What Does a Project Manager Do, Anyway?

A few months ago, we looked at what a developer does all day. This month: What on earth is the project manager up to?

PROJECT-Management---USE-HISProject managers don’t actually make anything. They don’t write code. They don’t make graphics. They don’t sell the software. Yet a good project manager can be the glue that holds a project together. So how does that actually happen? What does a project manager do all day?

Meet Jeff

Jeff is the sole project manager at a 20-person company that makes a content management system for publications. They’re not quite a startup, and though they do have about 100 customers they’re not a large company, either. This company has a development team of eight, four sales people, one product manager and a few other support staff. The team has just completed development on its next release and is getting ready to launch its first ever beta program. It’s Thursday.

6:00 a.m.: Jeff gets up early to talk with the support team. Support is contracted to an outsourced firm in Russia, and they have a lot of ground to cover to get the beta program ready. Jeff’s company has explained what it wants, and the outsourcing firm is presenting a proposal for a support strategy and plan. It’s nowhere near ready.

7:45 a.m.: Finally off the phone with the support team, Jeff takes a quick shower and heads into the office. That meeting did not go well, and Jeff thinks they need a new strategy if they’re going to meet the level of service that product management wants.

9:15 a.m.: At the office, Jeff pokes his head into the development bullpen to say hi to everyone.

9:20 a.m.: Jeff finds a hole in the product manager’s calendar and schedules a meeting for that day to go over the beta program plan. He invites the lead developer, too, because the backup plan is likely to start out as, “Development will support the beta customers.” After that, Jeff does a quick email check. It’s mostly automatic updates from the ticket system, which he skims and deletes. The rest will have to wait.

10:00 a.m.: Standup time. Although they don’t do SCRUM, exactly, the team does get together every morning to talk about what they’re working on and any issues they’re encountering. Today things seem mostly on track, although Jeff does mention the support call from earlier and notes that there will probably be more coming on that front.

10:20 a.m.: Coffee and an apple. Jeff starts thinking through alternative support options. He reviews the upcoming development and implementation projects, trying to get a handle on which internal team could cover the slack. Development is booked pretty tight but the implementation engineer might be a possibility. Jeff also calls a few of his colleagues in other firms that also use outsourced support — maybe they have suggestions for another firm he could use. Thank goodness for those project management meet-ups he’s been attending. They’ve introduced him to several peers he can get information from at times like this.

11:45 a.m.: Early lunch. These early mornings leave Jeff hungry.

12:30 p.m.: Jeff tracks down Donna, the product manager, to talk about the upcoming product roadmap. Donna has been revising the roadmap and Jeff is hoping it’ll become a bit more realistic. With only eight people in development, the team can only handle one major initiative at a time. Jeff and Donna look at the major project requests and find a few that are more similar than they first appeared. With some clever UI design and architecture, they could probably meet a couple different needs with a single large feature. Jeff makes a note to set up a meeting with the architecture team to figure it out.

2:30 p.m.: Weekly sales update. Jeff likes to listen in on this. A large sale near the end of the quarter can make for some last-minute development needs and the sales call is his earliest warning for those “we have to do this or lose a big fish!” moments. It looks like there is a large deal that’s going to squeak into the quarter, so Jeff re-reads the proposal to make sure it doesn’t promise a new feature. All of it looks good, fortunately. They should be all set with no extra development work required.

3:30 p.m.: Jeff meets with the lead developer and with Donna to talk through the beta program support plan. He brings in his notes from the morning call, his pro/con list, and the names of a few other firms they could consider. After brainstorming for a while, they decide to pursue another firm and use the implementation engineer as a backup. Jeff will set up some evaluation calls.

4:30 p.m.: One-on-ones with two development team members. Jeff tries to meet with each member once a month, which means two a week. It’s a good chance to get some feedback on how he’s doing, and to work with each developer so they understand the system and how the code relates to the business. Jeff subscribes to the philosophy that a developer who understands the business makes better coding decisions. One of the developers brings up her impending maternity leave, and wants to make sure she wraps up the project she’s on before she goes. She and Jeff agree it’s going to be tight, and he makes a note to avoid using her for interrupt tasks so that she has a good shot at finishing.

5:30 p.m.: Definitely time to go home. It’s been a long day.

What Happened?

Particularly in small companies, project managers like Jeff are the glue between departments. They’re the ones who spend their days asking “who?” “when?” and “what effect will that have?” Jeff makes very few decisions himself, but he’s an information center and frequently brings other people together to solve a problem he’s identified. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.

7 Responses to “What Does a Project Manager Do, Anyway?”

  1. Like many other titles, “Project Manager” means whatever the company decides it means. I once knew an IT Pro whose title(s), yes (s)he had more than one title, included “Project Manager”. When questioned about it (s)he stated “Around here anything you are given to do will probably be a project and you will probably be on it by yourself so you become the project manager.”

  2. I’ve finally been getting feelers about ‘contract communications specialist’ skills, and with many aspects similar to Jeff. Job titles in late ’90s was exec asst, but frequently handled organization of quarterly meeting, changing out of contract copying machines, or producing 150 chemical analysis manuals in two days.

    During previous contract employment, which began with agencies *always* demanding you appear and take tests, I always felt I handled whatever loads appeared, and in some the previous EA had cornered market on being the contact. I agree with person you interviewed Ms. Powell, about self-defining. Right now it appears my career flexibility with writing and org skills and high-order info relaying (that sales background) will be an asset.

    At times in past, companies didn’t seem to want to hire someone without two years specific experience (job title), at least not in admin roles I went into after 15 years of ‘windshield time’ as a road man/rep. I was leery of overstating previous roles in case references ever came back as “heck no, thats the guy who was a temp here” vs. ‘project management’ that included getting umbrellas for almost 200 employees at quarterly meeting.

    Does CONTRACT vs. hired EMPLOYEE become more about the firepower, because I prefer my LinkedIn description of skills to what goes on two pages. Will it be easier to find long-term placement based on previously acquired abilities by ‘just’ redefining the roles? (NOT talking resume expansion!)

  3. I did appreciate the time line of events/mtgs/conversations that made up a glue guy day. Thats much like what I did as exec admin. for a CFO, which I honestly thought was an integral position. I always considered journalist/writer background habit of asking another question, and knowing when to pass info/phone calls and to whom, that takes a talent not everyone recognizes. Yay! for explanation.

  4. I’m a Project Management Professional (PMP) working for an IT contracting firm that supports the US Government. My job includes:
    * Creating the schedules for the projects I lead
    * Writing a lot of plans (implementation, communication, test, workflow, exit criteria, etc.)
    * Requirements gathering
    * Setting the meeting agendas
    * Hunting down stakeholders to bring them into the mailing list and meetings
    * Running meetings
    * Preparing the minutes
    * Chasing down action item updates twice a week
    * Advising the client on approaches to specific problems
    * Updating the schedules
    * Updating the Web pages
    * Explaining change requests to the change management board
    * Preparing notices for when we expect to have to take the system down to do updates
    * Connecting the dots between various projects and working groups
    * Keeping my management informed
    * Putting the weekly status reports together
    * Tracking the budget (dollars and hours)
    * Calculating the % complete, and
    * Just generally cheerleading the darned thing.

    When I landed in the hospital for a week, people really came to understand that I do and make a lot around here.

  5. The good PMs learn requirements, understand the business, and try to lead the efforts of various teams towards a common goal. Unfortunately, these are very few. Since they don’t have a whole lot to produce, except their project plans, many of them are busy sucking up to executives and playing politics. Many don’t even know what they are supposed to be doing other than the weekly status call. And they are hardly liable for anything they do or don’t do. They always have someone else to blame. Maybe if their titles should be project assistants or coordinators because with the word manager, they think they actually have some power and this self perceived power is often abused.

  6. A skilled and valued project team member

    whoever commented on Max being a plumber must be a crappy PM becuase like a typical PM they feel threatened because they know nothing without a good BA or other technical counterpart. PM’s will be dinosaurs soon filled by skilled professionals who can easily condusct technical work and take an hour everyday to update a status deck, budget and plan. This skilled professional knows the details and can do more than ask for a status update.