Managing Projects vs Managing People

As software developer at a relatively small services-oriented firm, growing quickly was much of a hack!

I wasn’t a good enough programmer to top the charts and I wasn’t doing anything outside the regular 9–5 programming that my peers, who were wayy better than me in programming were doing. So, I kept asking to myself and my company, what could I do to add more value? and for a year or so, everyone would just scratch their head and suggest me to finish the current project well or give a good upcoming release, until one day.. I was offered a few choices.

My Company’s co-founder during a lunch break suggested that I switch roles and jump into project management if I want to really outgrow myself. Probably you figured this out by now if you have event the slightest idea of software services industry. But if you are not, that’s what usually happens to mediocre developers. They become managers :)

Luckily, at this point in my life, I had some life-altering experiences of my own. Having spent my time in a whole-sale business that didn’t work out and that call centre that never paid the sale commissions, let alone the monthly salary. I had some experience of how things are not as simple and ideal in real World as they seem to be in retrospect of other people’s life stories. So, I decided to take my chances…

But here is the dilemma I got myself into right away: what do I manage and how?

Do I manage the project and should project be my first priority?
Do I empathise with the team and let them do whatever they want?
If I do a mix of both, What’s the right balance?

I will write some other time about me experience of managing my first project, with a remote team speaking in languages I had never heard before. But here is the amazing lessons I learnt from that and my projects to come:

  • Starting a new project with a new team is the single most difficult thing any Product Owner / Project Manager may have to do in a projects life cycle. If you have the old team that you can trust, it makes it a breeze instead.
  • If you are going to manage the people, treat them as assets and not resources. Resources are there to be burnt as Assets are there to be kept safe so they may appreciate in value.
  • The more you value the people around you, the more they care about the project. The more they care about the project, the better your project’s health is.
  • Don’t have conditional empathy and compassion. If you are going to be compassionate, be so even when the project is in most need.
  • and here is my favourite one: A good self-organised team is one that makes its project manager a mere redundancy and a good project manager is one who is not needed on the project after a few sprints/releases.

Looking back, I can say easily that it is/was always about managing the people. Yes, the backlog needs grooming and yes the User Stories should have Acceptance Criteria. But nobody in the stakeholders, in my little experience ever cared about what I did on the project. It is always about what the team did. And if you are outnumbered by 9ish to 1, chances are that your deliverables and fancy reports are not going to help much.

So, here is my piece of advice to someone starting a management role. Start with the People and the project will come to you!

Project Manager by accident. People Manager by choice. Spent almost a decade at my current organisation and will do another decade as well. Father of two.