The new breed of Project Managers

Project management is about ownership more than anything else. This is something that I have heard oft-repeated in PM circles. Yet, I find that more and more project managers these days are trying to run around ownership.

As project management drifts away from old-fashioned leadership and becomes a specific niche skill, ownership seems to have taken a back-seat as the prime requirement for this role. Many project managers today play roles that demand co-ordination more than actual leadership. With more and more ambitious projects being undertaken every day, individual project managers are being gradually replaced (or atleast supported) by PMOs, PMAs etc. There is a new, younger, more efficient Project Management Administrator sitting where a PM should have been and doing (at least a part of) what a PM should be doing. The average experience of the members of the PMO is also coming down.
What this new breed of “assistant managers” — for lack of a better designation — is doing is focussing on co-ordination and the PM tool-set. This breed is more rigorous in areas such as financial accounting, scheduling, risk management etc and less bothered about old-fashioned concepts such as leadership, ownership, and people management. More and more companies are looking to fill their actual PM roles with this breed.

So, why is this a bad trend ? I have always felt that a PM needed to have a rigorous grounding in such arcane and painful fields as accounting and scheduling. But lets face it: which individual has the time to do this when he has hundreds of people to answer every day and even more people problems to solve ? It would need a super human to juggle the administrative and people parts of a project (and we are not even referring to those large billion-dollar projects that more and more governments have launched in what we will call the recession years). Sadly, we do not have an abundance of such super humans. So, in a way, the creation of the new breed I mentioned above complements the “leader of the project” PM.
What is concerning, however, is that many of this new breed are not being groomed to become actual leaders when their turn comes. How will this transition happen ? The attitude of most in this new breed is: “I will do my job and tell others how to do theirs. If they can’t do their jobs, it is the PM’s headache, not mine”. While that is an oversimplification, I believe that speaks of the general trend.

So, is there a way to stop this trend ? Is there a way to manage this transition from an administrator to a leader ?
I believe that it is upto the individual to figure out how to make the transition. Like in all other fields, all project managers cannot be leaders. Some part of a leader is always a natural gift while the rest comes from graft. It is for the individual to decide whether the graft is worth the gift they carry with them.
But, I also think delegation is a tool that the PM should use to see if his committee of PMOs and PMAs has it in them.


Old Link…

Linking to my PMP Certification lessons learnt piece on

Sridharvanka:Passed 1st try 10th Dec – scored “Proficient” in all the 6 areas

Using milestones to track projects

For years now, I have been attending project status meetings where people go round the room asking each other variations on one question: “What percent complete is your work ?”

“Percent complete” has negative connotations in Scrum as also in the PMBOK. Managers who use percent complete are viewed as ignorant at worst and old school at best. Why is that ?

One argument given against using percent complete as a measure of project progress is that it is arbitrary. It almost never comes from hard numbers and is usually given by someone who has been put on the spot during the dreaded team meeting.

Irrespective of how many project management books deride the usage of percent complete, I see a natural tendency among managers to go for it in every team meeting. This is probably because it spares the manager (and his PMO) the trouble of digging up numbers.

One interesting compromise I have seen in this aspect is the usage of milestones. The idea is simple: instead of depending out-and-out on a developer’s idea of percent complete, the managers suggest that we have milestones for 25%, 50% etc complete and mark these “finish” based on a detailed review.

Here’s an example:

A tester has been asked to prepare a Test Case Document (TCD). He provides an estimate of 100 hours for completing this document. The project manager creates an activity called Create Test Case Document (CTCD) against which the tester logs his hours worked. In addition, the manager creates milestones (milestone activities in some project management tools) which stand for 25%, 50% etc completion of the TCD. Based on the weekly status reviews, the tester and the manager together decide if they should mark the document 25% complete or 50% complete etc. The project status report then draws directly from these milestones to specify (mostly to senior management) how much of the TCD is complete.

This technique has the curious effect of making it appear as if the status was based on hard numbers instead of just a subjective discussion between the tester and the project manager. Given that, I believe that this brings in some objectivity to the project. More importantly, it forces the project manager to take a closer look into the activities because he is responsible for marking a milestone complete or otherwise.

As means of variation, the number of milestones against each activity could be increased or decreased depending on the granularity and accuracy desired in the status reports.

Let me know if this makes sense or if you have used similar techniques in your projects.

Would you like to be outsourced to ?

I have been in the IT industry for more than 11 years now and most of those years have been spent doing jobs that were outsourced. That would mean that I have spent a major portion of my career snatching jobs from other folks. That wouldn’t be something that would bother me if the jobs moved from them to me only because I was better at it than them. But that is not true.

I know that a majority of the jobs that have moved to me from someone in the US or UK were moved simply for the reason that I would work for less than the said US/UK worker. The question of who was better at the job – me or them – did not even enter into the picture. That is what disgusts me today.

Make no mistake, I am happy to be doing this job. It pays well, I have had a chance to do decent amount of travel,  and the work does not always suck. But I am beginning to not like the looks people in the US give me when they figure out what I do for a living.

As always, I am in the US to help send a job at a US company to India. The person from whom I am taking over holds no grudges, he is mature enough to understand how the industry works. But you cannot ignore the look in his eyes that says: “you are getting this job not because you are better than me, but because you are cheap !”. The word “cheap” has far reaching connotations…and means much more than just “inexpensive”.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity of working in an IT project with a group of Mexican nationals in the US. There too, I was brought on-board to replace one of the Mexicans. This gentlemen did not take it too well. During one of our discussions, he pointed out that Indians make a better impression with the customers because they are willing to work extra hours, weekends, and late nights. He said that he believed that India was the poorest country in the world and Indians were desperate for money. I brushed off that comment with a shrug at that time, but it got me thinking. Do I want to be known as someone who works hard because I was desperate for money or because I was professional ?

This question comes back to my mind now when I see all these Americans giving me that pained look (but always with a smile). Over the years, I have built enough confidence to believe that given a fair chance, I would have gotten the job even if there was no price disparity between me and the other guy. But I know that that point will never figure in most conversations that my clients will have before deciding to hire me. The way most businesses outsource is by thinking: “If this guy does not perform upto our expectations, we would only have lost $25 per hour as opposed to $75 per hour if this other guy flopped”.

Does quality enter into the discussion clients have before deciding to outsource ? I think it does, but I believe its mostly a sanity check. The business just wants to ensure there is not a dramatic drop in quality as a result of outsourcing. In the decision-making matrix, quality has one of the lowest weightages.

I believe that in this day and age, most American/British and Indian workers are on par in terms of skills. There is always the accent issue, but that is mostly for the BPO sector. In the larger IT sector, the disparity in skills has come down a long way even from 10 years ago. Maybe businesses have noticed this and just assume that outsourced jobs will have a certain level of quality when making their outsourcing decisions.

So, why this rant ? It makes perfect business decision to outsource even in the face of disparity in skills. How do I know this ? Because if it didnt make business sense, outsourcing would have taken a hit by now.

So, why bother what others think ? Because image is an important factor in this age of the internet and LinkedIn. I am trying to build an image of a professional who is good at his job…so good that he could get paid at par with an American worker and still keep his job. It has less to do with money and more to do with the professional image. That is the only way to get respect in the industry.

But more than anything else, that is the only way to earn my own respect. I have not suddenly grown a conscience about stealing jobs…I do not care. It is each individual’s responsibility to keep their job from being outsourced. But I have grown a need for my own respect.

I believe this is a more lofty aim than trying to be a CEO of some company. I want to outdo the price market, not just because I want to make more money, but to feel good about myself.

It is time to set the bar high…it is time to vow that this is the last job that I get based solely on cost. Lets see how that works for me.

Tell me how you feel about getting into an outsourced job….