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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

How to Plan a Career

On the beginning a little disclaimer – it’ll be neither a recipe for dummies nor extract from some wise book about self-management. It’ll be rather a small set of advices learnt based on my experience and observations. No theory – just practice.

Know where you’re going

First, you have to know generally where you’re heading to – what you want to do in the long run. You don’t have to be very specific here – no one expects you’ll exactly know your occupation in the 20-year perspective. However, thing I see so often is young developer, who answers “coding – that’s what I want to do, never thought about something different”. OK, he’ll make his way through internship, wow-I’m-learning-how-to-work-in-the-team, full blown developer, senior developer, local guru (if he’s lucky). It’ll take him 10 years. Maybe 15. And then what?

Yes, you can say that being 25 you don’t need to think what you’ll be doing when you’ll be 40. Just remember that transition to another role probably requires quite different set of skills you have to develop. It doesn’t take a week to achieve that.

How can I expect that graduate would know what he exactly wants to do? I don’t expect that. A general direction is enough and you can change it later if you feel like it. When I was starting my first job in the IT I wanted to become a designer or something. That’s enough. I knew that life doesn’t end up with being tester or even developer; however I knew also that’s a long way to go.

Know your next step

If I had to choose only one advice it’d be the one. If you know generally where you’re heading to, you also need to know where to turn on nearest crossroads. Without that, you’ll end up frustrated, struggling to achieve something and having no clue how to do that.

It’s not as hard as it looks like. In bigger organizations there’re usually some career paths, so unless you don’t know where you are going (start reading from the beginning) or where you currently are (stop reading that – it won’t help you anyway) it’s rather easy to plan the next step. In small organizations it’s a bit trickier but also easier. No formal paths, so everything is in your hands. With a bit of common sense it won’t be hard to find out what’s in your range.

Look at me – when I started my job as a tester, I knew the next step will be development. Being the developer I wanted to become a designer. This part for me is a bit weird, because it went a bit different way. However there was some time when I was fulfilling a designer role (primary goal achieved). Meanwhile I changed my general goal; otherwise I wouldn’t know my next step. I decided I want to manage team developing software – to be a project manager/program manager – depending on terminology.

OK, coming back to the next step I had to make – it was managing a team to learn some management skills. I became manager of quality assurance team. Then the next step was to build my empire… er… team to prepare myself to become the full blown program manager. Now I lead a technical team (covering development, implementations, project management and quality assurance) so I think I made it. It’s much easier when you know where to turn on the crossroads.

Learn, learn, learn

Now, when you know what should be your next occupation you need to prepare yourself to suit to the role. When you’re a developer and struggling to be a designer – look how designers work. What in your and others’ opinion they do good and where they are failures. You have a comfort to be a recipient of their work – exploit that. Want to be a manger? Look at your boss. Think how her actions affect you. It’ll be very useful when you at last become a manager.

When you know your next preferred position (and now you know it, right?), locate your teachers (those who fulfill role you want to have) and learn from them. Evaluate them – who perform well and who’s opposite. Remember you can learn from both.

If it just so happens your boss is your guru here you’re lucky. I have to admit I was and I still am very lucky with my bosses. Most of them were guys I learnt a lot from. Oh, I think I learnt a lot from all of them, but some of them were rather counterexamples to what I wanted to be.

Exploit unexpected situations

Unexpected situations just happen. Then it’s often time of changes. A manager is leaving. A guru developer is changing his division (or job). Management at last comes with idea that they should build a quality assurance team (no kidding here). Women go to maternity leave. There’s some kind of reorganization. Everything is hard to predict. Everything creates a chance for some people. That’s not always a chance for you of course, but you should think fast and act fast if you can be engaged.

I became a lead tester after a short rather informal chat with my boss while electricity was out and it was hard to do anything (no laptop then). I was done with my development work and I was testing other’s programmer code submitting tons of bugs (the code was from “tester’s dream” category). A manager asked me if I want to become a test leader. He didn’t think I could agree. Nor did I. But after a quarter of thinking I told him, that if he’d been serious I was ready to try.

Some time later I was asked if I take over the support team, after its former manager was dismissed. That was nothing what I could find on my roadmap. I was scared that I’d land there for a long time and no one would take me to project management from there. After a day I decided to take the job. It came out I couldn’t be more wrong with my fears. I learnt a lot about managing bigger teams and now I consider my experience from the support team, especially working with our enemies… I mean customers, as essential for my further career.

Work hard wherever you are

As I look at my career I was several times in a situation when my position wasn’t something I really wanted to do. Being a tester for the first time is good example here, managing support team is another. It’s so easy just to do your tasks and think how nice it would
be if you were developer/project manager/whoever you wanted to. Don’t let you think like that. Do your best wherever you are. It pays off.

When I started my first job in the IT I was one of four testers in the group. We all were told that it’s just trial and in a half of the year chances are that half of us would become developers. I’m sure I wasn’t the best developer of the group, but I was the first who was promoted. Why? For some time I used to think it was like reward for being the best tester in the group. Now I think managers just looked at my attitude and approach to tasks predicting they wouldn’t change on developer’s chair.

Similar situation was with me being the support team manager. I did my best to put in order processes team was responsible for. I think I was successful, because some of our implementations were copied in other support team. It wasn’t a task I enjoyed much, but I took it ambitiously.

Remember you’re often judged not by your potential performance in a new environment, but by your current performance with your soft skills as essentials. If you’re a quick learner no matter if you’re a tester or a developer – it’ll be one of your strengths. You’re dedicated? Cool. It’ll pay off no matter what’s your position.

One thing more here. If you don’t feel like performing well on a new position – don’t take it. But don’t cry over lost chances either.

Don’t stick to a single company

Don’t treat that as an advice to change a company. Estimate your chances wherever you are. I was never in a company which totally limited my options so that one is rather based on others’ experience. For example I was talking with recently my former subordinate. When we were working together he was a tester and struggled to be a developer. He didn’t want to wait for his chance and left. I didn’t hold a grudge against him then, what more, I think in a short perspective he did right. However he ended up in a company where there are hundreds of developers and half of them want to be managers. He’s the one of them. If I had to estimate his chances… hm… I wouldn’t wait there either. I’d look for a job where there’re any chances to be promoted.

Funny thing is that if he didn’t leave the company we worked for back then, he’d be now at least a junior manager with no doubt. He’d become a developer maybe a half a year later, but if his direction was to go to management he made a wrong decision quitting. And he makes another wrong decision not quitting now. It’s always a bit vague, but when you look at a company think about long perspective, not just the next step.

No panacea

Don’t treat above advices like golden rules, which make you a ruler of the world. None of them is a single killer feature, which will guarantee you a success. Bah, gathering all of them doesn’t guarantee it either. There’s no universal solution. Above advices can definitely help you, but it’s all in you own hands.

in: personal development

10 comments… add one

  • prashant.ladha@gmail.com March 12, 2007, 11:01 pm

    would you be interested working as Mentor for me ??? ;) :P
    jk .. i really liked your article..

    u r my Career Mentor.
    Steve Pavalina – my life mentor

  • Rowan Manahan March 21, 2007, 5:11 am

    Excellent post Pawel. Clean and clear mixing the instant gratification of the next move with the deferred gratification of thinking about the longer term picture.

    I wish you every success and, with your mindset, I have no doubt but that you will achieve it.

  • Pawel Brodzinski March 21, 2007, 6:46 am

    Thanks. I think I was just lucky enough to work in rapidly changing environments and see quite a few nice careers developed around me and, on the other hand, several people who are stuck on the side track. Those are conclusions from what I’ve seen and experienced and I’m happy that you agree with them.

  • Anonymous August 7, 2007, 9:49 pm

    Hi Pawel,
    I happened to come by your article and it is very informative. Your article has given me a few tips but more advice from your would be much appreciated.

    I am working as a Business Analyst but am finding it hard in my role (I would consider myself a newbie although I have done support roles previously). I am completely confused and am now wondering if I made the mistake of jumping into this role. Previously I used to assist Senior Business Analysts with the analysis (relating to the enhancements of the system we were supporting) and then they would take on things from there (as to writing up the documents).

    Now I am involved in collecting the business requirements for a web interface (I do not deal with the technical aspects) The problem I am facing is that I am not getting much feedback from my manager about the documents I prepare. I am not a technical person and am only working with business users and documenting their business requirements (I am trying to document requirements based on existing websites)

    I feel very overwhelmed am wondering if I am not efficient enough. I have always performed well in all my jobs and have been very good in my roles. This is my first job where I feel I am lost and don’t know where to go. I feel very lost and really feel like quitting.

    I am reading books and sites about business analysis and system analysis and what I should do. I really like to learn new things constantly and feel I am not using my capabilities efficiently.

    Thanks
    A confused BA

  • Pawel Brodzinski August 8, 2007, 2:22 pm

    I think there can be two issues here one connected with managing your career and other not.

    1. Lack of feedback from your manager about your work is a communication problem within your team. It may be the issue with your manager or it can be wider – general dysfunction of the organization. No matter where the source of the problem is you should try to talk with your boss about your feelings (lack of feedback, feeling lost) and ask him to help you to find the way out. It is quite possible the manager isn’t aware of the situation and as far as you don’t express it clearly it will las unchanged.

    2. There is another possibility here. It might have been wrong decision to choose this job. However I wouldn’t be quick in labeling it as a dead end or a mistake. I don’t know how long you are on the BA position, but it’s usually hard to judge fairly the role after just a couple of months. If I were you I would ask myself if I could see me doing the job in the perspective of a year from now. If I could find enjoyment in everyday work. If I can label the job as the one which pushes me further. It is hard to suggest you the answer but with the information (definitely not sufficient) you’ve provided I’d say the chances are good that it isn’t the dead end.

    Generally, I’d try to fix current situation (or die trying). It’s quite possible you’ll be able to achieve that. If that didn’t work I would consider the job (on the high level) in terms of a part of your career. Basing on the outcome I’d make a decision either to stay or to move along.

    By the way: your approach to learn as a way to be the better in what you do is very valuable.

  • Anonymous August 8, 2007, 6:57 pm

    Thanks Pawel,
    I agree with you. I am trying to fix my current issue and will definitely see how best I can improve my situation.

    Honestly I have been in this role for nearly 8 months and that’s why I wondered if I made the right decision or not.There are other contributing factors as well which are too many to list (I am trying to be as positive as I can). Anyway, I actually did have a chat with my manager y’day and told him that I need feedback and he has told me that he would get back to me soon. (I am not going to be negative, as this is not the 1st time)

    In the mean time, I am making the best use of the time available by reading information to help me improve. I am considering this experience as a good learning experience (especially if I want to mange teams later)

    I will keep reading your blog and pick up all the useful information you share.

    Thanks

  • Pawel Brodzinski August 9, 2007, 1:15 am

    We can follow the discussion on e-mail. Let me know via contact form if you wish.

  • TheManOfNotts December 23, 2008, 7:13 pm

    I’m rather late in posting…but seriously….this is good stuff.

    I’ve been a PM for a couple of years now and thought i’d gotten quite expert at the discipline. I manage alot of infrastructure work with servers and networks. A senior manager said to me the other day that I will only be a ‘Black Belt’ PM when i’ve managed a software development project. Is this a belief you would subscribe to? Is a software development/delivery project wildly different to an infrastructure project? Thanks for any advice you can offer.
    http://theitprojectguy.blogspot.com/

  • Pawel Brodzinski December 24, 2008, 3:27 am

    No, I wouldn’t share the opinion you can be a ‘Blck Belt’ PM only when you manage (or have managed0 software development projects. I consider project management as a general discipline but a project manager has to know what’s the project is all about. That’s not only simple administration. PM experienced in let say construction projects most likely won’t be a good go-to guy when talking about software projects.

    However software projects are different from most of other disciplines because of high level of ambiguity. Developers miss their estimates. Clients change project scope. Scoper itself is defined unclearly and there’s a lot of place to different interpretations. There are no unequivocal quality criterias. And there’s higher than average rate of unexpected events.

    I think that doesn’t make software projects more difficult. They’re just different. In infrastructure projects you have to deal with other problems which software project managers aren’t even aware of. It’s the matter of the specialization.

  • Alê S.A.L. September 18, 2009, 4:25 am

    Hi Pawel,

    Your post is very interesting and some of the comments have a lot to do with my situation now.

    I have been working as a project manager of e-learning projects for the past 5 years. I don't have any technical background (I have a Law degree! haha), and I manage my projects based on the inputs I get from the leaders of the different teams say creation, flash designers, programmers, etc.

    I wanted to achieve more technical knowledge because I feel like I don't belong anywhere. I'm working for a company in the UK now for the past year (since I moved to London) doing the same, but in this job I don't even get involved in anything from the creation process to the implementation, I'm just changing people's schedule all the time, earning a bad salary and I'm very tired of it and the outlook of the e-learning market in the UK (all e-learning development teams seem to be abroad!).

    I wish I had more technical knowledge to be able to manage other type of software projects but I don't and I don't even know what to do. I can get PRINCE2 certified but then again, it's about management and not technical which is exactly whay I need, to be able to move into a different direction!

    What do you think? Please any advice would be appreciated! :)

    Kind regards,

    Alessandra

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