Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Joel on Project Managers

This quote is long, in typical Joel On Software style. He said this in his latest podcast over at Stack Overflow with Jeff Atwood. I've ripped it off the transcript wiki. Definitely worth a read.

Here's my feeling about project managers:

One of the things that is interesting is that project managers, traditionally, are brought on because you have a team of yahoos - and this is just as true in construction, or in building an oil rig, or in any kind of project as it is in the making of anything - making a new car at general motors, or designing the new Boeing 787 dream liner - as it is in the software industry. Project managers are brought in because management says: "Hey, you yahoos! You're just working and working and working and never get the thing done and nobody knows how long it's going to take." If you don't know how long something's going to take and you can't control that a little bit then this really sucks from a business perspective. I mean; if you think of a typical business project - you invest some money and then you make some money back. The money you make back - the return on investment - might be double the amount of money you invest and then it's a good investment. But if the investment doubles because it took you twice as long to do this thing as you thought it would then you've lost all your profit on the thing. So this is bad for businesses to make decisions in the face of poor information about how long the project is going to take and so keeping a project on track and on schedule is really important.

It's so important that they started hiring people to do this and they said: "OK, you're the project manager - make sure that we're on track." These project managers were just bright college kids with spreadsheets and Microsoft project and clipboards. They pretty much had to go around with no authority what so ever and walk around the project and talk to the people and find out where things were up to and they spent all their time creating and maintaining these gigantic gantt charts - which everybody else ignored. So the gantt charts, and the Microsoft project, and all those project schedules, and all that kind of stuff, was an artifact created by a kind of low level person. Although it might be accurate depending on how good that low level person was, but it was still an output only thing from the current project: Where are we up to? What have we done? How much time have we spent? What's left? Who is working on what?

Then, for some reason, these relatively low level people, who were not actually domain experts, (if they were at Boeing they don't know anything about designing planes, if they were on the software team they're not programmers - they're project managers, and they don't know anything about writing code) they start getting blame when things went wrong and they started clamoring for more responsibility, more authority to actually make changes and to actually influence things and say: "Hey, Joe's taking too long here - we should get Mary to do this task, she's not busy." The truth is that they started getting frustrated because they were low level secretarial-like members of their teams and they wanted to move their profession up the scale so they created the project management institute - or whatever it's called - and they created this thing called... ah, I don't even know! But they created a whole professional way to learn to be a professional project manager and they decided to try to make it something a little bit fancier than just the kid with the clipboard that has to maintain these gantt charts all day long. You can tell this is what happened because the first thing project managers will tell you about their profession is that the most important thing is that they have the authority to actually change things and that they are the ones that actually have all the skills that can get a project back on track, or to keep a project on track, and therefore they need to have the authority to exercise these skills otherwise they'll never get anything done, they'll never be able to keep the project on track, they don't just want to be stenographers writing things down.

The trouble is, they don't actually have the domain skills - that's why they are project managers. If you are working on a software project you know how to bring it in on time and you've got to cut features, and you know which features to cut, becuase you understand software intrinsically and you know what things are slow and what things are fast and where you might be able to combine two features into one feature, where you might be able to take a shortcut. That's the stuff a good developer knows, that's not the stuff a project manager knows. In a construction project it's the architects and the head contractors who know where shortcuts can be taken and how to bring a project in on time not the project manager. The project managers don't have any of the right skills to affect the project and so they inevitably get really frustrated and everybody treats them like secretaries, or treats them like 'annoying boy with clipboard', when they really don't have a leadership role in the project - and they're not going to be able to because they don't have the domain expertise. No matter how much they learn about project management, no matter how many books they read, or how many certificates they get, no matter how long they've been doing project management: if they don't know about software, and software development, if they don't have that experience, they are always going to be second class citizens and they're never going to be able to fix a broken project.

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