapidly build up knowledge of banking and I understand enough now to get by but the point is clear. Domain knowledge is not critical – the main thing for a project manager is to be able to deliver projects that meet business objectives.  One of the key things he/she needs to be able to do to achieve that is to build brilliant, well-balanced teams.

Of course, I’m not saying that a very technical person cannot be a good project manager – there are many different ways to skin a cat – but I think that is the exception rather than the rule.

Ian Renfree
Friday, August 23, 2002

What will be the main responsibilities of the PM your organization eventually hires? 

Usually, when I read about "what to look for when hiring a PM", I notice a lot of soft skills and educational requirements in the message being presented by the author.  The bottom line is -- project managers are suppose to manage projects.  The only constant that I know of is that when a PM is assigned to a manage a project -- he/she is ultimately responsible for its successful completion.

"...All of them came from varied backgrounds, and I have yet to find any consistent details to base our criteria on."

Darren, since you mentioned that you have worked with many excellent PM's over the years, what you (or whomever is in charge of hiring) need to do is make up a list of the characteristics that were common among all/most of them and use that as the criteria for candidate eligibility.  If this cannot be done then you might as well roll some dice or use tarot cards.

Hiring someone for an IT position where the job duties/responsibilites are not well-defined has always been a very difficult thing to do.  It doesn't matter if you are talking about a software developer position or a project management position.  When I am asked the question, "What is the most difficult aspect of your job", I tell the person that asked me this question that it all depends on the organization that I find myself working at or for.

The best advice that I give you is this -- if it is in your power to do so make sure that HR stays out of the decision making process.

Charles Kiley
Sunday, August 25, 2002

Hiring is like buying shoes. You only find out after a week or two if you made the right decision or not.

Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Hire, Recent college graduates, Any grad with a BS in construction managment has the drive and will power to do the job to his best ability.  The recent graduates are the future of construction,  Dont waste a good education, get them in your company hand in hand with somebody with a little experiance and you will have the best outcome

Sunday, November 9, 2003

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