The mythical project manager

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it's Java Project Man. Able to leap to tall conclusions in a single object-oriented bound. Stronger than a Do While statement. More powerful than .Net, disguised as a mild mannered computer professional by day, he sweeps aside deranged architects bent on imposing their lofty distributed processing plans on an unsuspecting mainframe crowd. By night he weaves his magic as project schedules become putty in his hands, massaging a deadline here, extending a critical path there. Cutting back budgets, getting mere team leaders to deliver detailed designs at the blink of an eye. It's Super Project Manager!

Or so it would seem if today's job ads were anything to go by. Never have so many applied for so few jobs only to be disappointed because their J2EE skills are not quite as up to scratch as their five years of .Net expertise. Can anyone spot the oxymoron here? I'll give you a clue. The word 'five' next to the term '.Net'. We are talking major vapourware, people. That didn't stop an overly ambitious headhunter from placing an ad seeking a senior project manager with five years of J2EE and .Net experience. Excuse me for falling out of my chair laughing.

It's a good thing my PMBOK (Project Management Book of Knowledge) manual was there to break my fall. I've spent the last nine months or so applying for various PM roles only to be thwarted at the pass by some seemingly innocent technical requirement. I was talking to a recruiter friend of mine the other day about the technical requirements posted by most job agents right after the words project manager. His explanation was that there are so many good managers out there looking for a job that they had to differentiate them somehow. Yes, that's right, on the basis of a bunch of TLAs (three-letter acronyms) that most recruiters wouldn't know how to decipher. How lazy are they? Instead of identifying the best candidate for the job, they think they can find him/her by a simple 'Find' command of their resume.

I saw an ad a couple of weeks ago: 'Hogan people, need we say more?' No, please, we Hogan people are mind readers. Please don't waste precious bytes of download data on mere trivialities; however, it would be nice to tell us what kind of Hogan (a banking package) skills you're looking for. Do you want someone who knows DDA (Demand Deposits Application), TDA (Term Deposits Application), ILS (Integrated Loans System), CIS (Customer Information System), RPM (Relationship and Profitability Manager), Umbrella or any of the remaining applications that are fairly mutually exclusive?

This is entirely the opposite to what most PM job ads are looking for. Here's a small sample from today's crop; "Software Development Manager - $120k - Knowledge of Visual Basic and SQL, Visual Studio, C/C++ are desirable." I must get in touch with the Project Management Institute immediately; they seem to have left out VB, SQL, and C++ from the PM Book of Knowledge. According to those misguided souls a project manager needs to be able to do things like manage Scope, Risk and Cost. Not a word about important things like Visual Studio.

"Project Manager Software Development -- Your strong technical and documentation skills will enable you to effectively manage with minimal supervision." Yes, I can see you all nodding in agreement that strong technical skills will go a long way towards cost estimating, budgeting and control. Out of the nine core skills that a project manager needs and indeed manages in the lifetime of a project (Integration, Scope, Time, Cost, Quality, Human Resources, Communications, Risk, & Procurement Management) there is nary a mention of an intimate knowledge of Oracle.

Your strong technical skills will probably cause you to focus too much on why Fred is using in-line performs instead of do-while statements. Meanwhile you should instead be paying attention to the fact that your project is about to go belly-up because none of the designers can agree with the business users on the current scope of your project.

"Data Warehousing Project Manager -- You must have a strong data warehousing background with solid working experience in design, implementation and architecture; you should also have a strong understanding of database development preferably Sybase & SQL Server."

Oh yes, a particular favourite of mine. A PM indeed needs to know Sybase and SQL Server to dazzle his technical team with his abundant skills. Do they ask that the PM must understand how to help the business get value out of their DW? Does the PM understand that a well implemented DW that delivers accurate information in a timely manner will help profitability? No, but he's really good with embedded SQL, so give him the job.

"Project Manager - You should also possess sound technical skills, particularly in the areas of RDBMS (Oracle or SQL Server is preferred) with emphasis on NT Windows and MS Project." Oh dear, a technical knowledge of MS Project. Yes, this is just in case MS Project falls over. The PM must be able to recover the lost data, re-bind the executable and carry out an NT upgrade while he's at it. Does anyone have a clue that whoever wrote the ad is probably someone that has to keep re-taking the 'Using your mouse' course?

But I digress, I really should pay more attention to the ads and change my Prince2 chart to include an intimate knowledge of SQL right along with the bit about "CS5 Reviewing Stage Status", and "PL6 Analyse the Risks". Then I can ad Visual Basic to "SB3 Update the Project Business Case", Sybase to "SU6 Plan the Initiation Stage" and NT Windows knowledge right alongside "IP4 Set Up Project Controls". That ought to get my next project moving along smartly.

Then there are the requirements for industry specific knowledge. Must have FX implementation experience. Must have health industry experience (I see my doctor at least twice a year whether I need it or not, does that count?). Must have implemented infrastructure rollouts. Excuse me but how is a banking customer information system development project different to an electricity account billing system development project? Well, actually they are not all that dissimilar. I should know, I've done both.

In the first instance you have to figure out what the business wants, how much they have to spend, how much time they have to do it in and what resources they can commit. Then you have to plan what needs to be done and get the plan approved. Then you put a project team together and you keep it under control until the team delivers what the business needs. When it's all finished you tell them what a wonderful job your team has done and then you start all over again.

A project manager by definition is someone that manages the process of building software to someone's specification. Although it would be an advantage to understand technology I don't believe that an intimate knowledge of a specific platform or RDBMS is all that important.

What one should be asking is questions like: has this manager ever delivered a project on time? Has she ever run over budget? Did he ever fail to deliver what was promised? How did she manage to avert disaster when the backup site was hit by a runaway semi? Does anyone that worked for her plan to ever work for her again? How many people did he fire last time? How many resigned in disgust? Did anyone hear what was going on during the life of the project? Is the system falling apart? Did the vendor shaft the business with an SLA that shouldn't have seen the light of day?

How silly of me, how would a recruiter hope to answer all these questions and meet her targets for the month. Better use that 'Find' facility in MS-Word and match a couple of TLAs instead.

Meanwhile if you have a need for a top gun PM drop me a line at alex@daidal.com but you better hurry because I'm about to be inundated with offers... Any second now... Now where did I put that XHTML manual?

* Alex Alexander, IT professional specialising in project management and consulting, currently a self-unemployed contractor from Melbourne

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