March 6th, 2011

I keep having the same conversation over and over again...

Blasphemy! I have already written that there is only one kind of Project Manager, and they don’t “play violin”. Let’s now get to the crux of the matter: in my opinion, technical knowledge for a Project Manager is pretty much irrelevant. A true Project Manager can switch industries, products, companies, and their job will essentially remain unchanged.

Yeah, I know. Blasphemy!

Bob and me. In order to illustrate my point, I’d like to tell a story of conversation that I had with “Bob”. In a past life, I once worked in a company populated entirely with people who shared the opposite opinion: the project manager must be technical. When I joined this company, I made it clear to them that I was not in this camp. They claimed that this was good, they wanted “real” project managers. (I was to learn later that “talking” and “doing” were two rather different things. But that’s another story for another day.)

One day Bob, a designer on my project team, came to see me. Here’s the conversation we had…well…more or less.

Bob: I need your approval on a design decision regarding the Retro-Encabulator.

Me: (oh-oh) Say, what?

Bob: In order to reduce side-fumbling, I was thinking of fitting six hydrocoptic marzul vanes to the lunar wain shaft. But I am wondering if I should instead replace the lunar wain shaft entirely with a fault-tolerant optomodal cavity, which creates the population inversion condition at the outset.

Me (trying not to let my eyes glaze over): Why on earth are you asking me?

Bob: Because you’re the Project Manager.

Me (staring at Bob): Okay then. How long have you been designing?

Bob (proudly): Twenty-six years.

Me: Ah. Longer than I’ve been working.

Bob: I guess so. (The answer is yes. He’s far too polite to say so.)

Me: So I’m guessing you know something about lunar wain shafts, right?

Bob (proudly): Well, yes.

Me: Here’s the thing. I’m a Project Manager. I care about these things: your work package has to meet this budget (I pull it out) for your hours AND for the material cost. And you have to meet this date (I pull out our master schedule). But, you can’t cheat. In other words, if you cut corners, and Production can’t make your design work, and I have a bunch of non-conformances on my desk, that doesn’t work. You can be sure I’ll be back to see you. And I won’t be happy. AND, when we ship it to site, it has to work. So, you have to meet budget, and schedule and quality. Without increasing risk.

Bob: (Doesn’t even pause.) In that case, I’m going with a fault-tolerant optomodal cavity.

Me: Difference in purchase price between the lunar wain shaft and the optomodal cavity options? (Relieved I got the words right.)

Bob: No real difference. The optomodal solution will cost about another 10% more the lunar wain shaft solution, but it is still within my budget. (Shows me the quotes from the suppliers. I am impressed because he actually brought the quotes with him into my cubicle. I love it when that happens.)

Me: Schedule?

Bob: The optomodal cavity takes an extra week but it still works in the schedule. Here’s the lead time that the supplier has quoted. (We check the Master Schedule together and, yes, it works.)

Me: Quality? Risk?

Bob: The optomodal cavity is a superior design. It is smaller, more compact, and the higher S-value means that, not only is side-fumbling eliminated but so is sinusoidal depleneration.

Me: (Frankly, he had me at “superior design”.) Well then, optomodal it is.

Bob: Okay, then. Thanks for your help.

Me: I didn’t do anything. You did. Remember: no non-conformances. We pass acceptance testing on the first try, right?

Bob (bristling just a little): Tsk. Of course.

And we did.

About the Retro-Encabulator…? For those of you not familiar with Retro-Encabulators, you can watch this instructional video:

And, yes, I am totally pulling your leg. (Engineers are such geeks, even in our sense of humour.)

The same conversation over and over again. My conversation with “Bob” did happen, but the technology we discussed was the decision to use linear versus roller bearings in a mechanical design. But really, it doesn’t matter what technology we were discussing because I keep having the same conversation over and over again. It might be about configuring a DCS, making a tunable laser from a fiber Bragg grating, programming a simulator, testing an electro-optic module, using linear or roller bearings or the merits of Sharepoint as a Project Management Information System. By substituting a bogus technology based on an geeky engineering spoof when spinning my tale of “Bob”, I was hoping to make this point: substitute whatever technical jargon you’d like, real or imaginary, and the conversation will always be the same. As Project Managers, we focus on schedule, cost, budget, risk, quality, customer, scope. Or anything else in those nine knowledge areas of those 42 processes that compose the Initiating, Planning, Executing, Controlling and Closing processes of Project Management.

In other words: the work of the Project Manager is technology independent.

Back to you, Bob. My colleague Bob had a reputation of being “difficult”. Oddly enough, when I announced my resignation from this company, Bob came to see me. “I’m disappointed you’re leaving. I liked working with you.” I have to admit, I was a bit taken aback.

Could it be I was the first person that actually let a designer like Bob design, because I was too busy managing the project?

Blasphemy? I think not.

And don’t even get me started on the Turbo Encabulator

6 comments to I keep having the same conversation over and over again…

  • Claude Beaulieu

    I agree if the company is a large organisation. Small business can`t afford the overhead.

  • Frances

    Brilliant and oh so true. I am so sharing this!

  • Elisabeth Bucci

    Claude: This true story happened while I was working for a small (under $20M revenue) company. 😉

  • Ryan B

    Ok, here is another take on this and further to my previous post…..

    ALL OTHER THINGS BEING EQUAL, as a customer, I would rather have a PM that understands the technical aspects of the project over one that doesn’t. I seem to remember reading that you asked other PMs if they felt a PM should be technical or not…..what do we care what other PMs think, it’s what the customer thinks. I was recently part of an organization where customer satisfaction was paramount, relentless and continuous pursuit of customer satisfaction. They required their PMs to be technical becuase their customers wanted it. Customers like knowing their PM understands the technical stuff. ALL OTHER THINGS BEING EQUAL, wouldn’t you want your PM to also be technical?

  • Elisabeth: Excellent post! I think we have talked about this before, I am in total agreement with your position on this. Again, great post!


  • Elisabeth Bucci

    Yes, Robert, this conversation started on your blog. It happens to be a little obsession of mine…!

Have something to add? Leave a comment!