Between suits and nerds

Everybody knows the balloonist joke that epitomises the eternally rocky relationship between I.T. (also known as geeks, nerds, techies, code wrestlers, bit whippers, keyboard pounders) and management (also known as “the suits”). For those who don’t know the joke I have attached it at the end of this article. In Dilbert’s world, the nerds are typically bigheaded, odd, socially inept, and devoid of a sense of humour (or at least nobody understands their humour), whereas the “suits” are typically pushy, mean, overbearing, and of course completely clueless. I am sure that we have all seen one or another Dilbert stereotype incarnation in the real world. Perhaps we are also aware of the adjunctive differences in the Myer-Briggs typology and such. But this article is not about nerds versus suits. It is about a curious profession called project management. Project managers are a sort of hybrid “geek suits”. Technically they are engineers, but they are in the same category as administrators. Organisations that develop computer systems professionally, or organisations large enough to maintain their internal R&D department often have a need for individuals with such qualifications.

What exactly does a project manager do? From the perspective of the nerd department, the project manager (PM) is a “suit” with knowledge. Unlike top management, the project manager cannot be duped easily with buzzwords and technical acronyms. The PM keeps an eye on the work requirements and duties of the engineering staff, so the PM is often viewed with suspicion. The terms “galley whip” and “nerd nanny” come to mind. From the perspective of the “suits”, the PM is simply a sort of Über-nerd who is put in charge of a bunch of regular nerds, so that they don’t play computer games all day and deliver meaningful work results which resemble specifications. Additionally, a project manager comes in handy as a scapegoat when the project flops. This means that the project manager’s primary role is performing a tightrope walk between management and engineering. Since the PM is neither liked by any side, and since the PM is the first to be blamed for any shortcomings in the project, the project manager needs to have a high tolerance for suffering. On the positive side, the PM usually commands a high salary well above regular-nerd level.

Of course, things are different in a small company. Small companies don’t have the hierarchies and corporate politics one finds in large organisations. I have worked in the role of CTO and project manager in my own company for ten years. When I started, there were only 4 people and we built up a team of 16, of whom 12 worked in technical positions. It wasn’t much of a tightrope walk for me, because there wasn’t any superordinate management. Convenient, you might think and you are right. I tended to see project management as orchestration and therefore -to keep with the music metaphor- the project manager as a conductor. Neither conducting nor project management are hard sciences. Sure, there are techniques, best practices, and (to use one of the PM’s favourite terms) “methodologies”, but there is no recipe or “silver bullet” (another favourite) to make an orchestra perform brilliantly or to produce excellent computer systems on time and on budget. – So what really is project management?

Wikipedia offers a reasonable definition of project management, but unfortunately it just scratches the surface. The function of a project manager cannot be summarised easily. It is indeed a bit perplexing. The PM rarely participates directly in the production of a system, but is expected to understand every part of it. The PM also needs a deep understanding of execution, but does not execute. Like a conductor must understand the instruments, the scores, and the orchestra, the project manager must understand the technology, the specifications, and the capabilities of his team. He might be exempted from having to wear a tie, but he still needs management skills, in particular communication and motivation skills. Although the field of project management is fairly well defined, the actual techniques and methods differ widely depending on industry, culture, and deployed technologies. No particular skill set works in every situation. One of the best recognised organisations that certifies project managers, the Project Management Institution (PMI) therefore covers only basic management skills in their programs. Does this make the PM a “suit” after all? Well yes, but a nerdy one.


And here is the joke:

A hot-air balloonist had drifted off course. When he saw a man on the ground he yelled, “Excuse me, can you tell me where I am?”

“Sure”, said the man. “You are in a balloon.”

“Ah, you must work in I.T.,” the balloonist said.

“How did you know?”

“What you told me is technically correct, but of no use at all.”

“And you must work in management,” the man on the ground retorted.

“That’s right.”

“Figures. You don’t know where you are or where you’re going, but you expect me to help. And you’re in the same position you were in before we met, only now it’s my fault”.