In the friendly banter after a routine management meeting, a colleague asked me.
If I was to become a software project manager, what advice would you give me?
For context, the lady leads her own team successfully and has the requisite project management educational background. So obviously she did not care for a run through on the latest PMP manual.
I thought a while about this and distilled what I think are the most important objectives for a SPM.
- Get it done faster
- Make commitments you can keep
- Make progress visible
Get it done faster
I am a slave of time
After the session, I tracked him down to understand what he meant by this cryptic statement. He mentioned to me, of everything else in our physical universe, time is the only thing we have absolutely no leverage on. Given enough resources almost anything else can be changed, but time waits for no man.
In the world of software, this is especially true. Engineers are usually one of the highest paid resources in a business. If you happen to be accountable for their time, you must take this responsibility seriously.
Even more importantly, the features being released to the business are time sensitive.
Bill Gross, in one of the most popular ted talks in the business category makes the case, timing is the most important factor in the success of a startup
For a business which is going concern, you can be sure what you are building is relevant only now, take too long and whatever you deliver may just as well be garbage.
Figure out what too long means for your business.
Make commitments you can keep
Why is Uber so successful?
Some may argue its the comfort, the quality of the cars, or even a great rating system. I posit its because they are reliable.
When you call for an Uber, you never have to worry wether one will be available, or that it will be where you are within 15 minutes (upper limit) or that you will get home safely. Yes, you may at times pay more but your ride will be there.
If you may even allow me the audacity to claim, reliability is the most important factor for career success.
There is a characteristic of a good number of people I find very annoying. You have a discussion which yields some action points, perhaps you note yours down. Looking into their eyes, you can see a lazy glaze, you feel a premonition, in time an excuse is coming. Will it be they forgot the task? Maybe they were too busy? Who knows.
Don’t let fancy degrees fool you. Business is not a high iq sport, the ability to deliver consistently is more valuable than brilliant but sporadic outputs.
As a SPM, you are now in charge of more than just your own output, you are now going to be held accountable for commitments made by the entire team.
Make progress visible
The most important objective of any manager is to illicit top performance for the team they serve.
This is doubly true for development where the work output quality is not self evident.
To understand why its so important to show progress, let’s take a moment to think about what motivates your team. Before they were the rockstar engineers you now know and love. Your team mates were struggling noobies. Now learning programming is a painful experience. For most part nothing makes sense, the errors are cryptic and the machine does what it darn well pleases. Wins are few and far spread, before it all clicks.
Yet this feeling of progress, the joy of competence is worth it.
In the work environment suddenly everything is tipped around, the work is rarely technically challenging, most apps are glorified database abstraction layers after all. Business requirements are however ambiguous and constantly changing, the hierarchy passes on dictates without pause to explain why it matters. This is a different kind of jungle, how is one to know they are getting better?
This is where the SPM comes in, build your team a racetrack. Absorb all the uncertainty and spit out a challenge, one the engineers will know for sure when it’s accomplished, be able to access their current position relative to it and understand how well they actually did.
From your fellow business managers, expect some skepticism, after all, the head of commerce brought in 10% more sales this quarter, what did you bring?
Good progress indicators help you demonstrate what you are doing and why it’s essential.
Make progress measurable.