On developers who become project managers

We’ve recently been having quite a few discussions at work around what makes a good project manager. One, what I thought, rather odd remark someone made was that a person’s developer background can work against him (or her). Ouch!

I believe that is a bizarre statement. It’s like saying – someone with a background in advertising should not lead a marketing team. Why? Because it becomes easy to get tied down into details of the work – rather than looking at the bigger picture, and towards the overall success of the effort vs. whether or not the actual work was fulfilling enough on any particular dimension.

Hmmm. Interesting. In my view – if a person can’t elevate his mind to look at the 10,000 foot picture or even the 50,000 foot picture (or whatever the “high-level” is supposed to be), then that is the fault of the thinker – not of his or her particular background. I’ve seen managers without developer backgrounds that love to poke about in the business of programmers trying to do their job. Not only do they make fools of themselves in the eyes of those very people, but their sea-gull management also leaves the project further away from achieving success. The same holds good for the argument that developers tend to trivialize the administrivia of project management. I think that that is at the very most a correlation, not a cause. I’ve seen plenty of non-technical folks mess up adminstrative tsks. And I’ve seen developers do a fantastic job at mundane tasks – sheerly from doing what their logical, step-by-step mind tells them they should.

I’m sorry if I’m being idealistic – but I happen to think someone who leads a company that makes cars should actually know something about engines. And a manager who wants to run a software project should have developed code sometime in his life – for a living. Preferably, he should still be doing it.

Now, to be fair to the person who made this comment, I’d like to admit to one thing. There can be managers who are/were developers who do a worse job than other non-techie managers. Just as there can be non-techie managers who are just so poor at their job that they single-handedly kill software projects wherever they go. I think the spectrum looks like this –

[Bad managers (techie and non-techie)] – [good managers (techie and non-techie)] – [good managers (techie)]

Anyone can fall towards the extreme-left side of the scale. And good, people-focussed managers can fall towards the middle and sidle towards the right. The good guys are in this very region – and can include techie and non-techie people. But to fall on the right-most part of the scale – (again, in my view), you just have to have a mind that truly gets software development. And that also means to understand what an asynchronous event is, and why they’re harder to write tests for. Or why dependency injection is a Good Thing.

Also, I’d like to admit that there are managers who can fall on the extreme-right of the scale without being technical – by the sheer dint of their people-skills, communication abilities and understanding of the software development process. So much so, that they make up for their lack of knowledge about the very thing being built by their own team-members. Sometimes, domain knowldge makes up for a little bit of this lack. Unfortunately, these people are few and far between.

I’m saying this from the most general point of view. There are projects and situations where this may or may not apply. I do believe, however, that this is the case in most projects and companies. Finally – rather than repeating what Joel Spolsky has already said in his inimitable style – I’ll leave you with this link to his essay.

4 thoughts on “On developers who become project managers

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