Posted On: Monday, 20 October 2008 by Rajiv Popat

Every now and then I’ll have one or two young and budding colleagues walk up to me and ask me what they can do to become what they refer to as 'project managers' or 'team leads leading their own teams'.

Project Management or for that matter any form of management is about understanding people’s mind and I’m not sure what makes people believe I have all the answers when clearly I am as clueless as anyone else when it comes to understanding the human mind. It's not as simple taking a few lines of code and looking at them really closely to analyze or debug them.   


I suspect it’s either my very-serious-sounding-designation or depending on the definition of success, a lot of successful projects and a few not so successful ones that I’ve been a part of that makes people think that I might have a clue.

To be honest however, here’s the secret: I don’t have a freaking clue about how the human mind works. Yes, I spend countless hours reader about this stuff and putting some of the principals and theories into practice but the reality of life is that I have very few answers. 

I’ve attempted to answer how young and budding engineers can start leading their own teams by not being a leader but the ‘what-can-I-do-to-become-a-project-manager’ remains largely unanswered.

There are actually two answers to the question depending on how you phrase the question. If the question is ‘what-can-I-do-to-become-a-project-manager’ the answer is simple:

Join an organization where you can butter your way up the corporate ladder and turn yourself into a budding politician.

On the other hand if the question is ‘what-can-I-do-to-become-a-good-project-manager’ that's a completely different ball-game.

My personal experience is that anyone who asks the ‘what-can-I-do-to-become-a-project-manager’ question hardly ever asks the ‘what-can-I-do-to-become-a-good-project-manager’ question.

Yes, they manage to drive their way through their company politics and become leads and project managers but they never quite get good at it. During my career I've also noticed one common problem with this crowd of desperately-want-to-become-project-managers who want to rise above code and climb the golden ladder of 'management' and leadership.

The problem: They start doing too much to make their project successful as soon as they becomes what can be technically called a ‘manager’.

Give any of these guys a small project to manage and before you know it, they will start:

  1. Making Gantt Chats and Project Plans.
  2. Writing up a communication plan.
  3. Following Up on Programmers to find out what the status is.
  4. Sending Status Reports depicting progress in percentages.
  5. Having a huge number of meetings every day.
  6. Sucking up on their bosses.
  7. Writing a lot of documents and making others write a lot of documents.
  8. Going out of their way to slow down their team and make their life miserable by decreasing the general 'happiness factor' within the team.
  9. Writing And Maintaining To-Do Lists for not just themselves but everyone else in the team.
  10. Doing a whole lot of additional crap to pamper their own egos and justify their own existence.

If there’s anything I’ve personally learnt by being a part of a few successful failures and a lot of other successful projects it is that if there’s any list that you possibly need as a manager, it is not a To-Do List.

What you need is in-fact, is something that can be described as a “Not To-Do List”.

There you go; If you are a budding young manager, I just gave you a little trade secret. Seriously. You need a big fat list of things which you will 'not' do as a manager; If you are serious about this becoming-a-good-project-manager thing, start writing one; right now.

Here’s how you write a Not To-Do-List:

  1. You take A Piece of Paper and something that you can write with like a pen or a pencil.
    (Or your could just open up a new blank Text File using Notepad)
  2. You write down every single thing that you promise yourself you will try your best to “not do” as a manager.
  3. You maintain the list religiously and stick to it as you move forward.

The best way to add items to this list is to look back on your days as a Junior engineer and try and recollect as many things you can about your managers back then that you hated. Other than that you can also watch every single thing you screw-up and every single screw-up that happens around you very closely.

Dissect each of these failures in your head and analyze them. Take every failed project and endeavor in your organization and analyze those, just like people listen to the black box after a plane crash. A wise man I worked with once told me that every failure is different. It has a story and that there’s usually something new to be learnt from each one of them. If you keep your eyes open you’ll realize that all projects failing can be broadly classified into two categories:

  1. Incompetency of team members – which is why I’ve always said that it’s kick ass programmers who build projects; not Gantt charts.
  2. A prick in the project team – if you investigate further, most investigations will reveal that this prick is often whom we glamorously proclaim and refer to as the Leader or The Project Manager.

This brings us to the soul of this post.

It's actually been a rather wordy post; and we're barely starting to touch the point I'm trying to make. If you've read so far, I saute you. If you haven't; all I’ve done with all these words is propose two simple ideas:

  1. If you’re a manager you need a “not to-do list” which you list out things which you should not do as a manager.
  2. Not Being a Prick is something that should top the list.

Not being a prick is so important; Michael Lopp uses the idea as an awesome starting point for his book Managing Humans. The book begins by describing how a single prick can destroy not just a project but an entire organization:

Flash back to the middle of the dot-com implosion. We, the merry crew of the failing startup, are drinking... a lot. There are various bars around corporate headquarters, and each has a distinct purpose. There’s the dive bar that’s great for post-layoff parties. The booze is cheap, and if you’re looking to blow off some I’m-really-not-worthless steam, you can pick a fight with the toothless sailor slung over the bar or the guy who just laid you off.

Down the street is the English pub. The beer is better, they have a selection of whiskey, and they have edible food. This is where we get philosophical about the current organizational seizure we’re experiencing in our three-year slide toward irrelevancy.

We’re there now. We’re drinking heavily because the company has just been sold to a no-name public company who will quickly dismantle the one for which we’ve bled. Everyone knew we’d be here at some point, but no one expected to be the last one standing. And no one expected the CEO to show up.

This isn’t the CEO that built the company. He’s been gone for over a year. This is the guy the board of directors brought in to sell the startup. Sure, he tried to turn us around, but remember, we’re in the middle of a financial nuclear winter here. Money is no longer free.

Those who got a glimpse of the CEO’s resume before he arrived knew the gig was up. His last four jobs ended in the company being finely sliced into nothingness. It’s called “maximizing shareholder value.”

And here we are. Hammered on tequila, the last four from engineering, two guys from tech support... and the CEO. Even though we’re dizzy with booze, we’re fundamentally uncomfortable with the presence of our CEO because we consider him to be an unfeeling prick.

And that’s it.

That’s the title of my management book.

Don’t Be a Prick.

Steve Yegge in his post on (Not) Managing Software Developers describes the one simple quality that differentiates a great manager from one that sucks:

However, I'll offer you one almost magical tip that can help you smooth over nearly any mistake, a tip that can get you through just about any bad situation. I'll tell you the tip right now, with no fanfare or ado. This hint is the most important one I'll offer you today. It's the secret ingredient to Great Manager Sauce. Unfortunately, it's not easy to learn. You either already understand it, down in your bones, or you have years of head-scratching ahead of you. The tip is just one word: Empathy.

If you have true empathy for your engineers, they can forgive almost anything. Which is good, because you will make mistakes. We all do.

Recently an individual who is also a colleague and a close friend approached me informing me that he wanted to be a Manager because he was sick of coding and he thought it was time to grow professionally and stop being what he referred to as just-another-developer. He was thinking of moving over to project management and was thinking of becoming what he referred to as a project manager. My instant spontaneous reaction, in jest of course, had been that he'll never become a project manager. Even though it was a joke, It sounded like a really mean thing to say after I had said it; I wasn't politely articulate in explaining what I meant. Steve's post on the other hand, does a pretty good job at describing exactly what I meant:

If you want to manage badly enough, then you will manage, badly enough. Hence, before you jump in, stop and think about why you want it. Are you tired of engineering, or were you perhaps never very good at it? If so, technical management isn't much of an escape, because your engineers will know, and they won't respect you. Do you want to manage because you want authority? If so, it's a trap: you'll still be on a leash held by the folks above you.

Or maybe you just want to be a little higher in the pecking order, so you can peck downhill? If so, then you're what we call, colloquially speaking, a "pecker".

Think hard about why you want to be a manager.

If you haven’t clicked on the link to Steve’s post, click on it and read it word by word. I don’t care how long it is, do yourself a favor and read it. I'll post a link again so that you don't have to hurt your eyeballs looking for it - here you go - go ahead, click the link and read it. It's a great read. Honest.

Yes, after have worked your ass off to get promoted papering your ego feels like a natural thing to do now. In fact, chances are, that you may have already started or will soon start taking your first steps on the path of Prickdom but here’s my advice: Turn back; now; before it’s too late and the Prickdom gets embedded in your personality.

Resisting the temptation and disassociating yourself from it is what sets a veteran project manager apart from a want-to-be-never-going-to-be manager.

Of course, if you’re a manager, chances are that you’re making mistakes all the time. You’re probably making more mistakes than you can possibly think.  Really stupid ones. Your only glimmer of hope is that your team forgives your stupid mistakes and moves forward with you. Being a prick that they hate, doesn’t really help them in getting over every stupid mistake you have made in the past and moving ahead; with you. 

Going Forward, I’ll be posting more items for the Manager’s Not-To-Do List but Not Being a Prick is so important that it undoubtedly tops the list. In all probabilities it is also the most violated rule of project management.

Let's do a little exercise, shall we? List down all your bosses on a whiteboard or a piece of paper. Now stand back and take a long hard look and tell me; how many of them have acted like a prick during one or more occasions with you where if you had the power to fire them, the thought would have at-least cross your mind. Quite a few of them; right? Life sucks, doesn't it? But wait; there's hope.

Now look back at the names and realize how many of them have rarely done it and how many of them do it all the time.

The really good ones are the ones who realize they are being pricks, stop it, turn around and apologize. Very few, right? And chances are these are the ones you really respect. The kind you can hardly hear bad things about in a discussion with your co-workers and colleagues. For everyone else, you'll probably join in and take a kick out of the discussion.

The honest reality of life is that you'll find more managers with Prickdom infused in their personalities than you'll find managers who very rarely act like pricks. It goes without saying of-course that it would be really hard to find managers who never act like a prick.

That’s it my young-budding-baby-project-managers; that’s all I’ve got for you today. It’s been a rather wordy post but all I’m saying is that if you’re Managing Projects and working with (not managing) people, you need:

A Manager’s Not-To-Do List where Item one reads: Don’t Be a Prick.

If you still don’t get it, you’ll never be a manager; at-least not a good one; and not till the time you get a couple of tight symbolic slap on your face that makes you realize what we're talking about here. If you don't get it even when that happens, take the hint and stick to being a Know-Nothing Technical Director, an Arrogant Programmer, an Egoistic Business Analyst, a Bitchy QA Lead or whatever-it-is-you-are-good-at-being and spare us having to deal with another Pompous Manager who is basically a Prick.

On the other hand if you learn this lesson (even if you do it the hard way, by taking a few punches), try your best not to be a prick, and have first Not-To-do item in your manager's Not-To-Do list, implanted deep down in your head, your team will teach you everything else you ever need to know as you proceed, fail, stumble and make some really stupid mistakes while you lead them collectively through a highly successful projects or a highly successful organization. They'll stand by you through the thick and thin; as long as they know for sure that you're an not arrogant prick.

Start a Not-To-Do-List where the first item reads; Don't be a Prick. If this is one lesson you can learn like your life as a manager depends on it You’ll do good Mr. Manager; I wish you good luck.

Comment Section

Comments are closed.