Are Program Managers of Value?

I’d argue “no” for the most part, but there are exceptions. Let me defend this unconventional “opinion.”

For more than 25 years, all over the world, we’ve seen technical projects being lead by conventional Program Managers (PMs). Some even have fancy letters after their names, such as PMI Certified or PMP, and so on. We’ve heard many technical team members complain about the person running their project as “overhead” or he or she is a “major time waster.” Why?

Many of the team leaders (Program Managers) we’ve seen are either good managers or good engineers. One-in-ten are both. Unfortunately, a majority are marginal managers with a poor or out dated grasp of the technology/team they are managing. This is the worst of both worlds, and is one of the contributing factors to the perception that they are just “overhead,” and as some have argued; when eliminated, could actually cause a project to go faster. The bigger the company, in our experience, the greater the “overhead” impact to speed.

The greatest FTTM successes have been with teams lead by the “Engineer Manager” — who have learned how to “Manage” technical projects as well as they understand the technology. Non-technical-PM's are often like "proxy managers" for the people that really control technology-based development projects -- those lead engineers and designers. Why waste time and money with middle-men?

To lead a technical team today, you must have technical clout and also know how to manage people. Most good technical people know nothing about how to manage people (even though they think they do), and herein lies the conundrum. The ones that can really do both… “walk on water” and are “worth their weight in gold!” Every Fast-Time-to-Market success we’ve participated in was driven by an “Engineer Manager.” So, “Do you really need Program Managers?” Are they “overhead?”

What if technical leaders were taught to manage people and projects? To be Engineer Managers who know how to plan and who understood bimodal behavior; to be macro or micro and to know when to be on the ground and when to be at “32,000 feet.” And who understand the market/customer as well as they understand the core technology of the thing they are creating.

We’ve documented some of these, which we’ve observed across hundreds of advanced technology programs around the world. These people are rare, but have done things like, conceive and bring an iPod to market in less than a year. We have many other examples of these “unique" people and extrodinary results they produced.

We continue to challenge conventional thinking; but then again, being fast is rare, and the ones that do it… tend to do things differently than the average conventional performer.