Ten Ways to Not Suck as a Project Manager


68% of all technology projects fail.

-- Michael Krigsman, ZDNET

Ever been on a project that is on the slow death march to failure? I have, more often than I care to remember. And, each of these projects had a Project Manager at the helm. These PMs were not evil. They just seemed to not know any better.

On the other hand, I have been on projects that were amazing. These projects were made up of competent people, having fun, and working in harmony toward a common, meaningful goal. These projects were led by Project Managers who had it down. They led. Their teams performed and their teams shipped. They totally did not suck.

So how do you totally not suck as an IT Project Manager? Well, from where I sit with a developer's point of view, it comes down to the following 10 items:

1. Understand that Managing Is Not Bossing

If you find yourself bossing me around, it's a pretty good sign that you can't manage me. Management is about keeping the pathways open and the team fed—intellectually, emotionally, and gastronomically. It's about inspiring people to do their best. It's about making sure birthdays are celebrated and bagels show up on Friday mornings.

Bossing people around is a waste of time and karma. When you find yourself bossing me around as in "do your status report" or "get your coverage numbers up," there is no management to be had. If I don't have the basic habits necessary to work on a modern software development team, either find someone who can can inspire me, or get me off of the team and get someone in who has the habits required.

2. Understand that Agile Is a Whole Lot More than Daily Stand-ups

You'd be surprised how many VPs walk around and reassure themselves that if daily morning stand-ups are happening, then Agile is happening. We know otherwise. We know that Agile is a way of life in which stand-ups are but the tip of the iceberg. Unit testing, measuring velocity, backlog management, self-directed teams: These are just a few of the things that are in the stew that is the Agile Methodology. Unless all the parts of Agile are in play, a stand-up is just another meeting. You can't fool us. A stand-up may look like Agile, but it's really just a meeting.

3. Be a PM Who Is Not Afraid of Being Fired

There is absolutely nothing that I find more distasteful than a Project Manager who is afraid to stand up to Management when unreasonable demands are being made. Yeah, we, all of us, have to pay the rent and many of us have to feed the kids. But, a Project Manager that lives in fear of being fired sucks. A project turns miserable when we're always giving into unreasonable behavior on the part of management. Most companies want what they want, when they want it. We get that. But, we also know that many times a senior manager does not really know what he or she wants, other than to meet a date and keep another higher-up happy. So, they make little unreasonable demands that, after time, turn into larger unreasonable demands. And then the project becomes a Death March in which everybody quits on Ship Day. We admire a PM who will push back on unreasonable behavior with no fear of being fired. Every good Project Manager I know that has stood up and been fired; has had no problem finding another job.

4. Don't Say, "I Am Not Technical, but..."

If you want my respect, show me concretely that you speak my language and understand my landscape. I expect you to be technical. Jeepers willikers, it's IT, for crying out loud. You cannot manage a team if you don't know the game. Would Yogi Berra say, "I don't know baseball, but…?"

5. Don't Listen to or Accept Techno-babble

When I am feeling anxious or irritated, I will go into techno-babble. Most times I want to obfuscate my own sense of inadequacy, play alpha-dog, or just make the world go away. So, I'll use terms and concepts I think only cool developers know. If I do, call me on it. Okay, don't do it in a meeting, causing me to lose face. Rather, take me aside afterward and ask for clarification. If I really know what I am talking about, I can explain my thinking on a whiteboard pretty quickly. If not, I am putting one over on you. Underneath it all, I know that everybody can't know everything. Take away the audience and I am happy to tell you what's going on.

6. Don't Show Meaningless Numbers

Don't show me a bunch of charts and tables that mean nothing to me. Show me simple, clear project numbers: burndown rate, passing unit test percentage, code coverage numbers, team velocity, and schedule. I expect that you have enough mastery of all the project metrics that you can talk to anybody about the project's status in concrete, quantitative terms. From Upper Management or developer, I expect your numbers to be right always. I expect Upper Management to have complete faith in their accuracy. I just don't need to see all the metrics or provide any that are outside my scope of activity. My job is to make code that rocks. Your job is to know your numbers.

7. Don't Yell, Ever.

I will yell back and then we'll both be known as drama heads. If I don't yell back, be assured I will silently be plotting your demise.

8. Don't Play the Dating Game

When my car is broken, I don't go to my mechanic and say, "fix it by noon." And, my mechanic, who is a really good mechanic, does not say to me, "would you take 3 PM?" He's been working on cars a long time; I trust him enough to come up with a time by which my car will be repaired. I make arrangements to work around his schedule. I expect that when there is a problem with his ETA, that he will call me and let me know. He always does.

So, don't come to me and tell me when my code is going to be delivered and don't force me to counter with an alternate date to make you go away. I am the expert. Give me the time to come to an educated ETA. And, if I find I am slipping, I will let you know as soon as a problem comes up. If I do find that I am slipping and I do not let you know as soon as I can, I will understand when you fire me.

PS: I expect also that you will not make promises to Upper Management about dates without consulting with the team first to determine delivery dates that we all agree upon.

PPS: My mechanic's name is Kenny.

9. Understand That It Is Not Someone Else's Job to Take Notes; It's Yours

When I sit in a meeting, I understand that I am there to make a contribution. If I am typing away on my laptop or cell phone, I am being rude and disrespectful. I probably know it, but I am testing you to how much you'll tolerate. Feel free to call me on it politely.

On the other hand, my job is to not take notes of everything that gets covered. That's your job. I will admire you if you bring someone else along to do note taking. I will think that you think ahead. If you ask me to take notes, I will think that you are lazy.

10. Don't Create Surprises; Have Buffers or Contingencies

I hate being surprised unless the surprise ends up with me getting a lot of money. I have a life. I have lots of interests. I have family. My weekend and evening time is allocated already. Yeah, I know that sometimes extra work is required. I won't get too irked if I have enough time to plan, at least a week in advance. And, make sure that asking for overtime is the exception, not the rule.

I know that project dates slip; they always have; they always will. The PMs whom I respect planned for slips and had time, money, and contingency plans in place to accommodate the delays.

Bonus Item: Don't Do the Death March

Death March is when we are expected to work all the time, day and night, in miserable conditions, to meet a date that none of us agreed upon. When Death March starts, that's when I call the recruiters and start to send out resumes. Death March is a sure sign of a PM who totally sucks. Don't be a PM who totally sucks.

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  • Project Manager

    Posted by Laura on 04/21/2016 07:06am

    I appreciate your point of view. And agree to almost everything you wrote. However it happened to me to be in the opposite situation, recently. I worked as a BA (or engagement manager, that means the role was external client facing) for an eCommerce platform. Bottom line the Thai Technical PM (front end dev. as on a single client perspective you never reach the back end of these systems) drove me crazy with silly answers and behaviour. We got to a point where one integration had to be "enriched" with one field. The TPM scheduled in 2 man days for that. I repeat: 2 man days for that! Apparently she thought I was a stupid bimbo, to claim 2 man days work for adding 1 field to a query. When I challenged her on this she went mad, stating it was the integration Lead dev. estimation. Obviously I reached out to him about this "issue", keeping the TPM in copy: he denied it was his estimation. How do you manage projects where "team members" are constantly pulling you by the nose?

  • Control priorities

    Posted by BrainiacV on 11/02/2015 06:54am

    Try to maintain project priorities. Certainly circumstances may require accommodations, but try to keep them to the minimum. I worked under a manager who's style was continuous crisis management. He'd come to me with a hot project, we'd agree on a solution and a rough time estimate, generally a week, or more. Two days later he'd come to me with another hot project and I be told to drop what I was doing in favor of this new requirement. For six months, I learned to do nothing because no matter what I was assigned, it could never be accomplished before the next crisis item came along. I was soooo glad when he quit, claiming stress.

  • A good project ...

    Posted by rob on 11/01/2015 09:18pm

    Many years ago, as a junior programmer, on a VAX 11/780 system, I was part of a four man team to develop a factory control system. Head office was 3 hours plane ride away. The factory was being built as we were building the system. The Engineers building the factory were in the same temporary offices. Our brief was "build what they want". They were in the same position as us - all young guys, with their bosses three hours flight away. The Project Manager preferred to stay in Head Office, and drop in every two or three weeks for a few hours. This guy was truly bad as a project manager. Absolutely no technical knowledge at all. Roared the b***s off one developer who came in 11:00 am. If he had any idea what was going on, he would have know that developer had worked to midnight the night before doing scheduled testing in the factory. He always wore long sleeve shirts. He never rolled them up, even on the hottest days walking around the factory. Sometimes when he got to the site he was jumpy and testy. Then he would go to the bathroom and come back all relaxed, and agree to anything. The long sleeve shirt stayed rolled down and buttoned up however. The project was a roaring success however ...

  • Consultant

    Posted by Gregory A. Baryza on 10/31/2015 10:18am

    I used to ask the PMs who worked for me, "If you were charged in court with being a Project Manager, could we find enough evidence for a conviction?"

  • Team Lead

    Posted by Kartik on 10/30/2015 11:33pm

    Fantastic. Nice plain and simple sharing you life experience so that others can avoid those mistakes and become successful in their career.

  • How about the Dos

    Posted by Prem on 10/30/2015 03:12pm

    Have you ever been a project manager, if you did so, was the project on time and what did you do be a good and successful project manager. If not can you tell what you should not do as a programmer....also

  • Software Engineer

    Posted by Alberto Escobar on 10/30/2015 09:46am

    I think we all have suffered from at least one of these PM types. I even had the kind of guy who roamed around the department to see who was procrastinating and wasting time with such useless things as going to the rest room or staying too long at the cofee machine. The pay was good but that bastard was unbearable. Luckily I was not the only one complaining about him and they had to let him go forever. I mean there is a not-so-fine line betweeen wasting time and tacking some time to drink cofee or stretch the legs a little don't you think?.

  • Project Manager

    Posted by Pierre on 10/30/2015 07:52am

    This is an EXCELLENT article. Very well written and one that I will reference throughout my entire career. THANK YOU!

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