Project Manager responsibilities: tasks and skills vs reality
What does a project manager do? What does a project‘s day look like? What problems do they solve? Everything varies considerably based on the individual and the job, says Andrei Dubatovka, Senior Project Manager of EPAM, but there are some commonalities across positions. Read the article and share your thoughts on Discord.
In this article
Who is a project manager in IT
— It is difficult to give a single brief answer the question of what a project manager does. It depends on the context. Specific PM responsibilities are always in the details of each job. Factors influencing the responsibilities include: who is the customer, what solution needs to be created, in which area, what are the dependencies, what are the roles of the team members, etc. Bottom line: what a “Project” (or PM) does every day varies from job to job and even from one project to another within a single job.
One of the main functions of the project manager is the integration of the team. The task of the manager is to organize the work of the team, to anticipate the problems that may arise, and to prevent them, consistent with the project management plan. Generally, there are many components and individual processes that the PM must keep under control and integrate into a coherent whole.
Also, the project manager has a corrective role. On any project, there is a client and there are management personnel that make adjustments to the work as it is ongoing. External events can also influence the plan of the project. A skilled PM needs to be able to analyze all of this and determine the appropriate response to achieve the desired result for the project. In addition, there is always an assessment of what needs to be improved and adapted.
I believe that a good Project Manager is one whose work is generally invisible. A PM needs to organize the process within the team so that it functions as a self-sufficient, effective, and self-supporting unit.
Must-have skills and qualities of a project manager
Any project manager should have both soft skills and technical skills.
A project manager is always working with people: a client, a team, a manager, or someone else. A PM always needs to have a feel for the team and to know what is happening with it at any given time: is it motivated, demotivated, what is it focusing on, is the atmosphere in the team healthy, etc.
One of the key soft skills necessary for a good PM is emotional intelligence — the ability to understand one's own and others' emotions, and manage emotions in positive ways. If you are angry or stressed, it is likely that you are not able to make optimal decisions. Your decision-making skills will likely be improved if you are in a calm state. If necessary, you should postpone a decision; let others know that you need some more time. This kind of awareness is central to emotional intelligence. And knowing how to manage your emotional states is a very important skill to acquire.
Hard skills are also critical. Clients vary. Some are only focused on the business aspects of a project, and do not care to understand how the technical solution to the problem is achieved. There are other clients, however, for whom the technical aspect of the project is important, and they are not interested in delving into the operating aspect. You need to be able to work with everyone.
If you do not have a technical skill that is required for a particular job, there is a risk that during the discussion about how the work will be implemented, you might fail to understand what a key point means for the overall work plan. This is a lost opportunity. A level of technical knowledge will help you understand what the team is talking about, and meaningfully participate in conversations with the client, enabling you to offer solutions on the go and make decisions quickly. Without the requisite knowledge, you will find yourself out of the loop and unable to talk with the client about the problem.
Areas of project manager responsibility
The project manager is ultimately responsible for the success of the project. The manager cannot personally handle every aspect of the project. They need to create a team, equip it with the necessary tools, and establish the team interaction to achieve success.
The team needs a plan to follow that will bring it to the desired goal. The plan will determine which resources need to be used. Beyond the plan, however, many questions will arise that the project manager must address one way or another — either independently, or in combination with other resources. Flexibility is important. During a project, a PM always needs to react to something, and regroup or change course as necessary. Even the structure of the project team will change over time. In some cases, events may occur that will completely change the goals of the project or call into question its continued viability.
Key responsibilities of a project manager
- Process management. There are a huge number of activities associated with monitoring and implementing project plans, including approval and acceptance issues.
- Health-check the team — assessing and managing its status, resources, progress, and motivation.
- Communication and development of client relationships. Some project managers believe that this is the job of the account manager and neglect this aspect of their role as a result.
- Tracking the project budget and expenditures. Although this is part of the plan, this activity does not always trust the project manager. In this case, you need to demonstrate your authority.
- Development of the team. The team is primarily its people; secondarily, it is a project resource. Independently of the team, its people continue to grow, they need interesting tasks to assist with their development. On long-term projects, it is important to think about the growth of the next generation of individuals who can fill key roles.
- Highlighting activity aimed at making improvements to the product, processes, tools, etc. If the conditions are right, these initiatives usually arise within the team. It is important to recognize these activities in a timely manner and determine the benefits that they can bring. Sometimes, such initiatives are reborn into separate projects.
The main phases of the project
The phases of work on a project vary based on each individual project. When an organization decides to do something, the motive is most likely profit. An assessment should be made of how certain financial goals can be achieved and what it might cost the organization. The organization must authorize the project by studying how it will impact the upper-level financial goal and the necessary level of financing. It is beneficial when the project manager is involved at this stage. Early involvement helps the PM understand the priorities and the context within which they will cooperate, who needs to be involved, the timeframe anticipated for the project, etc. All of these elements are key for the main document: the charter of the project (Project Charter).
In general, once a project has started, it has five discrete phases. The phases can be parallel, or they can move in independent sequences.
The phase when the goals, resources, deadlines, and the action plan are determined. The project is authorized during this phase.
During this phase, it is determined which team with what skills should implement the project, and how the necessary people will interact with each other. An action plan is prescribed for different scenarios and to address the most critical risks. The work should be conducted based on highly specialized plans that cover specific areas of management scope, time management, budget management, etc. These are all component parts of a large project plan. Accordingly, the project manager is responsible for all these elements, and will present the overall project plan to the stakeholders and the team for approval. This phase is the main one for the project manager.
As soon as the plan is ready and approved, the PM needs to proceed to the implementation phase. Of course, the project manager does this with the help of a team. The task of the PM is to set clear and unambiguous goals that the team understands. Ideally, the manager will have and manage a team engaged in goal-setting and moving toward those goals using the established process.
Monitoring and control
This stage usually happens in parallel with the execution phase. Any implementation process requires control. There are standard metrics that allow a PM to track both progress and performance quality. The task of the project manager is to collect data, present it in the form of metrics, analyze it, and keep stakeholders informed about the current status. A PM needs to keep their finger on the pulse of the project, assess whether everything is going according to the plan, and determine whether there were material changes to the plan. They may need to make adjustments in response if the original plan will no longer lead to the desired result. In such a case, the changes must be initiated and coordinated with the project stakeholders.
Many project managers skip the final management stage. Once everything is provided to the customer, one might assume that the project is completed. But acceptance is the key point. It is important to make sure that the requirements were met with regard to quality, terms, budget, etc. It is also important to get confirmation that everything was done in full and as promised. Only after that can the project be considered completed and celebrated.
What a typical project manager's day looks like
Project managers are organized by nature, and always want to do what they have planned in advance. But reality makes its own adjustments. In fact, a PM is constantly faced with changes, questions, and problems that need to be responded to in one way or another.
Every day begins with a study of the current state of the project. Anything can happen: something breaks in production, or someone in the team falls ill, or it is necessary to urgently conduct an interview with a candidate for a new position. Even with ideal organization, a PM may be faced with any number of challenges — sometimes all at once. The day of a project manager begins with collecting relevant information. Then, they analyze it, look at the planned events, and consider how to build everything correctly, in accordance with new priorities. They may need to delegate something, shift non-critical questions, resolve burning issues, and adapt the work of the team to new goals. Then they have to implement a new plan including regular sessions, rallies, and other important components of the work process.
Tips from an experienced project manager
It is always easier to move to project management when you have worked on a project and understand the roles. For those who did not work in other IT roles previously, it will likely be a more difficult and longer process. But you can also consider professions such as a design coordinator or Scrum-master and, under the supervision of senior colleagues, start with one of those positions. It is difficult to give universal advice to future or novice design managers, but I have some basic suggestions.
- A project manager must correctly build their team, monitor the work, and direct it toward success. The success of the project manager is the success of the team. If the team cannot do anything without the PM and the PM is forced to be involved in all the details every day, and to help each employee individually, it is likely that they will not be able to engage in their direct duties.
- Be flexible. Each project is unique. Accordingly, previous experience is no guarantee of a successful project. At a certain point, old techniques and approaches may stop working. The project manager must be able to strike a balance between the client and the team. They do not need to be too flexible just to just appease the client if that does not serve the project. The balance should be one that makes sense for the project. PMs are often appreciated for finding or creating compromises, and sometimes for their ability to defend their position.
- Have a plan. Anything can happen in a project. If any situation that arises requires the direct involvement of a project manager, the situation is bad. In such a case, a plan should come to the rescue, identifying the direction in which to go, what should be done, and by whom. In addition to the project plan, scheduled risk management and a clear plan of communications are also necessary.
- Visualize progress, problems, and results. It is very useful to give the picture of these items to both the team and the client, so that everyone is on the same page regarding the current state of the project. Metrics are the most suitable tool for this.
- Don’t hesitate to ask for help, especially if you feel that you are losing control, or you cannot solve a problem. This is not a failing on the part of a PM, it is just a matter of experience. A timely call for help to someone with more experience can save the project, and prevent a small problem in the early stages of a project from expanding into large-scale escalation with serious consequences.
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