Some reflections on project management

During the last year, I became a software project manager. Wow. Not something I was expecting. It’s a chaotic (to say the least) environment I’ve been thrown into – especially in the realm of decision making (in fact, I think I probably need to sit down and think exactly what environment I’m in a la the Cyefin framework). The first few months felt like a breathless attempt to keep up, but finally, this Friday, I had a chance to sit down and take baby steps toward acquiring a knowledge framework for my job. Of course, my company has some online training modules, but I wanted an individual voice of experience (and my mentor is out on leave out the moment). Of course, googling ‘best practices agile software project management’ is going to get me a lot of hits – but many of those are from paid consultants, and many are highly general. I wanted something more grounded and personal than that.

Luckily, I happened to remember that a blogger whose personal writings I’ve been following for years, is also a (biotech) project manager & consultant! I spent about 2 hours devouring her content over at Beyond Managing and at Chronicle Vitae .

I love her pragmatism and honesty – particularly her admission that she was an accidental manager – thrown into the role because she was excellent as an individual contributor – and that she didn’t at first view project management as ‘real work’ compared to technical work. I identify on both counts! Or rather, I understood even before I became one that project management was real work – because I’ve seen both excellent and poor examples in the workplace — but I didn’t know if it could give me the satisfied feeling of ‘getting stuff done’ that say, publishing an API reference from scratch could. Now I am starting to understand from my own experience (and from reading hers) that yes, the *process *of figuring out how to get work done well as a PM can present mental challenges and satisfactions on par with ‘concrete’ technical work. No, the output is not so tangible – but that’s OK with me. I get my reward from the process, not from work artifacts. So what parts do I like the best? So far, I most enjoy:

  1. digging deep to truly understand the implications of the technical work in terms of schedule, risks, and dependencies
  2. translating detailed technical explanations from development managers into summaries for executives
  3. noticing when critical conversations are lagging and driving them to conclusion
  4. reconciling ambiguity underlying functional specifications and turning research language into software engineering language
  5. being the person who has the answers to engineers’ questions about priorities, cross-functional teams; and articulating agile best practices.

So, I can definitely see how project management could give me years of interesting challenges, but a lingering question for me at this point is – have I gotten the technical depth I wanted as an individual contributor yet?
How to balance the ‘fun’ of deep-diving into a new technical area with the more general approach necessary for a manager? Or is it a false dichotomy I’m constructing here? (I’ve heard a dev exec mention that he thinks the best project managers are those who are most technical, after all).