The Extended Dream Team (II): Donkeys Led By More Donkeys

Our first lesson in this short course picked out the high-impact cretins – the real bunker-busters of the shambolic IT space. For today’s lecture, it feels only right and proper to examine my own trade, that of the journeyman Project Manager. I have harped on before about the cult-cum-pseudoscience of Project Management but I have not examined in depth the hapless drones who fill the uncomfortable crawl space between the stakeholders and the techies. So in the spirit of the adage “Physician, Heal Thyself”, here goes.

Project Managers

Pests. The entry-level PM is roughly speaking your mum, but irritable and with removal of the more pleasing maternal traits i.e. washing, cooking, unconditional love and a well-stocked biscuit tin. What remains is fussiness, mild harassment and general disapproval. She (the PM, or your mum – it’s all the same thing really) asks you what you’re supposed to be doing for school (or work – it’s all the same thing really), and when by. Next, she writes all that down in a list on a bit of paper (or an Excel sheet, or a Gantt chart in MS Project– it’s all the same thing really). Then she reminds you to do the things on the list that you told her about before it gets to the dates that she wrote down next to them on the bit of paper at the beginning. That, in a nutshell, is The Science of Project Management; it is the making and using of a list. Any number of snake-oil-powered Enterprise Delivery Methodologies or Project Portfolio Management toolkits will not in the end achieve much more than can be done with an A4 block and a chewed biro.

The original and best portfolio management toolkit. You could upgrade but seriously diminishing returns after this point. Tippex could be a worthwhile investment, at the margin.

The original and best portfolio management toolkit. You could upgrade but seriously diminishing returns after this point. Tippex could be a worthwhile investment, at the margin.

The only significant difference between a PM’s list (or thoroughly resourced, validated and baselined project plan – it’s all the same thing really) and the one you take down the shops on a Saturday is that it is a list of things for other people to do. The trouble with other people is that they are bloody hell, to paraphrase some French geezer. That noted interpreter of Existentialism, Animal of the Anti-Nowhere League, frames the same observation in more succinct, vigorous and personal language.

Animal and The League. He Hates People. They Hate Him. Which perhaps explains why he hasn’t chosen to pursue opportunities in project or people management. By the way, The League hail from the bleak, impoverished, post-industrial wasteland that is Royal Tunbridge Wells.

The grim daily grind of cajoling recalcitrant techies into doing largely pointless work for ungrateful budget holders would sap anyone’s joie de vivre eventually. Hence the typically dolorous visage of the long-service PM. Twenty years of carrying the can for missed deadlines, car-crash deployments and post-implementation dropped bollocks will scar a person, and those scars may cause a formerly happy and productive worker bee to become bitter, worn out and useless. Or they might have been absolutely useless to start with and found a natural home within the bosom of Project Management. Either way, PM uselessness comes in a variety of shapes and sizes.

The archetypal psychosis for the career nerd wrangler is chronic suspicion and fear, which manifest as an obsessively micromanagerial compulsion to analyse, check, define, document, double-check, verify and re-document every single activity within a project from farts upwards. The PM can therefore only allow an afternoon’s coding to go ahead if it is preceded by a full morning’s design workshop, accompanied with a 25-page side order of specification and release notes, and finished off with a 300 line Excel sheet of acceptance criteria. Double the lot if there’s a database change. Double again, add 12 pages and throw in an infrastructure change board too if there might be a new firewall rule.

The other common way for the PM cookie to crumble is just to give up. Battered by decades of failure, he comes to the blinding realisation that he can whip the team to a 60-hour week, produce ceiling-high piles of authenticated requirements and inflict a draconian, positively Talibanesque discipline around coding standards, but still the end result will be disaster and a kicking. So why bother ? May as well have a laugh. It is just great working for a burn-out. Deadline ? Whenever it’s ready, you lads let me know. QA ? Nah, it’ll be alright. Testing – well, there won’t be any bugs, will there ? Just a quick once over will be fine. Pub lunch ? Ooh yeah, mine’s a Guinness and get me a scampi and chips. And another Guinness. No need to rush back. We should be OK till about quarter to three. It is a Tuesday, after all. He’ll bring in doughnuts and cake to the office most days, too. It’s fantastic – like living round your gran’s.

After a hard morning at the code face, a developer needs a hearty two hour lunch. A happy workforce is a productive workforce and one is rarely happier than when semi-conscious  after three pints of lager.

After a hard morning at the code face, a developer needs a hearty two hour lunch. A happy workforce is a productive workforce and one is rarely happier than when semi-conscious after three pints of lager.

The only catch with this holiday camp regime is that it can’t last. One lunchtime, the lovely, avuncular and permanently half-cut PM will go down the pub and HR will not let him back in the building in the afternoon. Next day, your cold-blooded, hardnosed Yankee Venture Capitalist owners will have installed one of their own in his place: a high-ticket, globe-trotting über-PM from their tame management consultancy. The first thing you will notice is the Expensive Blue Suit, or possibly the Expensive Blue Blazer / Cream Chinos /  Brown Brogues combo, if he’s your more relaxed, funky, sports-casual brand of Nazi. Initially, he may even seem like a breath of fresh air. Some discipline. A work ethic. Professionalism. Stuff actually gets fixed and finished. But the screws slowly start to tighten. An early warning sign is the probing challenge to your development estimate, gently at first. “Steve, surely a man of your mettle can bring that in by a couple of weeks, OK ?” Flattery gradually gives way to threat and the invocation of higher power. “Steve, there’s a whole slew of dependencies pivoting on your delivery. I don’t wanna be the guy that has to go to the programme director with a bad news story, and you don’t wanna be the guy that’s named and shamed in the headline. So let’s squirt some nitrous in the carbs and hit the end of quarter.” After six months, you are being held to commitments you never made and are working weekends to code up extras no one told you about. “Steve, these are your dates and you own these deliveries. You’re a smart guy and we pay you a lot of money and we expect you to find creative ways to bring all of these needful items together in the right timeframe. Yah.” Suddenly you understand how the naive and confused can end up in thrall and in hock to a pimp or a loan shark and are grateful that Tobias (or Jocelyn, or Quentin) is refined and/or mindful of litigation enough not to threaten to knock your teeth out with a pair of snooker balls stuffed into a sock.

At this point, the scales fall from your eyes. Having learned a valuable lesson on the abuse of power, your self-preservation and self-respect kick back in. Heels are dug in with your expensively shod and jacketed chum. For me, back in my halcyon code-monkeying days, this tended to present as a grubby amalgam of truculence, sarcasm and contempt. It was fun. Sorry, but I am absolutely at the tippy-tip-top of both harder and smarter, work-wise. Yep, go tell the programme director it’s all knackered. And by all means tell him, the board and the chief exec it’s all my fault. My creative solution  to this evolving bad news situation ? Going home to eat a vanilla slice and watch Pointless. Cheers me up no end. See ya tomorrow. 10:30-ish.

The Vanilla Slice, or Mille-feuille for those who aspire to a sophisticated, continental lifestyle. Provides complete mitigation, mood-wise, for 99.9% of serious challenges which may be impactful on the critical path.

The Vanilla Slice, or Mille-feuille for those who aspire to a sophisticated, continental lifestyle. Provides complete mitigation, mood-wise, for 99.9% of serious challenges which may be impactful on the critical path.










This style of Project-Manager-Management is not without risk. Dad always said to square up to the bullies, but the bullies don’t always go quietly. At school you might get a kicking. In the office you just might get the heave-ho. Probably though, pragmatic realpolitik will carry the day. They are relying on you to finish the damn thing and fix the bugs after all. So Tobias (or Tristan, or Araminta) will be compelled to put up with your entry-level Bolshevism because he needs you.

The best outcome is that you and Tobias (or Darius, or Hermione) somehow part ways. Maybe your insolence will get you shunted sideways but most likely one of his chums from school will come through with a plum contract. “Geneva. Investment Banking. Yah. Root and branch application suite refresh. Major challenge. First class benefits. I’m totally offski.” Either way, you will get to experience another sub-species of PM. Could well be the old lag who fondly recalls his days as a coder hacking away at grubby seams of COBOL or DBase back in the 80s. Nothing wrong with nostalgia, but it’s not entirely helpful when he shares his accumulated wisdom with you in the form of a compulsory line-by-line quality inspection of every sodding change you make. “Steve, Steve, Steve, Steve, Steve – I know you’re a bright lad and I am aware things have moved on since I were a lad but code’s code. Syntax changes but the basics are the same. I can smell a routine and tell you if it’s pukka – it’s just a gift I’ve got. And at the end of the day I’m responsible for your delivery. I can’t warranty the car if I don’t give the tyres a kicking, can I ?”After a month of retro-code-review nitpickery you may find there’s something you want to give a kicking to as well.

Or it could be, slightly preferably, that you end up working for one of these in-tray / out-tray types. For this chap, a project is merely a series of virtual filing trays, each one marked with some other fool’s name. Any job, question or cock-up arriving in his lap is analysed very briefly, assigned to the appropriate other fool and placed neatly on top of the heap in the correct tray. Now it’s Somebody Else’s Problem. When the job is done, the question answered or the cock-up fixed by whoever else has been lumped with it, Filing Tray PM takes it out of the relevant pile and puts it in the virtual lever arch file marked “Closed”. All that remains for him to do is to report to Senior Management (or sneak to the teachers – it’s all the same thing, really) on the size of each pile and the apparent tardiness of each fool in finishing their items within it. When all the trays are empty, the project is done. The beauty and insanity of this system, for both manager and worker, is expressed in its combination of inane simplicity and strict separation of concerns. When he adds an item to your in-tray he’ll ask you for a completion date. You could tell him tomorrow or the 27th September 2067 and he won’t bat an eyelid. It’s a technical task, you are the Subject Matter Expert, it’s not his department. So whether you are to add a column to a report or write Google from scratch, you can say what you like without fear of challenge. As long as you keep telling him the 27th September 2067 for everything he asks you to do, you’ll be consistently overdelivering on your promises, big time.

The other wondrous characteristic of Filing Tray Project Manager is his portability. He could be producing software, he could be widening the A14, he could be building an aircraft carrier, he could be organising the village fete. He doesn’t need to trouble himself with specifics, he’s all about the process. Delegate to the professionals, bring the strands together, tick the boxes, file the results. He doesn’t do details, like some laundrettes don’t do duvets. If you ever ascend to the dizzy heights of Project Managerdom and find yourself on a PRINCE2 course, you will discover that this zero-value-add paper-pushing approach is not only allowed, it is actively encouraged and in fact almost mandated, by no lesser authority than the British Government. As these are the people who brought you the Poll Tax, the Millennium Dome, the Tanganyika Groundnut Scheme and the Three Day Week, it’s gotta be a winner.

Everything you ever wanted to know about Project Management, but were afraid to ask.

Everything you ever wanted to know about Project Management, but were afraid to ask.

And so it goes on. Your next PM may suffer from mass meeting mania. Every hour of every working day will be spent in review sessions with all of the coders, all of the testers, all of the end users, and anyone else who might conceivably give a rat’s arse about the outcome of your project. After her denial-of-personnel attack on development, you’ll spend three similarly frustrating months with another PM, meticulously planning out a job you could have started and finished in two, including the celebratory curry. Remember the kid from school who spent six weeks colour-coding his Revision Timetable, leaving himself precisely a fortnight to revise for his A levels ? Well, now he’s all growed up, running software projects, and pissing everybody’s time up the wall rather than just his own.

If you’re really really really lucky, you will, via the wonders of matrix management, sophisticated modern programme governance models and parallel technology swim lanes, find yourself working for eight project managers at once. You’ll spend most of your time figuring out who you’re supposed to be working for on any given day, and brokering deals on your time between conflicting PMs. Which is wasteful, but at least you can take away the warm glow that comes from being a desirable, scarce commodity. If they stop fighting over you, time to see if Tescos are hiring.

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6 Responses to The Extended Dream Team (II): Donkeys Led By More Donkeys

  1. Simon says:

    Brilliant! Had me alternately laughing out loud and cringing with recognition.

  2. itshambles says:

    Thanks ! That’s the saving grace of the job really – when it gets really deranged and offensive, at least it’s another anecdote for the pub …

  3. er guiri de lamiga de la prima esa says:

    Bravo. Very well written. I’ve had the pleasure of working for 5 PMs, not hierarchically related, simultaneously, on very much related and entangled projects, and all had the same interest –the company’s– at heart, but also had rather different ideas on how to realize that “vision”. One of them indeed had a PRINCE2 qualification. It was one of the reasons to quit.

  4. itshambles says:

    Snork snork. You can never have too many managers. All management is good management and so more management is better management. That’s pure logic. Can’t imagine why you left …

  5. maxvernon says:

    Oh my god, I’m dying over here. Your last paragraph almost made my head explode.

    Thanks for the rollicking laugh!

  6. itshambles says:

    My pleasure. Next rant follows shortly …

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