Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Program Managers: have them or not? Is this is the question?

A good post on program managers (PM: Secret weapon or wasted headcount?) got me thinking about my experience with Program Managers, especially after working at companies with and without Program Managers. Some thoughts on PMs below.

Some thoughts below - this is not to recruit or scare anyone thinking about being Program Managers, but just to give some insights after the experience with them in different environments and also without them where I had to be an acting PM.


This is big for me. If you don't have a Program Manager, you need to go outside of your comfort zone and try to find out the right answer yourself. You may not have the skill - or the time - to do this job well, but because there's no one to which you can outsource this work, you feel more vested in it. It's related to the startup culture I mentioned in the post Too much work, too little done.

PM technical expertise

PM's role depends much on what product they are working on. Some products, like Microsoft Word, are way less technical than providing a low-level infrastructure technology like Amazon Web Services or Windows Azure. PMs' lack of technical expertise can bias some decisions and focus. Not to mention communication with customers that oftentimes could be more precise and more helpful if PMs were more involved with the technical details.


So what I've seen happening quite frequently is that PMs were supposed to make decision for which they did not have enough info or background, so developers had to spend a substantial amount of time providing this info in order to get the PM's to decide and/or sign off on decisions. That was not very agile.

Customer Focus

For products more customer oriented, like Microsoft Word mentioned above, PMs were invaluable as they did all the work to understand customer's needs, talked to customers directly, supervised focus' groups, come up with the right features from the customer's perspective. That is something I really missed at places where we did not have Program Managers and developers did not have the skills or time to do the work.

The problem is that, for the infrastructure work, though, PMs were not fulfilling the same role. We need more understanding of the customer's scenarios to provide the right guidance. That simply did not matter and many decisions were made based on guesses.


Many Program Managers just follow the same script over and over again managing projects and coming up with features only based on customer's needs or on the competition. When this happen, they are the medium for innovation within the company. We need more Program Managers that are visionaries and help give guidance to execute within that vision. This is beyond processes and bureaucracy; being this catalyst involves a lot of freedom and flexibility to experiment and go beyond the day-to-day bread-and-butter. Otherwise PMs will play catch up, helping the company implement what others have, or simply fulfill features that are told by customers and not think outside of the box.
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