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Proj. Mgrs.  Staffed from outside or within?

I have never paid attention to project management as a career.  In my latest project, I realized I was more valuable to teh project doing mgr/design tasks, than as a raw tech implementor. 

Do firms actually hire project managers?  Or are they usually veterans staffers who are promoted from within.  One crucial aspect of a GOOD IT mgr is sound knowledge of the business.  I assume it is hard to find someone fromthe outside who already knows your business.    Without the internal knowledge, the new mgr. is just a walking gantt chart, which is nothing more than an overpaid babysitter.  A valuable mgr can also steer the analysis/scoping, and do the detailed business process design.  (In addition to keeping track of everyone's progress and giving status reports to upper mgmt.)  Can an outsider walk in and start managing internal staffers who obviously will know way more than him about the nature of the project....?

Just curious what the job market is like for project mgrs, or how it works in the first place.  Usually, the person in this spot makes or breaks the project, regardless of the tech skills underneath him.  But what I've seen, that guy was always there by the time I entered the scene, so I never saw what the selection process for that role was. 

Monday, March 25, 2002

In my experience, on large important projectes, the manager is a person who went to business school, and has quite a few years experience.

Then he has a project manager who's a walking gantt chart who does all the paperwork.

The techinical people with seniority end up in roles like architect.

Then again, I work at a company that had an "outsource all the programming" policy, so all of these people weren't programmers to begin with. Very few people in the company are there because they're programmers.


Mark W
Monday, March 25, 2002

Go here:

There is a whole professional track and certification for project managers and quite a few consulting companies that specialize in project management.  They are probably born and made.  A good one is worth his/her wieght in gold.

Monday, March 25, 2002

I happen to be a member of PMI, though I don't have enough hours under my belt (nor have I studied the BOK) to get certification, but I'd like to as another item to put on the Resume`.

Mark W
Monday, March 25, 2002

> Do firms actually hire project managers? Or are they usually veterans staffers who are promoted from within.

I think it varies.

My first job was at the Data Networks Division of Bell Northern Research/Northern Telecom in '73 which was before PCs. It was a thousand people or so. I didn't stay long, got the impression that: they hired either new graduates (for programming) or PhDs (for research); they used a pair/buddy system for programming (junior guy like me, plus senior guy as team leader); above the team leader were 4 levels of technical manager, all promoted from within the ranks (they didn't hire managers)(that was my impression, I'm not sure); and above these four levels of 'technical' manager, VPs (a different career track entirely). DND/BNR/NT being an industry leader, with home-grown technology and an established Process, I'd find it understandable if they thought that the best place to get suitable experience was there (so, staff developed and promoted from within).

At a startup on the other hand, my experience has been that you start with a core of two people who work back-to-back: the programmer (who develops the software), and the owner (who handles everything else, money, sales, and when the company is rich enough then [s]he hires more people, office staff (shipping, tech support), more programmers, more sales people, more tech support, more office staff, a bigger office, more talks with the bank, etc.). In that environment the senior technical positions are filled from within (if you're there at the begining, and keep the respect of the CEO and of the new technical people that [s]he hires), and filled from without (when the company becomes rich enough to hire more senior people).

I don't know what it's like at Fog Creek, where Joel seems something of a technician as well as CEO/owner.

I saw an amusing (joke) career ladder once in a cubicle at IBM, which mentioned "... manages a project, and thinks he should be called a project manager. Above him, a project manager, who manages several projects. ... Data Architect, noone knows what he does so they can't get rid of him, but so expensive that they only have one. And finally, at the top of career ladder: the contractor, who does all the work, AND gets paid for every hour."

Now I'm working in (one part of) a big company again. There seem to be some "walking Ganntt charts", I'm not sure what else they do ... talk with other people, help to document stuff, find documentation, give advice. Don't get me wrong, schedules are good, any schedule is better than none. For example if you have a schedule then you can slip it if necessary, or finish ahead of schedule, which you cannot if there is no schedule.

There's a nice line in _The Deadline_ by DeMarco where the most senior technician ("Moravia's First Programmer") asks the manager for a job, saying "I can do (anything technical) ... design, code, inspect, schedule, debug, etc. etc." (but sorry for that paraphrase: I lent this book to someone, and I didn't get it back). I'm now a senior technician or chief developer, and 'manage several projects' in the sense that I know our (local) architecture and advise other people or buddies/teams. Above me is an ex-technical person who, ex-military, specialized early in managing larger groups of people. His job is essentially to know what customers want, to know what we can give them, to talk with anyone be they customer, technician, or VP (or anyone else).

In general I guess that a company will staff from within if they have someone suitable (where suitable means able to do the new job, and able to finish or to hand over whatever job they were doing previously) who has some 'proven track record' ("gets things done"), and otherwise hire from without. I'm guessing a preference for within over without, if and ONLY if other things are equal, because you know them and therefore there is less risk.

Ever heard of the "Peter Principle"? I haven't seen it happen at anywhere I've stayed. What I might have seen in some is people 'rising' until they reach a level of satisfaction.

> Can an outsider walk in and start managing internal staffers who obviously will know way more than him about the nature of the project....?

Yes, an outsider can. He or she becomes an insider very quickly. And, talks with people (e.g. VPs) that the "internal staffers" don't see regularly, so the PM will soon know more about some aspects of the Project than the subordinates do (and, naturally, the subordinates will know more about some other aspects of the Project). When everyone depends on each other and knows it, then it might begin to gell.

Christopher Wells
Tuesday, March 26, 2002

My understanding of the Peter Principle is you get promoted to your level of incompetence - each job is more difficult than the last and eventually you can't do the job you're promoted into.

I tend to believe in the Dilbert Principle. When you have a group of people the least competent person is promoted to manager because that person does the the least work anyway and you don't necessarily want them doing the work.

That's exactly the way my department is, the one person who doesn't have any technical skills ends up keeping track of things, a sort of de-facto manager. I manage to supply the vision and direction as much as I can, but I have to balance that and doing "real work." Not to say the de-facto manager doesn't do work, she does a lot, just a different kind than what we do.

Nobody's above anybody in my dept, we all report to the same person (the real manager, and technically the owner of the project) and he's the one who went to business school and was hired from outside.

My experience is that there's a high level of manager turnover (they get blamed when things go bad, or are most likely to get frustrated and leave or promoted/moved), while the grunt workers stay largely the same.

Then again, I get the feeling most people here don't work for huge multi-national fortune 100 companies. Heck, we're probably a fortune 10 company, but since I don't READ fortune...

Mark W
Tuesday, March 26, 2002

For myself, I started on the role to project management when I found programming boring. I.E. working for the same pointy haired bosses, solving similar-ish problems in code. 

I found the people issues in project management a lot harder, and therefore, perversely for me, more interesting.

A lot of PM-ing, as well as scheduling etc is being the person with the skills and the energy that bashes through organisational bureaucracy and actually makes the company change.

99% of people in a company are concerned with "business as usual", steady as she goes type work. Project managers can actually influence the direction of the company. That's why I find it interesting.

Tuesday, March 26, 2002

Actually, the most common mistake I see in this regard is companies trying too hard to turn senior technical people into managers - in effect sacrificing those people's technical contributions to create a cadre of incompetent and dissatisfied managers.  It's a real lose/lose proposition.  Promoting from within is great *if* you have people who are getting bored in their current roles (see the staying-motivated thread) and want to try some new challenges, who don't mind that those challenges are of a very different sort than what they're used to and who are willing to invest the effort in learning how to deal with people and schedules instead of code.  Otherwise, though, I believe it's a mistake.

BTW, let's be clear that managing a group and managing a project are not necessarily the same thing.  It's not at all uncommon to have different people in those two roles.  While the *group* manager in such a configuration needs to be technical enough to keep the respect of the people they manage and represent their concerns, the focus for the *project* manager should be on the non-technical aspects - logistics, finance, even marketing.  The confusion of these roles, and that of the technical lead when one exists separately from either, is the source of much dysfunction in a lot of companies.

Jeff Darcy
Tuesday, March 26, 2002

I keep having this nasty experience at companies of watching them swap project managers in. They hire "project managers". That is, people whose experience is in "project management".

They don't ever seem to have any grounding in WHAT they're managing. Its like software development == building distribution depots == installing phone systems == creating new kinds of bank accounts.

What you get is people who can write gant charts, but have NO IDEA what the bits mean, or how they interrelate. So I get project plans that are COMPLETELY worthless. They've got all the bits that make them look like project plans: lists of people to approve things, lists of the people who've agreed to be on the steering committees, distribution lists for memos, meeting rooms booked for regular "touching base" sessions, but the work plan section is empty because they've no idea what needs doing...

Company after company I go to write these meaningless documents and have tons of people around to check them, sign them, review them, spellcheck them, anything except actually put the content in them, because they've hired professional project managers and they don't actually understand the work that's going on.

I have this faint notion that this is what's wrong with things like the west coast mainline upgrade. Because they don't understand the work, it's just boxes on charts, they end up with the "the meetings become the project" syndrome and slowly the work drifts along, now happening more or less divorced from the management process that's supposed to be helping it, and there are suddenly two projects: one big cluster of meetings and one group of people doing the work and there's no effective communication between them.

I'm not saying I want IT project managers to have to have CS degrees, but I'd rather see them able to use computers for more than reading email...

Katie Lucas
Tuesday, March 26, 2002

Katie, I agree with you. Folks in my company seem to like MS Project, and I've even seen it used as a weapon. (It's a rather blunt weapon, but a weapon nonetheless.) It goes along the lines of "Well, I've extrapolated from your numbers that adding this additional functionality and it will only add two weeks."

It's difficult to argue that we've only allotted until the date on the MS Project and that two extra weeks isn't acceptable because we could be on to another project... especially if that other project hasn't materialized yet but we know it'll exist. Nevermind the fact that the numbers are largely made up anyway, and rounded off to the largest estimate to give us some breathing room, allow for things we didn't account for, and the inevitble scope creep.

I have no great love of MS Project. It's a fun toy, and a necessary evil where I work (everyone expects it), but projects never go according to the MS Project schedule.

If people knew that it was an estimate and that the figures weren't set in stone, but can be used to get an required idea of the order and timeframes for the items involved then it would be a useful tool.

Our senior project manager (the person who manages all of the project managers) relayed a story in a training session one day.

A person from "the business" (what we in technology call the people we're coding something for) came to a technology person and requested some additional functionality to an existing system. So he and his small team started working on it and showed him an early draft. "Looks great, but I'd like to see an MS Project." A few weeks later another draft, but no MS Project. After the third time the business person demanded "Why haven't you given me an MS Project? I've asked three times already." To which the tech guy replied "Look, I can either manage the project or I can do it, but I can't do both."

This story was meant as a tool for us guys in the trenches to push back whenever management was being unreasonable or when our workloads were getting to be too much (which mine seems to be getting...)

In my experience, project management done right is a good thing. Project management done wrong is a horrible evil.

Mark W
Tuesday, March 26, 2002

In a lot of cases, the role of the project manager is actually to co-ordinate the project, and this is not necessarily the most senior or important role. Companies that aren't aware of that can make big mistakes.

As a software engineer, I've had situations where the project manager would ask me for a list of the items for future development, then re-format it and send it out as her own schedule.

Hugh Wells
Tuesday, March 26, 2002


Mark W
Tuesday, March 26, 2002

What are the proper terms for these classifications of managers we seem to be coming up with...

A= gantt chart manager.  Overpaid babysitter....Doesnt understand the business function of the app any better than a coder who is doing design.  Perhaps doesn't even do any of that detail stuff.  But more focuses on managing the PEOPLE.  schedules, tasks, budgets, headcounts, etc.  eg:  Are you done yet?  Good.  ....Are you done yet?  Good....

B= manager who does all of A, but also gets into the nitty gritty, but on a mgmt level stiff.....  Possibly could have been a BA (business analyst)  Understands the logic behind the system.  Might know the business very Can spec out how to do a bond calculation with the business guys, and knows exactly what the system will need to do, and can babysit the drones with MS-project gannt charts as well.

C = Of course, the most valuable.  Does A+B, AND can architect and code along with the grunts.  Of course, this is overload for any single person, except on only the smallest of projects....

Tuesday, March 26, 2002

Project managers (ideally) are there to make the project go as smoothly as possible. Not to be wankers who type numbers into Project and then insist everyone sticks to them.

Honestly, the best project manager I ever had was a guy who just ran interference. He was the interface between us and the wittering classes above us. Insulated the people doing the work from the bone-headedness. Didn't add features to the "must have list" until they'd been asked for 3 times, on the basis that the first couple of times someone had just dreamt it up over lunch...If someone was behind schedule he find out why and fixed it or rescheduled work if the schedule was wrong. And all of it with no fuss. He was REALLY good at doing this in non-intrusive ways. I got a lot of work done there...

The rest of the time I seem to spend more time telling people why things are going slowly than working. And the minute I need a question answering, everyone's in a meeting about a different project... and can't be disturbed.

Katie Lucas
Tuesday, March 26, 2002

"I keep having this nasty experience at companies of watching them swap project managers in. They hire "project managers". That is, people whose experience is in "project management"."

Kind of reminds me about the "Quality Expert" I once worked for who didn't know how to do anything, but knew how to do everything better.

May $deity save me from having to deal with such people ever again.

Robert Moir
Thursday, March 28, 2002

> In general I guess that a company will staff from within [...] there is less risk.

2002 edition of _What Color Is Your Parachute_ page 58 states this.

Christopher Wells
Saturday, March 30, 2002

Can I get away with this sweeping statement? 

"Project manager" is not a realistic job change for someone who is not already a project manager.  It seems like people, either tekkies or BA's or operations people, get put into this role at some juncture.  If staffed within, they may already possess some of the business knowledge which will make them an effective mgr.  Sort of like how the best place to learn new skils is at your current job, b/c you already bring something to the table, be it knowledge of existing systems, their business, etc...B/c if you don't know Java, someone else is probably less likely to let you learn it on their dime/time.

I guess what I'm getting at is that if a PURE MGR (no tech skills) is moving to a new firm, often in a new sector/industry,  he may bring little more than GANTT/babysitting skills to the table.  And it seems firms prefer to harvest these types from within...Which makes sense, b/c they may already know the business, or have tech knowledge of their other systems, which always helps.

Sunday, March 31, 2002

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