Is He Technical?

A short post today–I’m still sort of in frantic mode and switching gears in a variety of ways, but I didn’t want to go the whole week with just the one post.

Some time back, I observed some people working on a project in which the team consisted of some developers of varying experience levels and skill sets. There was also a project manager assigned to the project, but he definitely wanted to put the “manager” in “project manager.” Rather than Gantt charts and status reports, he insisted on being part of every technical decision, however coarse or fine grained. It was hard to tell, from my outsider perspective, whether his inputs (orders) made any sense or whether he was just wasting time and clouding the issue when he could have been focusing on logistics, communication, and removing obstacles from the path of the developers, as one might expect from a pure project manager.

It appeared to me that he wasn’t just failing to remove obstacles, but that he was an obstacle. This was confirmed by a conversation that I later overheard among a few of the developers in the form of a simple but profound and damning question. My understanding of this project manager’s background was that he was the sort of PM who had cut his teeth as a developer for a number of years and ‘graduated’ to project management. The unintentionally damning question from one of the developers was a simple, frustrated, “is he even technical?”

That might not seem like it matters at first blush, but that’s the kind of thing where, if you let it wash over you, there’s something important and fundamentally bad happening. The PM either has a technical background or not, and the badness is present either way. If he does not have a technical background, the obvious question is “why is he attempting to stick his nose in development and design discussions?” But if he is technical…ouch.

If he is technical, he’s communicating so poorly or getting concepts so wrong during the course of (micro) management that the developers are genuinely unclear on whether or not he has a programming background. Unintentionally damning. They’re not accusing him of anything or gossiping or anything along those lines–they’re so underwhelmed by his contributions that they think he doesn’t even possess table stakes, bare-minimum competence in the field.

The “duh” lesson here is not to blather on or bark orders when you don’t know what you’re talking about, but that’s really kind of an edge case. I’d say the take-away for the readership here is to ask yourself, assuming you’re in a position of authority, whether anyone would quietly wonder if you’re technical. Maybe it’s because you’ve been doing too much delegating or are busy with other things, but still, don’t let this be said about you. I’ve touched on this subject before in the context of a team lead, but this is a broader concern. As you go along working with others, take inventory from time to time, asking yourself whether anyone might be wondering skeptically how you came to be in a position of authority. If you think they might be, don’t blow that off and think it’s not worth proving. It is. Responsibility without respect is empty, so remember to earn yourself some respect from time to time.