What Does it Take to Be a Project Manager? (Project Management 101 – part 3)

            Jenna, an English major now making her way in the business world, wrote to me after reading “Project Management 101 part 1” asking about what it’s like to be a project manager.  What do you have to be good at?  What is life like?

            The job title itself, “Project Manager,” is the first clue to the biggest challenge of this position:  He (or she) is managing projects, not people.  He (or she) (let’s just go with “he” because parenthetical interruptions are annoying) (aren’t they?) … He, the Project Manager (PM), has responsibility for the success of the project but no authority—none!—over the people performing the work. 

            Responsibility without authority.  In simplistic terms, that means he can tell people what to do, but if they don’t do it, he can’t fire them or levy any other consequences.  Remember, I said “simplistic” terms.  In reality, there are things a PM can do—like talk to the people who do have authority, i.e., the managers, and work with them.  But the PM himself has no authority.  This means it’s not a job for everyone.  If you like carrying a big stick and using it, the job of a PM isn’t for you.* 

            Managing the project, rather than the people, means organizing the work to be performed, monitoring it, helping to speed it along when it slows down, improving it when it’s not good enough, linking it to the work of others when required and making sure there’s sufficient funding for the work at all times.  In a nutshell.

            Actually, there really is a “nutshell” version:  PM’s manage three things:  Cost, schedule and delivery—there’s that “d” word again.  Some people say PM’s manage cost, schedule and scope.  Others say cost, schedule and performance. It all means the same thing: Contain the cost, meet the deadline and deliver what everyone agreed on.

            Do that well, and you’ll have a long and prosperous career in project management.  Not a secure and stable career, but an interesting one.

            Which takes us back to Jenna, whose next question was particularly insightful:  “If a project is inherently temporary, what does this mean for your career?  Is a lot of job-hopping required, or does a company hire you as a ‘project manager’ for several projects simultaneously, or consecutively–how does it work?”

            Yes, all of the above.  PM’s often manage several projects at once—in case you thought one was enough to worry about, that’s not how it works.  In big companies, it’s not uncommon for PM’s to handle three or four at the same time.  It’s also not uncommon for Project Managers to be independent contractors, hired in to manage one of these temporary efforts, then released when it’s over.

            If a project is especially huge—say $25 million, longer than a year, more than 50 people working on it—then the PM heading it up has only one project, unless his manager has ridiculous expectations.  One giant project is often broken down into several smaller projects and grouped together into a “Program.”  So a PM who manages a monster project is probably managing, instead, a Program.  That would make him a Program Manager which, conveniently, has the same initials:  PM.  What a lucky coincidence.

            Let me anticipate your next question:  “How much do project managers make?” 

            More about that tomorrow.

* In reality, the only managers—people with authority over other people—who actually use the big stick very often are not effective and not to be emulated.  But that’s a story for another day.

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