What Does an IT Project Manager Do?

By Louis Marshall
2009

If you looked at the most prominent job searching website in your region you would find that different industries mean different things when they use the word project manager. For our purposes, we are going to talk about a typical project manager within the software development industry. By no means is this an exhaustive treatment of their duties and chances are good that no single person in a company would undertake all the tasks described here.

Before we can say what a project manager does, we should first take some time to define what a project actually is. We know that a project is often a novel undertaking, an attempt to create or achieve something which hasn’t been done before (hence why projects are inherently risky). The other identifying features of a project include; they have a deadline, a set budget, and a beginning and end point.

A project can be broken into a number of components; design, programming, project management, quality control, etc. These are just the titles I use, but they do have direct parallels with traditional waterfall model stages (e.g. programming = implementation, quality control = testing, etc). For simplicity, I usually roll requirements gathering and system analysis into the project management component. I tend to refer to components rather then phases or stages. The reason for this is because it’s limiting to try and force a software development project into a series of linear steps. It just doesn’t turn out that way because there is so much iteration and overlap between stages (e.g. project management is a process that occurs the whole way through a project).

To get a project done you obviously need people with specialized skills, these people are often geographically distributed, whether that’s down the hall from each other, or on another continent. The chances of these people coming together as an organized group is pretty slim. And this is where a project manager comes onto the scene.

So then, what is a project manager? You could say they are the glue that binds things together, they don’t actually do the work, but rather help others do it. They are at the helm of a ship, steering it via a predefined route to a particular destination, with course corrections to be expected along the way.

Sure, this is a somewhat simplistic definition, but we are just getting started. If we were to expand on our description, we could also say a project manager is meant to make the unpredictable predictable, ensure resources are used wisely, and handle problems which seem to appear out of nowhere.

The purpose of software is to solve a business problem or exploit an opportunity. Based on this goal, a project manager is likely to assist in figuring out what features the application should have. Before a project begins in earnest, they also have to determined if the project is technically feasible and not prohibitively expensive.

A project manager should know about the people on his team and what their capabilities are. Who’s good at JavaScript? Who knows about video encoding technology? Who’s the best person to research a shopping cart component? This isn’t just a matter of utilizing peoples’ strengths, but also making them happy by allowing them to do what they like. For example, creating a timesheet template may be hell for one person, but sheer joy for another.

Setting up the ground rules for communication is also the domain of a project manager; is the team going to have regular meetings or impromptu chats? Are we using MSN or Skype to talk to our overseas contractors? How often will programmers report their progress so the project schedule can be kept up-to-date?

Scheduling is arguably the most important task a project manager undertakes. He needs to know if there are any dependencies (e.g. an Internet Merchant Account has to be setup before credit card payments can be accepted on a website). They need to be aware of any external factors affecting the project’s deadline (e.g. the client wants to show off the software at a trade-show in two months). Regardless of what tool is used, the project schedule needs to at least say what is going to be done by when, how much time tasks will take, and who is doing what.

Resource allocation is a juggling act project managers need to excel at. Which programmer should work on what? When can they work on the next project? How much time should be set aside for bug fixing? Often companies will have multiple projects running simultaneously. This makes it quite tricky to get the most out of the limited resources available.

Making sure that the software solution delivered to the client is bug free and in fact what they asked for is another major responsibility of a project manager. This could involve writing tests plans, creating quality assurance standards, defining acceptance criteria, and organizing independent testers to carry out testing. A project manager is often the first person a client contacts when they find a bug in their software, ideally the client should be logging defects in a bug tracking system. The project manager then assigns the logged bugs to the most appropriate programmer for resolution.

A project manager is responsible for risk management. They need to be aware of what can go wrong and how likely it is to occur. Finding out about it after it happens is too late, a good project manager will spot a problem coming from a mile away and have a plan ready for dealing with it.

A project manager might need to consider external factors like: competition, industry standards, future market forces, environmental issues, social and political impact. It’s quite rare for a project manager to be called upon to analyze and document these forces (e.g. they may do this as part of an e-strategy). Most of the time this information would be in the client’s business plan.

At smaller companies it’s not unusual for a project manager to wear a number of different hats. For instance, they will commonly double as a business analyst, responsible for writing functional specifications, creating wireframes, making recommendations on technology, and deciding what development tools to use. They may even have minor administrative duties like preparing invoices for clients.

Louis Marshall, Project Manager
My tech blog: pm4web.blogspot.com

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