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Are Project Managers the Problem?

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People issues, not technology, are the culprit of software development project failure. That’s the view reported by a recent article in Computerworld. In particular, project managers, are called out as being the source of most issues. According to Billie Blair of Change Strategists Inc., organizations promote a key technical resource to this critical role only to realize later that the individual doesn’t have the necessary skills to do the job effectively. They’re not ready.

"Anything that goes awry in a company," said Blair, "can always be traced back to the manager."

Can technical people successfully switch to management roles? Many organizations recognize the extreme divergence of aptitude required by these two roles and have implemented some form of dual career track. The technical track usually focuses on rewarding increased technical knowledge, ability and skill with only limited people management. The managerial track, conversely, drives a candidate toward increased people management responsibilities, financial oversight and strategic vision.

The debate on which career track to pursue can be a vexing decision for anyone. Pawel Brodzinski wrote a post on the choice that one faces and how the decision is “mutually exclusive”. According to Pawel:

“On the other hand, what makes you a great engineer usually makes you a poor manager at the same time.”

Are there examples that suggest a person could navigate both technical and managerial roles at the same time? Debates about whether technical and managerial skills should be pursued in parallel exist across the web. Here is a few excerpts from one of those debates:

“It depends on the amount and type of programming you are required to do and the amount and type of managerial duties you have to perform.” By ChrisF

“I was part of a team of developers where one programmer was also our manager. This led to a total collapse of anything resembling productivity. In short, all decisions were made by that guy + he was a complete micro manager.” By Martin Wickman

“In my opinion although it is possible in most scenarios it's not a good arrangement. There are numerous articles on how people who are proficient as developers are noticed and brought up to a team management role even though this is not their specific skillset or even a desired position. They struggle with staying focused on ‘management’ because they see ‘work’as getting programming done, not creating reports and going to meetings.” By David in Dakota

One element that is modifying this debate is the role of agile methodologies. Since these methodologies modify and minimize the traditional PM role while increasing accountability back to the developers it’s argued by some that this decreases the possibility of a single point of failure in team roles.

Still another angle on the debate about the project manager role is presented by CA Atreya . Citing a 2005 ESI Study on the reasons project’s fail, it’s shown that poor requirements definition is the single biggest issue.

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