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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

The Role of Manager

Manager

I took part in a very interesting discussion today. We were talking about criteria we should use to appraise leaders and managers in the organization. The most surprising part, at least for me, was discussion about notion of line manager among disputants.

It came out that we considered average functional manager as anything between pure-manager to person who does 90% of engineering work mixed with 10% of managerial tasks. That’s a variety of options, isn’t it? As you may guess I supported rather the former than the latter.

Well, if I’m such an opponent of letting people do what they used to do before they were promoted to management, likely coding if we talk about software teams, what I think they should do all day long? In other words what is, or should be, the role of manager.

Leader

This vague term describes first and most important trait most managers should have and only few have. If I’m a team member I expect my manager will show leadership and charisma. I want to be ignited to follow his ideas. I need to be sure he knows why and where we are heading. I have to see him around when problems arise. I eager to be managed by someone I’d like to follow even if no one told me so. A good manager is also a good leader but these two are not the same. What a pity it isn’t common mixture.

Coach

Help newcomers with learning the organization. Help inexperienced with gaining experience. Help everyone with growing. Help those with problems with fixing them. Easy? No, not at all. First, you need to know who needs what. Then, you need to know how to reach people so your helping hand won’t be rejected. Finally, you need to work carefully and patiently sharing your knowledge in experience in a way which doesn’t frustrate or dishearten people. Repeat when finished.

Shield

As a line manager you have some senior management over your head. This is a bad news. Actually there’s usually a lot of crap flying over there and, because of the gravity, it’s going to land down on heads of your team. There will be blame games. There will be pointing fingers. It is your time. Be a shield. Take enough bullets on your chest for the team. You’ll earn respect. You’ll earn a bunch of loyal followers. And that’s how you earn your spurs.

Advocate

As a manager you’re also an advocate. Devil’s advocate to be precise. You have to present and defend different decisions made up there, in the place where only C-level execs are allowed. Sometimes these decisions you won’t like. But for your people you’re still the face of the company so don’t play the angry boy and act like a man. We don’t always do what we want. After all, they pay you for this, remember?

Motivator

Sometimes everyone needs a kick in the butt to get back to work at full speed. It would be quite a pleasant task but unfortunately kicking butts is used as a metaphor here. It’s all about motivation. And I have a bad news here, there’s no easy answer for a question what motivates people. You have to learn each of your people individually. Oh, forgot to mention, it takes quite a lot of time to learn what drives all these people.

Adviser

Yes, an adviser. Not a decision-maker. At least not unless you really have to make a decision by yourself. People will come to you asking different things. Well, they will if they think your opinion may add some value and you’re capable to understand what the hell they are talking about. Of course you can guess or shoot or use magic 8 ball but you better learn (oh no! more learning) what the problem really is and help your team to solve it. Note: it is different than solving it for them, even if you know the answer. If an association which comes to your mind is delegation I must praise your reasoning.

Now if you are done with those and still have enough time to keep up your outstanding engineering skills, please do Mr. Anderson. Unfortunately chances are good it is enough to fill more than a full working day so you’d have to choose between focusing on your management or technical skills.

And if you happen to spend two third of your day coding, well, I dare to say you aren’t a manager I’d like to work for. Your people would say the same, but you don’t talk with them so you don’t even know. After all there’s no time to chit chat, you have to code, right?

in: personal development, team management

18 comments… add one

  • Matt July 26, 2010, 11:43 am

    “After all there’s no time to chit chat, you have to code, right?”

    There’s no time to chat-chat because my coders have to code ;)

  • Szymon Pobiega July 26, 2010, 12:15 pm

    I can’t agree more. You have a wonderful talent of writing about obvious thing no one thought about writing. I mean it’s obvious after I read it. Shouldn’t every manager knew that? Life would be boring then…

  • Pawel Brodzinski July 26, 2010, 12:22 pm

    Szymon,

    Well, you should have heard the discussion. It isn’t obvious. Far from that. Otherwise I wouldn’t write the post.

    I’m often surprised with point of view of majority. But on the other hand it gives me an excuse to write such articles.

  • Marek Blotny July 27, 2010, 12:29 am

    @ Szymon
    I think articles like this are much needed. Probably because each organization has its own nomenclature and in some places managers are real managers (like the one described here), in other people get this title as a reward for being skilled developer. My point here is that in each organization behind the same title you will find different responsibilities.

  • Szymon Pobiega July 27, 2010, 2:36 am

    @Pawel

    I think I am glad I haven’t heard it. Could be too depressing.

    Just a random thought: maybe the term ‘manager’ is too overloaded? We are discouraged to use word ‘manager’ when naming classes because ‘it is vague and means nothing’ and I think there is the same issue in non-code world. We have managers who manage people (which responsibility Pawel described), managers who manage projects and these who manage products. In our company there is also a notion of implementation manager.

    There are too many ‘manager’ roles with overlapping responsibilities which makes people confused.

  • Karol Zielinski July 27, 2010, 2:44 am

    Absolutelly agree, great article.

    However I think that you forgot about one important role… a worker. Manager should be a worker, too.
    I know several managers, and what I noticed is that none of them are so esteemed by their teams as those who actually “work.” Manager should write documentations, resolve conflicts, participate in brainstorming, give attention to mistakes and propose a better solutions, write a code, try to solve specific (actual) problems, etc.

    So besides being a manager, manager should also a member of a project team.

  • Pawel Brodzinski July 27, 2010, 2:50 am

    Szymon,

    People managers, functional managers or line managers, however you want to call them are here primarily to lead people.

    On the other hand project managers or product managers are leading some virtual things called projects or products respectively. They aren’t managers in terms I used in the article.

    Actually whenever I use term management alone it is always about managing people. When I talk about products or projects I use full term or abbreviation (PM).

    Personally I’m far from fighting with terms. Actually pretty much everyone understands that project management is a completely different thing than people management and I don’t see people confuse these two.

  • Pawel Brodzinski July 27, 2010, 3:04 am

    Karol,

    I’m not sure if I’d agree that manager should be esteemed as a worker. Of course their participation is important, but most likely it is done as a collective effort. Taking part in brainstorming is a good example – there are many people who participate and a manager should be the only one of them. Not even the most important one. Actually it is the part of my understanding of the role of adviser.

    Solving conflicts is another thing which fits to the role. So is (helping the team in) problem solving.

    Fixing mistakes and proposing better solutions would suit well to coaching. I haven’t mentioned directly organizational role of a manager which might be an omission but depending on work environment this role will be spread among team, ascribed to a manager or to senior management.

    I would discuss with tasks like writing documentation or coding. If there is nothing else to do and the team can’t cope with these tasks fine, go for it. But these shouldn’t be main, or even important, tasks we expect from managers. I know it is oversimplified answers and it won’t work in small teams but tech writers are here to write documentations and coders to write code. And managers are here to manage.

    Sure, it isn’t a healthy situation when a manager doesn’t know how to code at all as it will be hard for them to assess the work of their team. But they have hell lot of more important things to do than to bang out some code or produce some documents.

    I like very much your conclusion, even though I read it a bit differently. A manager should be a member of the team. If something bad happens it is their damn duty to be with the team. The same when something good happen – manager shouldn’t get all the praise alone; they should be with the team.

  • jfbauer July 27, 2010, 5:11 am

    Karol,

    “Solving conflicts is another thing which fits to the role. So is (helping the team in) problem solving.”

    I agree with the value of a manager that can problem solve but not directly as in the manager just fixes it. Rather, the manager facilitates the process by which team members/stakeholders have a voice and ultimately arrive at a consensus decision.

    True, it is impossible in every situation to have 10 people all magically agree and support a single way forward when faced with a conflict. But, the ability for a manager to ask the right questions, draw out everyone’s opinions and move the discussion towards an ultimate way forward is a critical component of leadership. Sure, everyone might not go for a proverbial group hug afterwords, but everyone knows something needs to be decided and I’ve seen managers respected for exhausting the options and ultimately getting the group to buy into the least stinky outcome of all possible odoriferous outcomes.

  • coldfusion July 27, 2010, 7:37 am

    I especially liked the part of being the devil’s advocate. This is really the thing many managers forget. It’s not a problem when you have to defend good ideas, cases and issues that are clear for everybody and with which everybody agrees.

    Manager are often tempted to criticize ideas of people from their own team. They may think that then they will appear wiser, especially when they do it in front of the company board. But the truth is, that any idea (even a bad one) is a product of the team. If the manager is no eager to defend it, it just shows how disloyal he is.

  • Steve July 27, 2010, 9:27 am

    Great list!

  • Forouzani July 27, 2010, 9:34 am

    I think a line manager also often acts as a “translator” – i.e. communicating between different groups, using the correct terms and analogies e.g. between the business people and the tech team.

  • Pawel Brodzinski July 28, 2010, 2:35 am

    coldfusion,

    Actually it is often tempting for a manager to stand out. To say it is others, not me. It works both ways – when the company makes unpopular decisions and a manager has to deliver bad news to the team and when team screws something hard way and someone has to pass it to higher management.

    In the old days of MSF 3.x there was this notion of program manager being a team’s advocate in front of business people and business folks’ advocate in front of the team. The same concept works in people management.

  • Pawel Brodzinski July 28, 2010, 2:37 am

    Forouzani,

    Yes, you’re right. Even though pretty often translation is done by other people, like product owners, project managers etc and not people managers. Much depends on specific environment and product.

  • ZAWEDDE CATHERINE February 26, 2012, 1:08 am

    am really great full for your advise

  • God May 17, 2012, 4:00 am

    I think you guys are need to find other things to talk about instead of management, its completely uninteresting and the fact that its supposed to be a job and not a way of life. Live a little.
    Yours sincerely
    God

  • T.S.Masindi September 30, 2012, 1:47 am

    Been a new manager is not easy but such articles assits us. than you.

  • Mrinal Krant March 27, 2013, 9:06 pm

    Excellent post. I particularly liked the Advocate and Motivator sections. Many a times, when the Crap falls on team or manager or both, it is really frustrating and as you mentioned, getting paid to work or getting paid to have lots of crap on your face? Not sure what to do when such crap-management becomes a chore.

    I have often discussed with my team clearly why this is crap or not crap and if it is a crap, how are we going to manage. Unfortunately the crap-fall is a very risky aspect as, if you manage it well for C-suite folks, your team gives you a Thumbs down in upward review and they create lots of negative propaganda against you. You lose. If you manged Crap well for team, you are going to get a lousy project, that will frustrate you and you either leave or you are asked to leave. Crap will never fetch you a reward! After all, as you mentioned, we are paid to manage crap as well at times, we must try manage it the best way possible.

    On Shield, it is easier said than done to take the bullets for team. I have seen only 10% of managers able to do it. Not surprisingly, it helps earn respect of the team, but if management fires a bullet, they want a kill. You cannot escape this bullet. Either you get killed or some other poor team member. We always need an easy kill. This is also a sacrifice, you have to make. Though if blame game comes to you and finger pointed at you, it is good to accept the blame. Similar to the bullet case above, management is very high on Ego and when they blame they cannot lose. Again, get ready for getting killed. Ask for time to investigate and come up with a solution and then deflect the blame. From my experience, management is happy if you accept the blame and then they are happy if you deflect the blame to something or someone, who is management’s pet-peeve, they forget that what the issue was and the matter starts it’s holy journey of ‘blame-blemish and vanish’ cycle. Management is happy that they acted. Does not matter if they achieved anything or fixed any thing.

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