The Role of a Project Manager
Editor's Note: This article is excerpted from Chapter 1 of Fundamentals of Technology Project Management
A project manager (PM) has various functions or roles. Project managers will find themselves wearing many different hats during the various phases of their projects (and very likely at different times in the course of each day!). The specific roles a project manager will be required to fulfill will differ to some extent depending on the company for whom the project is being managed. It will also differ depending on the particular needs and requirements of the department or client for whom the project is being developed and the nature of the actual project itself.
There are different types of project managers. You will find that most technology project managers fit into one of the following broad categories. The first are technical project managers who have a background in technology. They have a technical/ engineering degree and have some hands-on experience in the engineering field. Secondly there are the career project managers. They have some level of technical skill and knowledge but have opted for the project management career path rather than the engineer/developer one. These individuals usually possess excellent organizational and leadership skills, which led them into a career in technology project management. Some companies specifically require one or the other type of project manager for their open positions. Others will be open to either. In choosing a career in technology project management, it is beneficial and smart to have both strong project management skills and strong technical skills. However, companies are more likely to hire a very strong project manager with little to no technical experience than to hire a technical manager with little or no project management experience.
A project manager wears many different hats and is known by many different names. These are not the names that your project team may call you behind your back when you ask them to work the weekend but the different names used to describe a project management role in an organization. More than one name may be used to describe the same role, or there may be multiple roles with the same name that differ in specific responsibilities. There may be similarities in skill sets and even some overlap in role responsibilities. For example, on larger projects, the project management role may be broken down and performed by several different people. Each of those people will have a functional job title. On smaller projects, one person may perform all those functions him- or herself.
The previous section explained the differences between project, program, and portfolio management. Though these roles are well defined, some organizations interchange the job titles, which can cause some confusion. For example, during my project management career, I was given the title “Project Manager” when I was performing the role of a program manager. There was no distinction at that company between the job titles for these two roles. l was once a project manager for a single project, but my title was “Program Manager,” as was the title for all the project managers who worked for that company. At another organization, my title was “Product Manager”* even though my role was really that of a program manager. Confused yet? It can be very confusing, and the main reason for this is that formalized education, certification, and terminology for project management is relatively new. Consider also who in the organization decides which job title is given. If it is someone with little understanding of project management discipline and terminology, he or she may have no idea that there is a difference between a project manager and a program manager! The Project Management Institute (PMI) has helped to standardize a lot of the terminology used in project management. However, not all organizations, or project methodologies, have adopted the standard terminology. PRINCE2 focuses on “roles” specific to a project rather than defining a person’s job or title. One person may perform one role or multiple roles. The PRINCE2 framework does not define project management at a program or portfolio level.
A project manager role can also be referred to as a “technical manager,” a “project coordinator,” or a “project scheduler.” In some companies, a project coordinator is an assistant to the project manager, responsible for managing schedule updates, creating status reports, and taking care of general administrative tasks. A project scheduler most often refers to a junior project manager who is responsible for keeping the project schedule up-to-date and working with the senior project manager to resolve any scheduling issues.
When searching for a project manager position, check for job titles that include the word “project,” “program,” or “portfolio.” Always read the job descriptions thoroughly to ensure that the role is a good fit for your experience and expertise.
The most important role of a project manager is to manage the project through all stages of the project lifecycle. This will include ensuring that the project stays within budget and is delivered on time and with high quality. This book is designed to guide you through each stage of the project by giving you the tools, skills, and knowledge you will need to consistently deliver successful projects.
A vital key to successful project management is communication—not just any old kind of communication, but two-way, open communication. Quantity is never a good substitute for quality. Communication must be tailored for your specific audience. A one-size-fits-all approach is not going to work. You will be communicating with different groups of stakeholders that could include salespeople, marketing, product management, engineering, clients, quality assurance, senior management, accounting, and outside vendors. These different groups of stakeholders will be looking for different information from you with differing levels of detail. Personality types will also determine how much and how detailed the data you share/present needs to be.
So how do you figure out what information each group or person needs from you? One sure way of finding out is to ask them. You may talk to one stakeholder who tells you, “I only want to know if there is a problem. I will assume things are going well unless you tell me otherwise.” Another may tell you, “Don’t come to me with a problem unless you have a solution. If I cannot do anything about it, then I would rather not know. Let me know once the problem is solved, and just tell me what the schedule impact is and what plans you have in place to counteract the impact.” Then there are the people that want to know every little detail of what is going on: “Send me an email every day/week, and update me on where we are with every aspect of the project. Let me know when each and every milestone is completed, and inform me immediately of any potential issues that you anticipate in the following week.” The list of responses to this question can go on and on. Never assume that you know what someone needs from you, and never assume it is the same as what someone else needs. People always appreciate being asked for their opinions and preferences. It not only makes them feel that their opinions are important; it also makes you look like you are a good manager who is setting a solid foundation to ensure that everyone is informed appropriately, thereby giving the project the best chance of success.
Human nature is a strange thing. It is usually the case that if someone believes you value their opinions, they will also value yours. If you hold them in high regard, they will also hold you in high regard. After all, you must be really smart to have noticed how smart they are, right? Thus, it is always good to ask for others’ opinions and to pay attention to what you hear. You do not have to agree with them, but be respectful and thank them for their input. You do not have to comment on how useful, or not useful, it was! There will be situations where you will not be able to reach agreement. In these situations, you can agree to disagree as long as it is clear who the decision maker is going to be. By listening and responding to input from your team members and stakeholders, you are empowering them to continue to contribute to the process. They will feel that they are adding value to the project and to the project team.
Presentations and Reporting
Creating and/or presenting various project presentations to clients, stakeholders, and team members is an important and often time-consuming part of a project manager’s role. Throughout the project, there will be a lot of presentation work. Presentation meetings require careful planning and execution. During the design and development phases of the project, there will likely be weekly or monthly (or possibly even daily) project status meetings that will be much more informal. The overall length of the project, and the phase of the project that you are in, will determine the frequency of status meetings. For instance, if you are working on a year-long project, you may have monthly or biweekly status meetings during the development stage of the project and increase this to daily meetings in the few weeks or days prior to deployment (release) of the product.
A project manager is often responsible for writing a certain amount of the project documentation. The amount and level of documentation you will be required to create will depend on your level, and areas, of technical knowledge/expertise and your knowledge of the product. Some of the documents are standard project management documents written by the project manager. The client, business managers, business analysts, engineers, or vendors will write others.
In addition to these documents, there will be numerous presentations and progress and status reports created regularly throughout the project lifecycle. If your project team is a permanent team (not created on a per project basis), you may need to create a Team Charter and/or Mission Statement for the team. If you are directly managing people, you will also be responsible for documentation such as Personal Development Plans, individual team member goals and objectives, and annual (or project-related) employee performance reviews.
Appendix D includes a flowchart and a list of all documents required during the project lifecycle. A template for every document is included in the download file that accompanies this book (available at http://www.mc-store.com/5131.html).
Even if you are not involved in the actual writing of these documents, you are likely to be involved in the reviewing of some, if not all, of the documents. The first time you see the Proposal Document may be when you receive it from your sales department. Be aware that you might get a bit of a shock (salespeople often oversell on the features of a product and undersell on what it will cost to develop). You need to read the documents and ensure that you understand what you are committed to. To fully understand your project, you need a good, solid understanding of what your product is and what your product can (or will) do. Reading the technical and user documentation is a great way to get up to speed on these areas quickly.
The project documents are covered in more detail in later chapters.
Estimation of project tasks is a complex, and never exact, science. Project managers are responsible for working with their teams to produce the initial, high- level, detailed, and final estimates. Estimating complex projects takes a lot of coordination, and there is often a tight deadline for completion. Unless you are an experienced developer, you will need help from your project team to create realistic estimates. The rule of thumb is that engineers usually overestimate what they can accomplish by at least 20 percent, so be prepared to update their estimates accordingly. This will vary from person to person, and you will need to monitor their results with estimating to gauge what kind of adjustment you need to make before submitting your estimates. If you work on the same team/product for some time, you may be able to create the estimates yourself without additional technical assistance. It is great if you can do that, but remember to ask for a sanity check from someone else on the team before submitting estimates. You might have missed something really important that was not evident to you from the estimation request but will be to the engineer who will be implementing the feature.
The project manager is responsible for the creation and management of the project schedule. There are many project-tracking software programs available that you can use for creating a project schedule. The basic principles of tracking project status are the same, or similar, in the majority of the programs. Some have better functionality and are easier to use than others. You may be able to choose what tools you can use for your project, or you may be required to use standard tools as defined by the company who is funding or implementing the project. This book includes a generic guide to creating a project schedule using any scheduling software. In addition, I have created a step-by-step guide to creating a project schedule using Microsoft Project software. Microsoft Project is one of the more popular project-tracking tools in technology project management.
Creating a project schedule can be relatively easy if you have a small project with few resources and minimum dependencies. It can also be very challenging, especially if you have a large, complex project with multiple engineers and skill sets and complex dependencies between tasks and features. For smaller projects, creating a schedule can be accomplished in as little as an hour or two. Larger projects can take anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks! Do a sanity check on your schedule with one or more of your team members before you finalize it. You may have missed something that will adversely affect the schedule.
Managing the ongoing schedule tasks and interim (or internal) as well as final releases is the most challenging part of scheduling. In your role as scheduler, you will need to recognize problems that will have schedule impacts and know what processes to follow if there is a problem. If you are a junior or assistant project manager, you will likely have a senior, or group, project manager to help you manage these problems. For smaller projects, or if you are the only project manager on the project, you will be required to manage this yourself.
Updating the schedule and ensuring that the implementation team is kept up-to-date on changes to the schedule are a part of the status reporting and management responsibilities of a project manager’s job. Proactively getting status updates from individual team members and communicating this status to the relevant stakeholders, with the appropriate level of detail, is the responsibility of the project manager. Keep in mind that the frequency of status reporting should be appropriate both for the length of the project and the phase of the project that you are in. You do not want to ask for progress reports from your team members on a monthly basis if the project is going to be only four months long. This will not give you adequate time to respond to issues. Similarly, it is unlikely that you will need daily progress reports during all of the phases of a two-year-long project.
Managing the Project Team
There are various management structures (which will be covered in more detail in the organizational structure section in this chapter), and some of those structures require the project manager to also be a people manager. This has advantages and disadvantages, and you will form your own opinions about which method you feel is most advantageous as you learn more about the different approaches to managing projects and project teams.
Project managers who are responsible for the management of their project teams have a whole host of additional responsibilities related to managing people. These include coaching and development; personnel issues; tracking work hours, vacations, and sick time; setting business and personal objectives; reviewing performance; technical training/development; team motivation; and individual performance management.
In addition to various organizational structures, there are also different work environments. The days when everybody who worked for a company worked in the same location are long gone. These days it is very common for companies to have geographically dispersed teams or local teams where one or more employees or consultants work remotely some or all of the time. Managing people from a distance has similarities to managing people locally, but there are also a lot of differences. The differences are often subtle, and without the necessary adjustments to management and communication techniques, you may find that your remote team members become alienated from the rest of the team. Managing remote employees, full or part time, requires a proactive, and inclusive, approach to communication and teambuilding.
Conflict and Change Management
As a project manager, whether or not you are also a people manager, you will be required to manage relationships between your team members and with your stakeholders. This will include managing conflict as well as managing change. Regardless of how well planned a project may be, unforeseen changes and project demands can take their toll on you and your team members. Managing the impact of these changes can be challenging. Conflict resolution and change management are important aspects of the project manager’s core responsibilities.
Contributing to the Company’s Management Team
As a member of the management team, you are likely to have additional responsibilities directly or indirectly related to your project. These can often involve numerous meetings; reporting, collecting, and/or analyzing business/productivity metrics; process improvements; project proposals for future projects; planning for the next project while implementing the current one; and budget tracking and reporting, to name but a few.
On smaller projects or within smaller organizations, you may find yourself in the dual role of project manager and lead engineer, or project manager and technical writer, or project manager and product manager; the list of combinations is endless. Being in the dual role of project manager and a contributing member of the development team can be challenging. You are, in effect, managing yourself, which means that you have to hold yourself as accountable as you hold the other members of your team. For smaller projects, there may not be enough work to keep a full-time project manager busy, so being in a dual role is the best way to accomplish at least some level of project management for the project. This can also be a good way to start the transition from engineer or engineering lead into a project management role. On larger projects, it can be much harder to split your time between two very different roles, and you can often find yourself trying to do two full-time jobs. This is where you must focus a lot of attention on your own personal time management and ensure that you are not overcommitted. Trying to do too much will result in you doing a passable job in each role but not excelling at either. This is not good for the project or for your own self-esteem or career goals.
Managing multiple projects is also common. The likelihood is that you will be working on more than one project at a time. This may mean that you are managing more than one project team or that you have overlapping project teams. In this situation, you need to ensure that you and your team are giving each of your projects the appropriate amount of time and attention.
Being an Employee
So, let’s imagine that you are employed as a project manager for a large company. The chances are that your manager will set formal goals and objectives that you need to accomplish over the following year. You will be required to keep your skills and knowledge up-to-date. You will have some personal objectives that require you to improve on some aspect of your job (communication, for instance). This is your role as an employee and as a team member. It is an important role for the project manager and one that is sometimes neglected in the rush to get the project implemented. This is an area that requires focused attention if you are to continue to grow and develop as a project manager. It is an essential ingredient in meeting your own career goals.
In conclusion, a project manager has many functions that constitute this role of project manager. It is hard to get bored in a project manager role when there are so many functions that need simultaneous, and often equal, focus. It is an important position in a fast-paced environment. Consequently, it is easy to get burnt out. For this reason, it is very important that you manage your own time effectively and not feel pressured to set unrealistic deadlines or consistently work long hours.
* A product manager is the business owner for a product. His or her role is to define what products are needed, what they will do, and who they are for. They perform market analysis to determine the feasibility and potential profitability of a product. They manage the business and customer-facing aspects of developing a product. They are involved in the functional design of products. They are not involved in the technical design or development. The product manager defines what; the project manager defines how.