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A Day in the Life of a Technical Project Manager

By Carolyn Higgins
Carolyn Higgins

Carolyn Higgins

At 5:45 a.m., just ahead of the alarm, I’m in a familiar place. I’m already in typical technical project manager assessment mode: is there time for the gym before my 7:30 breakfast meeting? How much time do I need to spend reviewing email before I show up at the restaurant to share a meal with my client – and my concerns about the persistent delays we’re experiencing because of their talented but under-resourced development staff?

I flick through the subject lines in my work account on my phone. The electrical contractor, charged with wiring the new building from where our system will have high user levels, has hit a snag. Better downgrade that workout to a quick run in the neighborhood.

A technical project manager succeeds by being more than the ultimate team player; the technical PM is on a lot of different teams, and whether she is the apparent team captain, an occasional relief player, or a regular team member, it is up to her to make sure that the many diverse project activities go well.

By the time I arrive for my breakfast meeting, I’ve mentally sketched out an outline for my conversation with my client. We need more development team resources to stay on track; that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s read my last few weekly status reports. But overloaded executives have a habit of hoping that if the dev team just works a little harder, lost time can be recaptured.

That can’t happen with this particular project. We need skills that we’ve realized are under-emphasized in the current team, talented as they are. The best programmers learn on the job, of course, but not when they’re already stretched and showing signs of too many late nights.

Even if I didn’t also have a contractor problem to bring up for the first time, I’d be paying a lot more attention to the person sitting across from me than my blueberry pancakes. I need to know that person who is paying for this project is understanding what I’m telling him and that he feels confident about the overall direction of the project.

Project management requires the time management skills of an air traffic controller and the high EQ of a topflight diplomat. People talk about the successful project manager as a hard-driving, demanding dervish, but that stereotype is not the norm. Project managers who treat their clients, teams, and vendors with respect find that projects roll out with less resistance and greater likelihood of success.

At the office, the team is gathered for a quick status meeting. Now I’m in investigative reporter mode, trying to make sure that I get all the answers I need to understand where we are and what we need. I dig into details; I don’t accept yes/no answers. I need to have the team want to tell me what issues are in their way and what their struggles are. As intensely as I question them, I need to also project a lack of judgment and fan a spirit of openness and cooperation.

It’s almost too easy for teams to give project managers the answers they think the PM wants to hear. One way to prevent that is to make sure you’re spending enough time one-on-one with the team members, and to emphasize your role as support rather than as a demanding overseer. That way, the team’s more likely to proactively ask for help when they need it.

Lunch is a brownbag affair in a conference room at another location. I’ve set up an information session with key stakeholders – a time-honored way of getting everyone together in an informal session that doesn’t take them away from the rest of their workday. I’ve got the facts I need to brief them; I even have a couple of information-rich but accessible graphs. Most importantly, I’ve just updated and emailed everyone our project timeline. The only thing I don’t have is lunch. Maybe I can snag something at the coffee bar window en route to the meeting room.

The afternoon passes in a whirl of spreadsheets and calls to the electrical contractor. I’ve also managed to get approval to bring in a contract developer, so I pay a quick call on the dev team leader. I could email her, but project management is really about relationships, and I want to have her wisdom on my side as we initiate a search. We agree on the skill mix we’re looking for and I leave feeling confident that she knows that I’m fully supporting her and her team.

Toward the end of the day, the electrical contractor calls to let me know that they can corral their key players for a meeting at 5PM. My client’s maintenance chief and I are on our way. An hour later, we’ve worked out a contingency plan and I’m on my way home, feeling a bit like a trapeze artist who’s made a great catch. There’s no resting on laurels, though. Tomorrow will be a new set of challenges.

No two days are the same as a technical project manager. Project management is not a safe harbor for those craving routine and predictability. Neither is it a field where practitioners ever feel that they’ve learned everything. The skill set and landscape change constantly. For the insatiably curious and the energetic, that’s a rewarding place to be.

More about Carolyn:

Carolyn Higgins loved the variety and challenge of technical project management in her early career. When she realized that her status reports wanted to be novels, and graphs were inspiring art pieces, she transitioned to a career in communications and creative writing. She lives in Seattle with her husband and her dog, who is merely well-cared for, not spoiled. CarolynRaeHiggins.com | @carolyn_higgins

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