Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Project Manager or a Technical Leader

Does a project manager need to be a technical person? This debate has been going on for years and probably decades. There are thousands of excellent blog and forum postings, mostly by project managers. The general opinion is that project managers do not need domain knowledge as good project managers are capable of acquiring whatever it takes, inclusive of domain knowledge.

Contrarily, most employers insist on domain knowledge, without which it is almost impossible to get jobs these days. Project managers feel that is tragic and being a project manager myself (irrespective of the job profile) I agree with them. However, we must try and look at the whole issue from the perspective of top management in order to have a better understanding.

About a decade back, when I was working for an advertising agency, I was assigned the task of screening candidates for the selection of sales representatives. It was kind of a situation where supply exceeded demand a thousand times. Therefore, the screening was expected to be very thorough. Though freshers had not been instructed not to apply, there was little chance that we would have selected a fresher. I personally felt bad for them but not as bad as I would feel seeing experienced people, who generally have families to support, jobless. Nevertheless, I took great care avoiding my feelings influence my decisions.

After interviewing a candidate, who was brilliant but not experienced, I asked him if he had any questions. He had one, and that was, "If a fresher does not even get a job how can he gain experience?"

I replied, "If freshers do not get jobs then where do these experienced people come from? The fact is that freshers do get jobs but at places where they can accommodate freshers. So far we have not taken any decision on selection of any candidate or otherwise. However, if we can accommodate freshers, the most deserving ones will be offered jobs." What I told him was a fact. If a post can be filled in by an employee with the least pay scale (fresher) who would want to hire an experienced person and pay several times more. On the other hand, if the salary is fixed, who would not want to hire a person who can deliver most?

The bottom line is that like every kind of buyer, an employer tries to strike the best deal. This is the reason why organizations want project managers with PMP as well as domain excellence. "Java project manager" no more makes me laugh as it has become a norm. It has been widely and happily accepted through out. I won't be surprised if PMI introduces credentials like PMP-IT and PMP-Construction, etc in near future and PMP-Java and PMP-dotnet slightly later. After all, as shopkeepers they need to keep on their shelves what they expect customers to come looking for.

If I were to choose between two project managers who were equally good at project management but one had domain knowledge, I would definitely choose the one with the domain knowledge. Most ideally I would rate all the candidates on the basis of their project management skills and I would consider domain knowledge if the best candidates tie. Would you not do the same?

Coming back to the example cited above, what is the harm trying to choose a project manager with domain knowledge from the ones who would score 10 in project management skills? I don't see an issue with that. However, the problem is when a good technical person is assigned the role of project manager without gauging his managerial and leadership qualities. More than often technical people find impossible to step out of their technical mindset in to the world of business.

Top level managers and executives are "why people", they are concerned with why a project, why a task, why the business and why this project manager, etc. On the other hand technical people are "how people". They are concerned with how to do it, how to write this piece of code, how to build this piece of hardware and so on. In a balanced organization why people and how people keep a check on each other, correct each other and complement each other. When a how person is put in the place of why person, he is most likely to fail keeping check on and correct how people as he is basically one of them. He also fails to adjust in his role of why person because he cannot stop thinking how and he does not know how to think why.

Managers assure but they do not ensure. They have their teams to ensure. On the other hand technical people seldom assure, they ensure. One of the most important jobs that a manager does is delegate. Technical people would any day prefer to do it all by themselves. Both these approaches are very important for the respective role but they can be damaging if interchanged. If the manager finds it difficult to delegate, the team will go nowhere.

Managers are good at looking at the bigger picture while technical people can see the finer details more clearly. Just as they say "A product for everybody is a product for nobody," I think a person who can see every level of granularity from the top most to the bottom most level can actually see nothing.

People with technical aptitude are no less or no more than people with managerial aptitude. They are just different. A manager is not made up of what a programmer is and vice-versa.

Employers insisting for domain knowledge are actually multiplying the probability of hiring people with wrong skill set. I wonder if they know the cost of hiring a wrong person which some estimate put up to two years of basic salary of the wrong hire in direct costs and much higher when indirect costs are added.

Are they striking the best deal?

I sincerely recommend them to read "Who" by Geoff Smart and Randy Street.

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