VSJ – May 2001 – Work in Progress

Bill Cleary, MIAP is Professional Skills Business Manager with Global Knowledge, an IAP Partner Organisation. Here he writes about the problems of translating technical staff into managers – the Peter Principle writ large!

I’ll remember the look on his face for a long time.

“But it’s not what I want to do. I build systems and that’s what I do best.”

Daniel left the rest unsaid.

“So you’re telling me that you want to be relieved of your project leader role?” I said, displaying mock surprise in the hope that he would say no.

“Yes”, he said, his face visibly showing relief that it was now out in the open.

I had known that he had not been happy for some time but I didn’t really understand what Daniel’s problem was. I knew him as the best technical staff member I had. In fact, the best I have ever had. He designed classy web pages, coped with the intricacies of Java and Unix and worked consistently to achieve quality deliverables. The rest of the staff admired his knowledge and ability, seeking his advice whenever problems arose. He appeared to get on very well with everyone. OK, so he could be a bit preoccupied when coding or testing code but that’s what made him so good at what he did. So why was he so inept when it came to operating in a more senior role?

The answer to that question came some time later when it was my turn to justify why I had been a good product manager but not so good as the Commercial Director.

Because they are different jobs that require totally different skills.

Daniel’s “problem” arose from a misconception that still runs through the IT world – the best techie will automatically make the best project leader/manager. Well, he – or she – won’t. How do people who spend their time coding and testing “automatically” deal with a conflict situation? How does someone whose main workplace interaction is with an inanimate object called a computer build a balanced, well-motivated team? How does someone who has been working on tasks as and when they arise identify the critical path within the project?

The answer to those questions is quite simply that individuals require screening and training. They need to possess the qualities, or be capable of gaining the qualities, that are required of a project leader/manager. Attending the required training to “plug the gaps” and refine their existing skills is mandatory.

It is not an admission of failure on the part of technical staff that they find it a difficult transition from the technical environment to management. Even with training and mentoring it will be a hard road. Without these two helpmates it’s a long and very arduous road.

IT companies have learned the benefits of “projectising” the way that workplace activities are carried out. More and more, programming and network staff find themselves working in a project environment. Already project management is being seen as a sophisticated skill-set, just like Java Programming, XML Programming and so on. And as a result, more and more companies have come to realise the added value gained from training their project staff so that they can operate at peak productivity.

Asking the most able technical staff to take on the role of project leaders/managers without the proper training is the same as asking the Sales and Marketing director to write a system critical program using “gut-feel” and savvy to learn as s/he went along.

That’s quite a frightening thought!

If you’d like to discuss this article further, Bill can be contacted on bill.cleary@globalknowledge.net or you can meet him at the Global Knowledge stand at PMI Europe 2001 running 6th and 7th June at the Café Royal, Lower Regent Street, London.

Interesting project or development? Let us know at eo@iap.org.uk!

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