Project Management 101
March 5, 2007 11:06 AM   Subscribe

Is your job title "Project Manager"? If so, what is it that you really do on a day to day basis?

Out of the blue, I've been offered the chance to interview for a project manager position. While the job requirements sound like a really good synthesis of my skills, I'm not really sure what a project manager does (although I've certainly managed plenty of projects in my time, just under other job titles). If you are a project manager, can tell me a little about your job duties. What do you like about your job? What do you hate about it? What qualifies you to do the job you do.

Thanks for helping me not sound like an idiot in the interview.
posted by anastasiav to Work & Money (26 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
It depends on the industry. What field are we talking about here?
posted by mattbucher at 11:14 AM on March 5, 2007

I used to work for a federal government contractor, and project managers generally had several projects under their command. They would do some of the project work itself, they would supervise others working on the project, and they would make endless required reports to the federal agency the contract came from.
posted by JanetLand at 11:19 AM on March 5, 2007

As mattbucher said, it really does depend on the field, but from construction, to aeronautical engineering to software development, the personal requirements for the job are:
  • Attention to detail
  • Ability to identify any risks or outside dependencies that threaten budget, scope and schedule of your project as well as to articulate strategies for mitigating them
  • Ability to hold team members to their promises (by whatever means necessary) even when they do not report to you
  • Ability to report all of the above to project stakeholders without being too detailed or too vague
  • Ability to articulate risks to stakeholders without being alarmist
  • Ability to dive down to the details (within reason) of any issue and produce a straightforward root cause analysis.
  • Follow through
  • Attention to detail
  • Attention to detail
  • Did I say attention to detail?

posted by psmealey at 11:22 AM on March 5, 2007 [3 favorites]

I'm not a project manager, but it seems to me they do all the scheduling and make sure stuff gets delivered on time.
posted by xammerboy at 11:24 AM on March 5, 2007

Titles can be slippery things. "Project Manager" is just vague enough that it could mean just about whatever the employer wants it to be.
You're working on a project on your own? Hey! You're a Project Manager!
It's like calling everyone in the office a "Specialist".

Ostensibly, though, a Project Manager should have the skills to shepherd a project through to the end. Perhaps also including direct management of a staff.

Sometimes, though, a Project Manager is more like a Traffic Manager...tracking goals and milestones, routing orders and other items to the correct teams, etc.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:25 AM on March 5, 2007

Have they not sent you a job spec?

A project is a one off, time limited piece of work outside of usual business. As project manager your job is to ensure this piece of work is delivered to the agreed specification. So you manage the team or teams responsible for delivering this work and report upwards to whoever is ultimately the owner of the project. In a small project you may be one of the work teams yourself. The actual work itself probably won't be different to anything else you have done, project management is just a formalised system for ensure control of this work.

What I like about it is everyone is very clear about who is responsible for what from the very beginning and there is a clear framework for escalating problems. This makes it different to the rather haphazard way "business as usual" is often conducted. The flipside of this is this only works if everyone involved buys into project methodology which depends on how much the idea is already embedded.

As for qualifications, there are formal qualifications such as PRINCE2 in the UK but they certainly aren't necessary (although they may well be useful.)
posted by ninebelow at 11:29 AM on March 5, 2007

Sorry, I only answered part of the question above. As for what a PM does on a daily basis, it can vary widely but a typical day involves the following:
  • meeting with the project workgroup to review status, surface issues, gauge their severity and impact on the current plan
  • follow up individually with team members to see if they are tracking to schedule
  • crunch numbers and resource level project plan to see if anything needs to get escalated
  • write and deliver status reports for clients/stakeholders.
In this function, you have to kind of enjoy running meetings and doing it well, getting in front of people immediately to address issues, patiently educated people that don't quite understand what you do, and be savvy about handling potential conflicts, whether personality related, schedule, interest, what have you.

It's a great job for someone that is outgoing, doesn't mind talking to people all day long, and gets bored with doing the same thing day after day after day.

It's not such a great job for someone that's a bit reserved, shy, insecure, etc. You are the one that's held to account for things when they go wrong, so you need to be on top of everything.
posted by psmealey at 11:32 AM on March 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

When I interviewed at Microsoft (as a software engineer) they had a project manager take me out to dinner. I asked her pretty much the exact same question and her answer was that she wrote lots and lots of specs, and when she wasn't writing specs, she was in a meeting.

In general, my observation about project managers is that many of them in companies I've worked at or observed have spent 6 hours of the average day in meetings. This may be a peculiarity of the software world.
posted by crinklebat at 11:48 AM on March 5, 2007

When I interviewed at Microsoft... she wrote lots and lots of specs, and when she wasn't writing specs, she was in a meeting.

That's very typical for Microsoft, and it has caught on elsewhere, but is still somewhat unorthodox. MSFT has what they call a "Program Manager" which is kind of a catch-all title that combines elements of project manager, product manager and business analyst roles.

So yeah, it can vary widely from company to company.
posted by psmealey at 11:52 AM on March 5, 2007

While my title isn't officially "project manager" I am one for various short- and longterm projects. I think psmealey has done a great job of describing the job in general.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 11:57 AM on March 5, 2007

We have a "Project Manager" position, but it doesn't involve meetings, having to phone/meet with lots of people- I think it is a very vague title, so answers will probably vary greatly. In our case, we have a queue of projects that need to get done, and the people doing the projects know how to do them, but will sometimes run into obstacles (database issues) or make mistakes. The Project Manager is the liason between the people doing the projects, the people needing the projects done, and the databases the projects are being done in- making sure nothing gets left out or left incorrect for too long.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:22 PM on March 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

psmealey has great answers, but it definitely depends on the field. I am a "project manager", but I use the title "project geologist" to differentiate that I know what I am talking about. In my field we have many people who are "project managers" that really do not have specific training in our field.

I like to think of management in terms of an analogy: My day to day tasks generally consist of keeping the ship moving forward and going the right direction (big picture stuff), while keeping the staff rowing (the actual work) and making sure they have provisions (budgets, materials, etc.).

Also many places relate these titles to actual grades of pay - i.e. staff level, project level, associate level, etc.
posted by Big_B at 12:32 PM on March 5, 2007

I'm surprised no-one has linked to the Project Management Institute, a professional association of project managers.
posted by mendel at 12:47 PM on March 5, 2007

I am a project manager in the operations group of a packaging design firm. I work on pulling together information that our design team needs to start a job. I also take care of projects like cleaning up our project traking software and organizing our samples and customer information. It's definitely alot of attention to detail and making sure that all involved parties are on track and up to date with status.
posted by elvissa at 12:53 PM on March 5, 2007

My project manager at work spends a lot of time running interference with our customers (we do lots of contract-based work). Sometimes that's easy. Sometimes that's hard and involves contract disputes, arguments over budget, etc. Resiliance, I think, is key.
posted by olinerd at 12:54 PM on March 5, 2007

Maybe read about the project management institute. Learn the fundamentals of the 3 legged stool approach - it can either be on time, on budget or be quality? But you can't have all 3?? I dunno, I took a project management course in 1995 or something.
posted by thilmony at 1:41 PM on March 5, 2007

The Fast Forward MBA Project Management book is a good resource, and a very quick read.
posted by snickerdoodle at 2:29 PM on March 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

"I take the requirements from the customer and deliver them to the engineers."

"So, you don't actually write the requirements?"
posted by trinity8-director at 3:13 PM on March 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

I am a project manager myself, did some minor IT projects as well as a number of process improvement (Six Sigma)projects and currently train and coach Six Sigma Black Belts (project managers).

Project business is not easy most of the time with all the issues and challenges on the technical / facts side and the stakeholders / expectations on the other, soft side. So you better check, whether you would have fun with performing most of the project managers tasks to compensate for the hard times you will have.

Read Project Management Source - Lessons from Project Management - a real 101 items list of project manager basics, which gives you a good idea, of what project management CAN be about. Not everything is needed in every project, though. Your position may require a subset of these skills and cover only a few aspects, your potential employer can specify the focus. But I think you will get a good impression, whether you could have fun in the project business and enjoy finding answers to the practical questions involved.
posted by cwittmann at 3:19 PM on March 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

As has been said: there are as many kinds of project manager as there are kinds of project. In order to "not sound like an idiot in the interview," you need to learn about the company you're interviewing with.
posted by koeselitz at 6:13 PM on March 5, 2007

I am a producer in the game development industry. I've had job titles of producer and project manager at different companies for about 10 years now, all in tech/entertainment related fields -- so ymmv. That said, I'd say that most simply, a project manager in any industry is responsible for making sure that a project is completed on time, within budget. There's obviously a lot involved in getting that done, and depending on the nature of the project, the business, and the responsibilities and roles of the people you will work with to complete the project, the following may be part of the job:

  • Scoping the project - this means before the work begins, and potentially before the project has even been greenlit, the project manager will look at what the requirements are (usually a request from a client, or someone within the organization who acts as a client), think through what it will take to make it happen in broad strokes, and make a basic plan to outline the resources needed, the general timeline, and cost.

    I've had jobs where this was part of my job description and jobs where someone else did this part. I prefer to be part of this process, I think most PMs/Producers do.

  • Specing the project - This is what the project manager at Microsoft in someone's post above was responsible for. In some jobs, in addition to making sure the project gets done right, you maybe responsible for planning WHAT gets done, and exactly how. In organizations where the project manager is responsible for this, there's usually a design, specification or discovery phase where documentation is written by the PM, reviewed by some cross-section of the team who will implement the design, and then reviewed and approved by the client.

    I've had jobs where I've had to do this as well in addition to my management duties, usually this is for shorter term or smaller projects. A large scale project where the project manager is required to do this as well is likely to be a disaster -- it's simply too much work for one person.

  • Manage the Production Team - This is sort of the number one job of a PM. It involves making sure that everybody's scheduled, constantly keeping an eye on how things are progressing, trying to anticipate any major problems in advance, and removing any roadblocks to productivity as they arise. I'm pretty confident that just about any project manager would be required to have a handle on this one.

  • Manage the Budget, Resources and Timeline: Hand in hand with managing the team, there's making sure that the project doesn't go over budget, that you have enough time and/or people to implement all of the spec'd features.

    Sometimes one or more of the things at your disposal (i.e. cost, people, or time) to manipulate in order to meet your goals are not within a PM's power to address. You might not actually know what the budget is, not have the power or opportunity to hire more people, or the authority to extend the deadline.

    All of this said, as you can tell from the variety of responses here, the job requirements of a PM can be pretty different depending on the industry and the company you work for. It's well within reason for you to ask for clarification on your interview, but it's good that you asked this question here, so that your armed with some general knowledge about what the potential expectations are.

    On a general level, I think the most important things for a PM to do every day, even though it might not be listed specifically in your job description are:

  • Make sure that everyone on your team is expressly clear on what's expected of them.
  • Make sure that everybody has the opportunity and is comfortable raising a flag if they're not going to meet their deadlines.
  • Be able to recognize when a schedule slip is imminent, and to think creatively about how to solve the problem or roll with the punches.
  • Be unafraid to raise issues that might be scary to management, have an uncomfortable talk with an underperforming team member, or stand up to an unreasonable expectation of management or a client.

    Good luck on your interview!

  • posted by pazazygeek at 6:17 PM on March 5, 2007 [7 favorites]

    I was once a Project Manager in IT. I think that the idea was that they would come to me with various random small tasks like "figure out, and then write user documentation for, some new piece of software," or "gather requirements for some new system we want to build," but mostly my job was to keep the chair in my office from running away.
    posted by jacobm at 7:35 PM on March 5, 2007

    As a former web content producer turned newbie project manager for a software/data company (don't ask me how I got the gig!), can anyone recommend any project management software that'll help manage said projects? :)

    posted by badlydubbedboy at 3:58 AM on March 6, 2007

    Well, Microsoft Project is the obvious one. There is also KickStart which I think is cheaper but I haven't used it.
    posted by ninebelow at 8:42 AM on March 6, 2007

    I'm a project manager for a government contract, developing customized software. As the PM, I track, monitor and report our progress on the project. The biggest part of the job has been planning for how the project will be run, i.e. preparing a Project Management Plan that answers the requirements of the governments Statement of Work with the processes mandatad by our organization (in this case a Quality manual that meets industry standard best practices for product delivery: ISO 9000:2001 and CMMi). As you can see, depending on the industry, you'll need to get up to speed on some verbage...

    I'm also responsible for approving timesheets and preparing reports on a weekly and monthly basis, monitoring the schedule and budget, preparing invoices, and delivering our releases on time. I've been told that usually programmers don't make the best candidates for PMs, but I was originally a programmer and I think that makes me a better PM because I understand our product really well.

    The best thing to have as a PM is excellent employees that follow your lead. I'm truly very blessed to work with an awesome team... The second best thing to have is an understanding client, at least a non-combative client. You'll be in for a world of hurt if your client is not satisfied with your deliverables.
    posted by joecacti at 10:25 AM on March 6, 2007

    Oh, and if you get certified by the Project Management Institute, you get to be a Project Management Professional. Everyone knows that PMPing ain't easy.
    posted by joecacti at 10:29 AM on March 6, 2007

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