Tuesday, January 10, 2012

On Project Management

My job has gotten very, very busy lately. My company is merging with another company, and, as the person in charge of the group that handles the corporate databases and scientific software, that means that my group and I are looking at over a year's worth of work to put everything together, all while most people wonder what the hell is taking us so long. Oh, and while we also complete the "regular" goals we had for this year.

It also means that today, I said something that five years ago, I would not have ever imagined would come from my lips: "I need to get this technical work done and out of the way so that I can concentrate on project management."

You see, five years ago, I was in the midst of a career crisis. I had somehow turned into a project manager and I wasn't all that happy about it. I didn't view it as "real" work. It seemed like I spent my days gently (and not so gently) encouraging other people to do their work, and I wondered whether it might not be better if I just rolled up my sleeves and did the work for them.

I have completely changed my tune. My "a ha!" moment was when I joined a project that was in trouble. It was behind schedule, but no one was sure by how much. It was over budget, but no one knew how the spend was trending. And management was threatening to just cancel it. I came on board and had a new schedule in place, with a known budget trend within a month. Roughly 8 months later, management decided to renew the project for another year. The team was happy, and so were the customers for the software the team produced. One of the customers sent me a really nice email (as I went out on maternity leave), complimenting me for turning the project around- and I realized that, yes, I had done that. Project management was indeed "real work".

So now, I am still a bit on the fence about whether or not project management is what I want to do with the rest of my life- a topic for a future blog post or ten, I'm sure- but I am not at all on the fence about whether or not project management is "real work". It is. I fully understand why someone has to set aside some time to keep his or her eye on schedules, dependencies, and communication (intra-team, inter-team, and up to management). In fact, if you are going to tackle multiple projects at once, or even just a single long and complicated project, someone probably has to forgo work doing the hands-on technical and/or scientific work altogether and focus on project management full time. Otherwise, your projects will probably finish late and/or over budget, if they finish at all.

I know that most techies and scientists roll their eyes at project management. I think that is because people try to apply the wrong techniques to their projects. If you are running an agile or agile-like software development project, you don't need the project management techniques that were developed by government contractors to deal with their multi-year projects, which were required by the government to be fully specified before they began. In fact, if you try to graft those techniques onto an agile-ish software development project, you will probably make it fail- or at least make your best programmers quit in search of less annoying pastures. (I actually spent an entire year of my life insulating project teams from overly waterfall-y project management requirements. I learned a lot, but I can't say that I have any desire to repeat the experience.)

Similarly, if you are in the development part of drug research and development, you use a different process than if you are in the early research part of the cycle. This is not to say that I think early research should run with no project management whatsoever- but it should have a much more lightweight process. When I work with a research project (yes, we have these in scientific informatics!), I favor the use of flowcharts and checkpoints over fully specified project timelines- and I don't expect the management of that project to consume anywhere near the amount of time that managing a project that is developing enterprise-level software will consume. When I worked with teams that were heading into the development portion of R&D (and yes, I've done that, too- and that had nothing to do with software!) I expected to be able to write fairly good timelines, because the processes the team would be using were already known, even if the outcomes were not.

All of this makes it hard for me to explain what a project manager does when I get asked about it at the various "alternative career" events I've attended. I guess I can boil the core responsibilities down to these:
  • Know the deadline(s) for the project, and what the impact of slipping that deadline will be
  • Know which of these three things management would prefer you compromise, and which you think you should compromise, if pushed: schedule, budget, or quality. And yes, sometimes compromising quality really is the correct answer!
  • Know the tasks that need to be completed in order to get the project done, and know their interdependencies (i.e., if task A runs late, will that impact tasks B and C?) Know which tasks are done and which are in process.
  • Manage team communications. Make sure the team is communicating however is most effective for it- be that with meetings, emails, or IMs. Know that different teams communicate in different ways, and allow- no, facilitate!- that. 
  • Be the source of project information for senior management, so that they don't go bugging your team. Try to protect your team's time.
  • Know and track your budget, to whatever level of detail your organization requires.
  • Keep your eye on the hidden administrative tasks that can derail a schedule- like keeping contractor work orders up to date.
  • Keep an eye on your team's state of mind and availability. Are they burning out? Are the bored? Who's going on vacation soon? How will that impact the project? Try to fix the problems you see.
The processes I use to accomplish these things vary with the company and the project team. But if I'm not on top of any of these items, I do not feel good about my projects.

I know I have some other project managers amongst my readers. What do you think? Is my list complete? Since I just wrote it off the top of my head in five minutes, I doubt it. Add your items in the comments! Also, for those who are curious about project management- feel free to leave questions. I'll either answer them in the comments or write another post about the topic.

Update: I've written a post with a short list of some project management reading suggestions.


  1. I struggle with the differentiation between the technical work and the project management work all the time. I resist being brought into the project management stuff. I do think some of my superiors think it is not real work. I, on the other hand, have had the luck of working with many GREAT people who are very good at it. And I know how difficult it is to do. So that is what scares me away from it most. A "I can't possibly be ready for this at this point in my career" mentality.

    Unfortunately many of engineers and many people in tech went into it and stayed with it because they enjoyed the technical aspect of the job. It's very tough to move up and be expected to take on more PM type tasks when what got you excited was the technical work.

  2. I LOVE being a project manager. It works well with my obsessively organized personality, and in the company that I work for now, I'm nowhere near technical enough to write code for them so it's a perfect fit for me.

    I think your list is pretty great. In my roles, my main focus has been handling all the "business" and "status" stuff so the engineers can focus on the technical details. So that part about protecting their time is HUGE for me.

    I think you covered it in some of your points, but another HUGE part of what I do is figuring out what needs to be done and then making sure it gets done. I don't get overly bogged down in PM process because our company doesn't have that kind of culture.

    But it's REALLY valuable to keep track of tasks, blocking issues, and to be the person who can figure out what's needed to move forward. I like to be the person who knows who to contact about getting stuff sorted out, even if I'm not actually DOING the task myself.

    I also love, love, love working with customers, whether they're internal or external.

    I find that the PMP certification, while a b*tch to get through, is completely useless to me in my job. I suppose it'll help on my resume if I'm looking for a new job, though, so I keep renewing it.

    Awesome post!!

  3. @FrauTech- that is a good point about taking technical people away from the technical work they love. All the more reason to have some "translators" who understand the technical work but enjoy some of the less technical things! I haven't really figured out which category I'm in- but since I'm good at the PM stuff, I keep getting hired to do that, with a little technical work squeezed in now and then.

    @Anandi- I agree about the utility of the PMP certification. I think it MAY be useful if you do a lot of work in process heavy industries. Also, if you are a government contractor you pretty much have to get it eventually. I've never bothered, and I doubt I ever will, unless I find my career situation has changed drastically!

  4. the milliner10:30 AM

    I fell into project management too. I realized when reading your list of the main PM duties that I kind of just assumed that this is just what a good employee does (I work in 3D product development, so a lot of our group should be able to do these things as it is part of their jobs. The only exception is probably the designers who I would rather focus on design). I guess perhaps that it always just came naturally for me. For me the most important part of being a PM is anticipating problems and heading them off at the pass (often through redirecting the team, exercising a bit more control or doing some PR/managing expectations with clients or upper mgmt.

    Oddly (though it makes perfect sense to me), my position is 1/2 PM, 1/2 creative & design direction. I've always had this dual right brain /left brain thing and I quite enjoy being able to go back and forth between the two. Understanding both sides also really helps in facilitating communication between creative & business.

    After reading the post I thought 'hmmm..I don't really need to protect my team', but then I realize that I do try to protect our designers quite a bit. After our restructuring they now report to a manager on the business side of things (with absolutely no background in design or experience managing creatives). This move on mgmt's part totally baffles me. I've tried to get it changed, but no luck so far.

  5. I agree with most of what has been said here, but I think a critical skill that many people miss is the ability to listen to the scientist (PI) who has no clue how software engineering works and translate what they want into requirements. Requirements from the "Lab" can be very nebulous and you need domain knowledge to realize exactly what the PI is asking for. You also need to know what the software engineer whats to see so that he can understand the requirements. That is no mean feat. I have seen many projects fail after a software engineer goes off in the wrong direction based on inexact requirements.

  6. Good point, @David- the "translator" role is an important one. It isn't always the project manager who does that at big companies. In fact, I first started down the slippery slope to project management when I performed this translator role as the "technical lead" on a data integration project for a large company. But in most small companies (and I suspect academia, but I don't have direct knowledge about that) it will be the project manager.

    And welcome GenomeWeb readers! I don't write that much about my work, but if you can find what I have written under the working in industry tag.

  7. Came here via Genome web. Thanks for articulating a very key role in any organization. Would you happen to have some favourite tools etc. that you would recommend for PM?

  8. @NM- I've done all my project management in a corporate setting, so I have always used Microsoft Project to make my project plans. However, when my now husband and I wrote a project plan for our wedding (yes, we really did that), we used Open Project, and it worked fine for that relatively small and simple project- I can't vouch for it on a larger plan. It may work, it may not.

    One thing MS Project doesn't do particularly well is make pretty timelines to use to communicate with senior management. I use a tool called TimelineMaker for that.

    We track our software bugs in Bugzilla, but there are a lot of other bug tracking packages out there, and in general, I just use whatever the programmers like the best.

    Beyond that, really it is more about the organization than the tools- so use whatever helps you keep organized.

  9. Rumpus5:56 PM

    I'm an academic interested in project management, and management in general. This year it's been really clear that my department is really failing at managing itself, and we're not doing a good job of helping our students learn how to manage projects even though we make them do technical projects regularly. So now that my eyes have been opened to the importance of management, I'm wondering how one goes about getting some education in the area. The best idea I've gotten so far is an MBA, but that doesn't seem quite right.

  10. @Rumpus- my formal training in project management was through work. However, my local university extension program offers classes on project management- that might be one place to look.

    Also, if I get through the other things I need to do tonight, I was planning to put up a post with some recommended reading on project management, which might help, too. If I don't do it tonight, I'll do it sometime in the next week or so.

  11. Hi Cloud,

    As someone who's heavily involved in project management through PM Hut ( http://www.pmhut.com ), I started to smile when I read that you "didn't view project management as real work".

    I am sure that many project managers will be interested in reading this article, and that's why I would like to republish it on PM Hut (when many project managers will read it!). Please either email me or contact me through the contact us form on the PM Hut website in case you're OK with this.

  12. Hello. Nice article. I would add to your list of primary PM responsibilities, a focus on risks and mitigation plans that are actually executed, not just written in some document. The looking ahead function, identifying the potential pot holes in the road ahead, determining the impact to the project if you hit one and deciding what can be done to avoid it or what will be done if it happens. I've too often seen risk plans that look great but the time and effort to implement plans to avoid risks from occurring is ignored. There may be a need for additional resources and budget that has to be weighed against the potential impact of a risk being realized. Kind of like insurance. We don't like paying for it but if we need it we're very glad we had it.

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  14. Anonymous9:54 PM

    I too am burdened with the same question do I want to the rest of my career to be centered on project management or should I pursue other interests. When I first started out in the science industry, I was an intern, then designer/developer and then lead developer/designer. When my current project manager decided to leave the company my colleague and I were "asked" if we wanted to take over his projects. While I enjoy the project management aspect of it what I didn't realize at the time is that I would continue to be the lead designer and was now tasked with the project management aspect as well. The additional workload required more than doubled and my job satisfaction diminished as a result. At this point I am not sure what the future holds.

    Best Regards,


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  17. Thank yo so much for sharing your learnning and experience on Project management

  18. Refreshing to learn that a scientist sees the value in project management. I work with scientists every day who tell me it's impossible and ill-advised to constrain their research in such a way. Their are some funny attitudes in the S&T community about this... funny because for people who claim to be concerned with stated empirical imperatives, these attitudes are not at all based on the facts.

    I am a defense contractor (not PMP certified by the way, and completely agree with you on its utility) supporting a large S&T organization nested within a smallish DOD Agency -- 4 departments, 40 programs, $500M. Trying to implement a corporate portfolio management framework is like pulling crocodile teeth. There are soooooo many challenges and the reactions of those who would be affected are swift and extreme. There are the cultural challenges -- The Director looks at project portfolio managers who don't do science as "bureaucrats", but at the same time cannot clearly articulate how he manages his organization (only what his organization does, which is also suspect) or taxpayer money for that matter; the scientists think they know more than everybody else, while consistently failing in the management of their own programs and then obfuscating when called upon to explain why; and, whenever there is a problem, the Agency leadership (who definitely do not understand S&T) impose another layer of "strategic" processes, instead of enforcing existing policies and procedures and holding people accountable. Then there are the process and methodological challenges -- No project is the same and traditional R&D program risk metrics in a profit making enterprise like Dow or Corning are not appropriate for a mission-oriented organization; there is no consensus on how program managers should inform the leadership and no consistent monitoring of technical performance across the portfolio, so strategic/business/resource decisions are based on anecdote rather than being driven by goals, objectives and good data; implementing such a framework based on capabilities and expected value rather than traditional ROI measures would require starting from scratch, which is a complicated, incremental, long term undertaking and difficult for S&T managers here to grasp; there are several people who are more than eager to assist in implementing a sound framework for both project and portfolio management, but who are being fought at every step due to the pain of having to adopt a performance management framework that is unfamiliar (arguably more about culture than process, but a good process can mitigate this pain). Finally, there is an issue of resources -- Who will drive and maintain a dynamic CPfM framework when its creators, who are temporal contractor-types, are gone??? Nobody is willing to commit FTEs to such work...

    That said, there is nothing more rewarding to me than helping large organizations align strategies, objectives, capacities and resources to optimize performance, mitigate risks, and achieve critical missions...

    I just wish it was easier.

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