A Rhetorical Question

Several times over the last few years, I’ve seen the same question asked in forums ranging from LinkedIn to various blogs, and most recently, on Reddit: “Is Project Management a skill-set or a profession?” Here’s my answer:

Project manager is a role.

Project management is a body of knowledge, skills, and common practices. It is also the application of that intellectual capital.

Those working in a project manager role who pursue the study of project management and work at achieving competence in practicing it, and expect to make a career of managing projects, while following ethical practices and mentoring others, can reasonably call themselves professionals.

But, project management is not a profession, in the classic sense. Project managers are not subject to malpractice suits, in that capacity. Hence, they are not regulated in the same way as practitioners of a learned profession, such as a doctor or lawyer. The New York State Education Department operates the Office of the Professions, charged with licensing practitioners in a lengthy list. From medical, dental, pharmacy, and related fields, to engineers, architects, and even interior decorators, New York maintains standards for licensing a number of professions. Project managers didn’t make the list. I haven’t checked the other 49 states, but I suspect the story would be similar.

So, how can those who do not practice a profession reasonable call themselves professionals? Because the dictionary says they can: a professional is one “following an occupation as a means of livelihood or for gain: a professional builder.”

Reasonable people can disagree, as can unreasonable people and even disagreeable people. If you are any of these, please add your thoughts in a reply, below.

You are NOT a Software Gardener

Farmer with iPadChris Aitchison, a Melbourne software developer and occasional blogger, posted his thoughts on estimating a couple of years ago.  In You are NOT a Software Engineer, Chris argues that engineers who design and build bridges are held to a higher standard for providing estimates and hitting them than software developers should be. “In most countries, Engineers need a license to build a bridge.” Chris makes the argument that the engineering metaphor for software development is outdated, and refers to himself as a software gardener.

Do you try to plan your gardens in such detail that you know where each leaf will be positioned before you plant a single seed? Do people expect estimates (or are they promises in your organisation?) on exactly how many flowers will have bloomed in one years time? Do you have a bonus tied to that? Things that would be perfectly reasonable to plan for a skyscraper seem a little ridiculous when you are talking about a garden.

Farming is a business, in that there are stakeholders other than the farmer. Gardening, not so much. Farmers have to present a business plan to the bank in order to get the financing for a crop. That means that they need to estimate their yield, based on the yields in prior years for the same fields, adjusting for new fertilizers, improved seed varieties, pest management technology, climate change, and other variables both under and out of their control. Most farmers contract most of their expected harvest to some large company, who will sell futures contracts to supermarkets, restaurant chains, and so on. Gardeners, not so much.

Farmers go to school, including graduate school, to learn how to maximize their yield and quality, and sustain the value of their fields over their lifetimes and the lifetimes of their descendents. There are farms that have been in production for centuries. Gardeners go to the garden center and show pictures of their wilted leaves to the professionals, who sell them soil amendments or pest treatments in an attempt to recover what they can. When gardeners get frustrated, they give up and let the weeds take over. My wife and I are avid gardeners, which means we aren’t farmers and we know it.

If you’re creating an iPad app in your spare time, the gardener metaphor is fine. If you’re creating an enterprise application, we expect you to work like a farmer.


The Riddle of Steel

Thulsa DoomAbout 45 minutes into the 1982 film, “Conan the Barbarian,” we see the newly released warrior-slave being chased across the steppes by wolves.  He scrambles onto a pile of rocks, covering the tomb of some unknown king.  Falling inside, Conan recovers an ancient (but still formidable) sword.  He climbs back to the entrance, greeted by the howling of the wolves.  In the next scene, we see Conan wearing a cloak of wolf fur.

“Steel is not strong, Boy.  Flesh is stronger!  For what is steel, compared to the hand that wields it?”  — Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones)

I’ve read a lot of commentary, advertisements, and pontification over the years on the value of various project management frameworks, methodologies, specialized software of every type, and training regimens.  And while there is a greater or lesser degree of merit in each of them, it is important to realize that they are merely tools.  Without someone dedicated to the craft – a project manager – to wield them, they are merely artifacts.  And that is the staffing problem most organizations have: there aren’t enough of these folks to go around.

If you look at the implementation projects in progress in your organization, you will probably find that many of them are being staffed and managed by stakeholders.  Now, this is not a bad thing, as long as their stake is in the success of the project.  After all, they are typically domain experts, who bring an understanding of both the current state and the desired future state.  Making them a part of the team, as the voice of the customer, is a large reason why frameworks like Scrum work so well.  Many project failures can be attributed to a lack of engagement by these folks.

The problem is that many of these “accidental” project managers and team members have other, what they perceive to be “real,” jobs.  And when pulled between the two, most of these folks will rationally choose to concentrate their time and attention on that “real” job.  Although they might have been recruited with promises of what a successful project would mean for their career, they realize that the project is temporary.  No matter how much they might want the project to succeed, they don’t want to fail in their business-as-usual responsibilities.  Risk aversion makes them reluctant to conduct testing in the new application, rather than prepare for year-end activities in their current system.

While many “accidental” project managers go on to become career project managers, few are immediately excellent at it.  Training will help, and at some level, the tools will help.  But a word processing program does not make one an author; a spreadsheet program does not make one a financial analyst; and project management software does not make one a project manager.  These things take time, and the experience, confidence, and position to be objective about the work at hand.  Organizations that can internalize and act on that riddle will have higher project success rates.