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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Importance of Domain Knowledge for Project Manager Excellence

So, what is necessary for a PM to excel or prepare for career change? Take a look at the various job requirements for project manager. Can you see a job posting for a Healthcare Software Developer post, a Retail Database Administrator, or a Financial Services QA analyst? No.

But, you can see job posts asking for a specialized experience in the application or technical domain areas knowledge. See examples such as the recent job requirements - a Java Programmer, a SQL Server Administrator, or a  SAP Quality Engineer  - that have surfaced recently.
Similarly, a number of jobs in the project management have begun asking for the industry specific domain knowledge. The postings like a Healthcare Project Manager, Pharmaceutical Project Manager with IT experience, IT Project Manager, Infrastructure Project Manager, Construction Project Manager, etc. speak for the increasing attention to specific domain knowledge skills that team members and stakeholders are seeking in a project manager. 

But, how prepared are the project managers in specific domain knowledge areas? Let us be clear. I am not talking about technology skills, such as understanding programming or IP address configuration. But, shouldn’t an IT Project Manger understand to differentiate whether an IP address is internal or external facing? Before answering that question, think if NASA can hire a project manager who doesn’t understand the various contracting requirements to work with federal agencies and contractors?  A recent job requirements for a project manager asked for knowledge of image processing and remote sensing requirements. Requirements for another chemical project manager asked for chemical manufacturing process and drafting requirements. What are the signals from the market then?
Specifically in the growing agile projects where projects are not fully defined, isn’t having this domain knowledge really helpful to identify risks early, facilitate negotiating for what stories are going to add value to the customer, and establish trust in a self-organized team?

In light of these market conditions, are the accidental project managers or the graduates with a focus on project management adequately prepared to manage projects or for career change?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Will tools make up for an effective Project Manager?

Give a problem statement to two programmers of similar skills and there may not be a complete overlap of their solution.  With so many books on programming, one may think like programming will be an exact science but programmers will claim that it is an art.
Project management is not any different.  The accidental project manager may have come to the profession either due to their excellence in their chosen field or just landed up due to networking connections. Regardless of how they entered the field, they will have to understand the core set of skills.

Project Management Book of Knowledge goes into a lot of techniques, such as activity sequencing, contract types, change control, etc. One has to understand that these are guidelines and operating framework.  Tools such as Microsoft Project and Microsoft SharePoint have addressed a number of these requirements in their software to do resource leveling, critical path analysis, multi-project dependency, document sharing, team collaboration, etc.  

But, the tools don't build credibility for project manager. Think of a project manager that updated the tasks in the Project Plan but failed to provide unambiguous direction to the team or failed to elevate to the management the increasing scope from a client? Will tools address these issues?

Just like knowing SQL Enterprise Manager doesn’t make one write excellent stored procedures or queries or Visual Studio/Eclipse does not make one write flawless code, basic understanding of MS Project or SharePoint alone will not make an effective project manager. Expertise in these tools is a necessary requirement for a project manager but not sufficient for leading successful project outcomes.

Monday, December 17, 2012

New Breed of Project Managers

In a parent-teacher meeting, a question came up on what my son wanted to be when he grew up. When he expressed about his dream of becoming an IT Project Manager, the teacher appeared clueless. Perhaps, a doctor or a lawyer or computer engineer would have satisfied the teacher. That left me wondering why there is no recognition of the role of project managers despite the growing demands to successfully deliver various types of projects.
Fundamentally, the role of project management is still not perceived effective and can be grouped into individual’s lack of passion to the field, management’s myopic vision in preparing individuals, and lack of job expectations of project managers.

If a .Net programmer has to know basics of programming and exception handling, data or data administrator understand the details of SQL, member of the financial management team understand the differences between balance sheet and cash flow statements, construction engineer understand the codes expected to ensure safety of work in the construction site, what are the expectations of a project manager? Project Management Institute proposes minimum of general business skills, application area skills, and project management skills and if those that do well as a customer service representative, lead team developer, QA team lead, or account personnel are asked to take on managing projects, how many are exposed to the project management domain areas of risk identification, critical path requirements, team motivation strategies, etc.?

Either the management retains the responsibility to properly train such career growth initiatives with adequate training or the individuals exhibit passion to learn the pulse of the profession. Downgrading their expertise to learning Office Suite of products to help them do basic what if scenarios in Microsoft Excel develop charter or provide status or communication reports using Microsoft Word, and do simple task management using Microsoft Project seem to have developed the task oriented accidental project managers. The net impact is the profession lacks the credibility like a programmer or tester.

This perception has to be managed and project managers must become attuned to the industry and application domain knowledge, organize their project using proactively managing the tasks and establishing clear roles, understand the need to negotiate with stakeholders and team to provide the optimum business value with minimally marketable features, and resonate with the individuals energizing and empowering the team to success.  Such strategic project managers that come to or stay in the profession by choice will enrich the field of project management.