We Don't Need No Stinkin' Project Managers!
This is my site Written by Alora on January 6, 2009 – 7:01 pm

As I look at job postings on Dice and Monster, I have been noticing a disturbing, yet unsurprising, trend emerge: an increase in the number of employers seeking candidates who can function as both project managers and development leads on projects.

Naturally, difficult economic conditions demand a re-evaluation of spending habits. And, in cases where projects are reasonably small, there are very few stakeholders involved and requirements are very straight-forward, I would never argue that project management should be full-time. I am a firm believer in the value of tailoring the project management process to meet the needs of both the project complexity and the organizational maturity. So there are absolutely times when doubling up on roles makes sense.

However, before you decide to swap out the PMPs for the Developers with decent leadership skills, consider the following five questions carefully:

1. Who are the (non-project team) stakeholders for this project?
This is one of the most important questions to consider. If your “project sponsor” is your Director of Engineering, then maybe having the development lead function as the project manager makes sense. After all, presumably they already have a standing working relationship, comperable communication styles and are often coming from a similar view point in crafting a solution.

But what if your stakeholders are not technical people, but non-technical business clients (either internal or external)? Is your development lead the best person to communicate with non-technical project stakeholders about things like status, risks, issues and process implications? Is it good for the project’s outcome for the development lead to spend several hours of his week in business meetings in which decisions are debated or designs are evaluated, instead of leading the technical team in matters of architecture and design?

2. What technical disciplines need to be involved for this project to be successful?
It is rare for any project to be exclusively a development effort. Most technical projects also require DBA, server, network and QA resources; additional ones such as design and documentation can also be critical, depending on the project. A common problem in having a project managed by a developer is the tendency for a natural bias towards application development at the exclusion of the other technical aspects of a project. And even when the development lead is actually unbiased, it is not uncommon for organizational politics to foster an illusion of bias from the point of view of other technical team members. A project manager often has an easier time being perceived as unbiased, and therefore establishing mutual trust and team cohesion.

3. What are the finances for this project?
Does your organization track specific department and/or project budgets? Or are you operating in a ‘slush fund’ organization that doesn’t clearly delineate one department’s budget from another department’s budget? If so, then maybe cost management isn’t a huge deal and internal projects can be allowed enough leeway that managing to a budget isn’t a primary concern. Or is yours a sales-driven organization that is running client projects on a time and materials basis? If so, then there is no way that cost management isn’t a huge element of successfully delivering the project to ensure that the client doesn’t have a rude awakening with a bill they were unprepared for or your organization doesn’t find itself eating unexpected costs because a project was allowed to careen out of control.

4. What is the level of technical complexity of the solution being implemented?
This is one of the most dangerous questions, because it has been my experience that developers are often highly optimistic people when it comes to estimating both technical complexity and time needed to implement a solution. As such, one of the single most common mistakes I have seen repeatedly occur in projects led by developers is a tendency to underestimate both the technical difficulty (particularly when it comes to what non-dev technical resources will be required: servers, network configurations, etc.) and the amount of time needed to make it work. While I applaud the nearly universal ‘can do!’ attitude of almost every developer I have ever worked with, one of the principle functions of a good project manager is to protect the team from overly ambitious (if not out-right unrealistic) timelines and expectations. And, truth be told, often times one of the most important things a PM does to that end, is to push back on team members who give simple, shiny answers to technical questions that are long on optimism and short on details.

5. Is there any outside procurement of goods or services needed for this project to be successful?
Again, if this is a fairly small project that can be successfully accomplished with the people and resources you already have within your organization, then great. That should help simplify a number of things. But as soon as you start needing to look outside of your immediate team for any goods or services — servers, third-party applications, consulting services, new business partners, etc. — you are opening up a whole huge can of worms. Drafting RFPs, evaluation RFP responses, selecting vendors, negotiating contracts, managing vendors, monitoring financials/billing and more are part of the endless fun and excitement of procurment. Is this something that your development lead is ready to do? Or, even more importantly, is this something your development lead has the time to do and still deliver the code on time?

Project Managers are not over-paid admins. There is a lot of work involved in successfully delivering a project and meeting the expectations of stakeholders. Per PMI, Project Manager’s spend 90% of their time communicating — with sponsors, with team members, with clients, with finance, with functional managers, etc. The best project managers tend to be extroverts; and the best developers tend to be introverts. Each role has different needs and therefore attracts different types of people; it is rare that one person is very good at both.

But even assuming for a second that you have a development lead who is a strong communicator and who understands the integration challenges of successfully launching a project (and I have met plenty of very talented developers in my career, and any number of them had the skill set and desire to be perfectly good project managers), if they are also expected to function as a development lead on a project, all the skills in the world don’t make up for the one thing they need and do not have: TIME to do both jobs.

Be wary of falling into a trap of being ‘penny wise and pound foolish’ when it comes to staffing your projects. Expecting that a development lead is going to have the bandwidth to fully manage all critical aspects of a project and still be able to lead development efforts is a dangerous gamble. And one that rarely pays off.

  • http://www.convio.com Kate

    Excellent post, Alora! I wish every software company CEO would read this!

  • http://www.bidmycleaning.com obrianw

    Great Post – the economy has made companies rethink staff positions.

  • http://www.alorachistiakoff.com Alora

    And don’t forget the CIO’s of all OTHER companies that do in-house development!

    I just wish it were easier to calculate the value of having project managers IN THE MOMENT. As it is, the best we can usually do is show the cost incurred of a failed project. Aside from being after-the-fact, it’s also open to all kinds of peachy-sounding excuses — most of which rarely come back to, “Drat, we should have had a project manager on this!” When, in fact, a good project manager would have caught those things up front and helped manage the risks before they had the chance to sink the project. It’s a tough sell to those without an intrinsic appreciation for project management in the first place.

  • http://www.alorachistiakoff.com Alora

    Absolutely! And well they should.

    A robust economy is a bit like going on vacation with an American Express Platinum Card: it’s great to have, but it’s very easy to abuse. And if you do, there will come a time when you have to pay the bill. Of course, if you sell your car to pay the bill, then how will you get to work every day to pay the rest of your bills?

    Companies should scrutinize all of their financial decisions — especially staffing, because employees are expensive and laying them off if you turn out not to need them is a ghastly thing to have to do and very bad for morale of anyone left behind. The trick is to make smart choices instead of simply expeditious ones.

  • http://www.DaivRussell.com David Russell

    I understand how you feel Alora, but as a PM who emerged from the ranks of software development, I also understand the position of the employer. When times are tight, you look for people who are multi-talented and can wear a number of hats.

    Since being a project manager may not be a full time role, in itself, under these constraints, they want to be able to get full value from their new hire.

    My specialty, conveniently, for me, is exactly what these employers are looking for – managing software developers on development projects. So, I sell that… I can manage projects using modern software development methodologies and interact with developers in ways that most PM’s without that experience cannot.

    You’re spot on with the point that most upper management folks completely disregard the value of ensuring that all project participants are in synch and moving along like a well-honed machine. We PM’s are reduced to collecting completion metrics and creating pretty reports of EVM and ETA. In the end, that’s all THEY want – but the detailed effort to get that summary escapes their comprehension.

    Great post! Thanks for the brain food.

    – Daiv http://Twitter.com/DaivRawks

  • http://www.alorachistiakoff.com Alora


    I definitely appreciate that there is value in knowledge in both areas. And, coming from startups, I also fully recognize the importance of hiring people who can (and are willing to) wear multiple hats.

    What I am specifically referring to, though, is not someone who can manage the programmers on a project, but someone to function as the lead programmer on the project while also serving as the project manager. If someone has to lead the development effort — not just in terms of managing the developers, but also in doing WORK on the development of the project — it’s often unrealistic to think that the same person is the best choice to also function as a project manager who handles the over-all project.

    Project managers who come from technical backgrounds are often some of the best ones for precisely the reasons that you outline. What I am finding concerning, though, in the job listings I’ve been seeing recently is a trend in employers looking for strong developers/technical architects who can head-up the hands-on development efforts on a project while ALSO functioning as the project manager, handling external stakeholders.

    Like I said, sometimes that’s ok if the project is small enough or uncomplicated enough, but assuming that is a viable arrangement in general is vastly underestimating both the time and skill set requirements of each role within the context of the project itself.

  • Troy Wheelhouse

    What an Excellent and Well Presented argument, Alora! Speaking as one of those Development-Leads who often, reluctantly, is coerced into taking on more management functions than would be preferred, May your Reason spread to infect all Management.

  • http://www.alorachistiakoff.com Alora

    Well, hello there, Mr. Wheelhouse! In point of fact, you were one of the people I was thinking of when I wrote this. I don’t know what the odds are of the argument spreading on its own, but I do know that more of us who get put in the wearing-too-many-hats-to-be-productive category (even beyond just this example!) need more ammunition to help us make the case AGAINST being put in no-win situations.

    There is nothing worse than being handed a project and then put in a position where we are set up to fail — especially when we know it from the beginning and can’t seem to make people understand that what they are requesting of us is neither reasonable nor in the best interest of the project. Leadership may suffer from ‘penny wise, pound foolish’ syndrome, but that doesn’t mean that more of us can’t be better armed with solid arguments when we find ourselves backed into this unwinnable corner.