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PM - From Dilbert to Pointy-Haired Boss??

PM - From Dilbert to Pointy-Haired Boss??

PM - From Dilbert to Pointy-Haired Boss??

I saw a similar thread on another forum and it rang a bell, thought it would be interesting to discuss it here...

Most of the designers in my company's Engineering Department argue that PMs should spend several years in the technical department (in my industry being civil, electromechanical, communications, control and protection - all of them within the same projects) before actually moving to Management.

While this is a fairly common approach in some industries, in my particular case it has been proved wrong most of the time, as most of the PMs coming from the Engineering Department seem to have a really hard time dealing with the politics implied in energy projects (client is a government-ran company). Moreover, most of the projects are huge and have some hardcore risks involved, for which they do not have a lot of formal training.

My question is, what do you consider is a better approach to a PM position, a businessman, a tech guru? Or in the case of a mix of the two, which skill do you consider PMs must develop more in order to be successful (hard/soft skills)?

RE: PM - From Dilbert to Pointy-Haired Boss??

The title says it all: program (or project) MANAGER.  A PM manages.  (Engineers whine about PMs)

A good engineer is no guarantee of a good PM, in some cases, the exact opposite occurs.

The standard Systems Engineering perspective of a PM is that he is the "Voice of the Customer."  Nothing said about a PM needing to be an engineer.


RE: PM - From Dilbert to Pointy-Haired Boss??

I would say a mix.  Probably 60+% communication and interpersonal skills and 40% or so technical savvy.  The main goal is to keep things moving along through various departments/beauracracies/technological specialties.


RE: PM - From Dilbert to Pointy-Haired Boss??

I reckon the PM needs at least enough technical understanding to know when the techies are trying to pull the wool over his or her eyes.


RE: PM - From Dilbert to Pointy-Haired Boss??

Hypothetically, no.  At least, that's the way we were taught in Zenger-Miller management classes.  Ditto that in the real world 20 years ago.  Oil companies would buy semiconductor companies, thinking that it would be a no-brainer to get one of their up-and-coming oil execs to run the semiconductor segment.

The lesson learned is that you do need to know something about the enterprise, but you need to know more about people.  A sucessful manager needs to be able to find good people more than he needs to have an engineering background.

A typical program manager here has responsibilities for electronics, optics, mechanical, software, testing, etc.  Very rarely do you find someone who is equally versed in all disciplines.


RE: PM - From Dilbert to Pointy-Haired Boss??

You guys are kidding? right? Thats like saying that the chief of surgery does not have to be a surgon since he is only managing and the other doctors can fill him in on is good and bad with the patient. Or having Eisenhower plan and manage D-Day was a wate of a good fighting man.

As a contractor I have seen plenty of project managed by people freindly PM's that have a pelthora of paperwork, proceedures, schedules and meetings, yet lack any experience in construction or design (yet many of these people are engineers) As a result, many basic details that should have been attended to prior to construction are not, the basic needs, such as room to work, cordination of trades, and resolution of design issues are not done in a timely manner. This delays the project, inflates the costs, and leaves all the parties very people unfriendly.
Certianly spirit and attiude count, but competency goes a long way also.

I agree not every engineer makes a good manager, nor does every engineer want to manage. One problem is that upper management (the guys whose desks are as far from the engineering department as is humanly possible) Believe that if an engineer is a technical whiz, he must be a good engineer, so we will make him a manager.

I believe training for engineering requires first a firm grasp of the technical concepts. However, training also requires time spent in the field (under a mentor) interfacing with clients to resolve both technical and nontechnical problems such as contracts. The engineer needs to also spend time in manufacturing on the floor so he knows how his plans are brought to fruition. We spend a lot of time trying to get young engineers involved in as many aspects of the bussines as possible. It is time consuming and has expense, but really good managers are made, not born.

RE: PM - From Dilbert to Pointy-Haired Boss??

The point would be that FDR was DDE's program manager, because he was also managing MacArthur in the Pacific, the defense industry, the economy.  FDR didn't have to know much besides the fact that he hired the best guys for the jobs, just like Lincoln did when he hired and fired generals until he got someone would would win the Civil War for him.  And bear in mind that DDE had his loose, but brilliant, cannon in Patton, but you didn''t see DDE micromanaging Patton, albeit, that would have never panned out anyway.  Likewise, Rommel worked well when given free rein in Africa.  And bear in mind that Rommel, DDE, Patton, and MacArthur all depended on their subordinates to execute their own missions.  Napoleon, and even Lincoln, had their share of incompetent, or cowardly, generals.

Anyone still see Wang Computers around?  An Wang was famous for being a micromanager, so instead of managing the business, he was tinkering with word processors, and fell behind in the PC business.

My general manager at my company at that same time was similar.  An engineer who rose up through the ranks, he could still argue the fine points of engineering problems with the front line engineers.  His engineering expertise terrified his managers, he concentrated on the nitty-gritty details of technology, and let his division slide into oblivion.

One of the general managers of a previous company rose from the ranks of the business development side.  He thought he was smart enough to interpret engineering test results and cost the division $250K in inventory, because he didn't take the advice of the engineers working the problem.

A good manager can be an engineer, but he needs to know when to let go of the "fun" stuff and concentrate on managing, delegating, and hiring the best guys for the jobs he has at hand.  A good manager does not need to know everything about the jobs of the people he hires; it would be impossible to do that anyway.  But, he does need to know what he doesn't know, and have people who either know the answers or can find the answers.

I've worked for about 21 general managers over 27 years.  There have been maybe 5 out of 21 that were effective managers.  The rest were average or incompetent.  1 was an utter sleazeball, but I count him in the 5 because he understood his place in the world as good as the other 4, even though his actions were strictly geared to improving his own position, and not necessarily that of the company's.

As I indicated above, a PM is responsible for the work execution of multiple disciplines, so even he was an engineer at one point in time, he cannot possibly know sufficient detail in 6, or more, engineering disciplines.  He has to delegate and he has to let go of any notion of being a part-time engineer.

Back to the question at hand, a PM is running a business, since he's responsible for 3 aspects of business, schedule, cost, and technical.  All 3 must be successful for the enterprise to be a success.  Only one of the 3 aspects has to do with engineering or technology.  People who concentrate on, or can't let go of, the technical will most likely fail the cost and schedule.  On top of all of that, he's herding a bunch of engineering cats, which is another job in itself.


RE: PM - From Dilbert to Pointy-Haired Boss??

the best PMs i have known were engineers - emphasis on were!

they became PMs because they had the abilities IRstuff mentions.

as good PMs they got the best out of those they managed and hired the best in each discipline.  they also knew how to listen to others in order to grasp the overall picture.  they called on financial and legal personnel when needed and put everything together.

good PMs are not made, they are born! adequate PMs are made and lousy PMS are well, just that.

RE: PM - From Dilbert to Pointy-Haired Boss??

Great posts everyone!

IRstuff, you nailed it. In my experience (which honestly is not a lot) I've noticed that most managers coming from the commercial side seem to think that punching the numbers is enough to manage a project or division without understanding the complexities of the techical side, while the techies tend to micromanage the overall technical issues paying little attention to issues like client relationship, schedule, and sometimes even budget.

To me, a PM's main task is to be an enabler: what counts is not what you do but rather what you cause other people to do in the project, and of course results! Sometimes I even think of a PM's function as a solar gear in a planetary gearset, keeping things together and running smoothly... most of the time.

Thanks for the great responses, keep the good work!


RE: PM - From Dilbert to Pointy-Haired Boss??

I suppose it all depends on which level and what you consider  project management.  On a small scale, the project manager better have a basic knowledge of engineering.  On the other hand, on a large scale, techinical knowledge might not be that important.

In my mind, FDR isn't necessarily D-Day project manager.  Just because he had oversight, that does not necessarily mean he was the project manager.

RE: PM - From Dilbert to Pointy-Haired Boss??

FDR was certainly the program manager for WWII.  Obviously, he delegated the D-Day IPT lead to DDE.  And while DDE was the IPTL for D-Day, he was not micromanaging the hourly tasks, for which he had a multitude of sub-IPTLs, including Patton.  

We can certainly argue the relationships ad naseum, and that's always the case where there's a real hierarchy.  Obviously D-Day was simply one of the line tasks of WWII and DDE was assigned a budget by FDR.  One can arguably claim that FDR was DDEs customer, which is always the argument in a subordinate/superior relationship.  However, since FDR was DDEs boss (CIC) and had hiring/firing authority over DDE, FDR was the overall PM.

Overall, that's an obvious parallel to the discussion at hand.  The US Constitution create the civilian C&C over its military by making the President the CIC and by making many of the Cabinet members generals.  Of course, I only recall C. Everett Koop being silly enough to actually wear a psuedo-military uniform.


RE: PM - From Dilbert to Pointy-Haired Boss??

IRstuff,  You are correct, the relationships can be argued forever.  

My reading of the OP, brought me to think of direct project management, example-building a product, constructing a building, not necessarily broad program management, example-running a company.  

In my opinion, the need for technical knowledge is all based on the scale of the project.  

RE: PM - From Dilbert to Pointy-Haired Boss??

I think Project is a "Business". The project Manager is supposed to be a good organiser and nothing else than that. I have seen some very successful Project Managers (during my limited experience span) and all of them were good at organising different sections and good at making cost effective decisions.
IRstuff is right in saying that engineering is one third of the whole project.
For Engineering what you need to know is the scope of work and hire right people for that job and give them required authority.

AB, Canada.

RE: PM - From Dilbert to Pointy-Haired Boss??


Sure, a single-person job obviously requires full engineering capability, along with sufficient cost and schedule expertise.

A 100-person job is a different matter altogether.  Moreover, the days of actually working for a mentor/manager who guided and corrected you are far and few between.

In my current job, all program managers are primarily dealing with cost/schedule.  The engineering is delegated to a chief engineer.  However, neither are involved with the day-to-day engineering issues, which are handled at lower levels.


RE: PM - From Dilbert to Pointy-Haired Boss??

IRstuff pretty hit the point on a nunber of these issues. Yes some technical know-how is important but not compulsory. From my experience the overall ability of the PM to know what he doesn't know and get those who know, and the ability to manage his team and communucate effectively the project goals is of core importance.

We once had a pipeline project which was going on well on budget and schedule but lost tract a year into the project when the technical manager resigned.

The PM instead of employing a new competent TM decided to share his responsibilities amongst other staff. Suffice to say that the TM was incharge of coordinating the schedule and all construction works.

This terrible error cost us 13months delay and over $2m.

Remember the PM was not changed only a key staff was.

Greg Akhibi
Clearwaters Consulting Ltd

RE: PM - From Dilbert to Pointy-Haired Boss??

"Anyone still see Wang Computers around?  An Wang was famous for being a micromanager, so instead of managing the business, he was tinkering with word processors, and fell behind in the PC business."

I have worked for this type of PM. Not fun!!

RE: PM - From Dilbert to Pointy-Haired Boss??

The more skills you have, the better at PM you will be. If you have both the technical and management skills, you will be further than someone who only has one.

Alan Greenspan was the head of the Fed Reserve. He is both a great economics mind, and probably a great manager and politician too!

"Do not worry about your problems with mathematics, I assure you mine are far greater."   
Albert Einstein
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RE: PM - From Dilbert to Pointy-Haired Boss??

Any project under 6 months in duration works better with a person the technical background than a PM.  As the project gets longer, then a PM with a strong right hand person(s) that knows the major technical pieces.  The Soth Texas Nuclear Project was awarded to a strong PM (contractor) who failed because they thought they could buy the technical expertise and they didn't have enough basic technical background to hire the right people.

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