Coffeehouse Thread

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Question for the "program managers"  types

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  • Minh

    I've heard the position of program manager (MS parlance) described as having all of the responsibility & none of authority (jokingly, I hope).

     If I understood the job correctly, a PM is the interface between different groups involved in a particular project, right? kind of a facilitator.

     I'm kind of interested because we have a Similar role here where I work - we call it a "project manager."

     I know of a really Successful one, and a really bad one. though I don't know enough to figure out what makes one Successful at this position.

     It'd be great if I could pick your minds w/ a few questions:

     * what kind of expertise do you need about each group you're involved with?

     * Is face-to-face interaction important, or can you do this over the phone?

     * Are you a successful PM? Wink If so, what one factor do you think contribute the most to your Success ?

    * How do you even define success? We have many projects that are late, over budgeted, reduced functionality. But if that's the norm, then you didn't really failed, right?

     Thanks for any input you guys can offer.

  • Rory

    If you want info on PMs, you should check out the series of posts Chris Sells did on the subject.

    This is post #0: http://www.sellsbrothers.com/news/showTopic.aspx?ixTopic=1923

    Good starting point - he did a few of these, and, in usual Sells style, they were very well written.

  • Minh

     Thanks for the tip. Chris is a dev turned PM, so maybe being technical is the root of his success

  • Secret​Software

    What is the typical daily life of a MS employee? where do they spend most of their time?

    Do MS employees ever do this: Leave every thing until a month before shipping date, and cram every thing?

  • JChung2006

    I have two metrics for determining how good a manager is:

    1. Is he in touch with the reality of his situation?
    2. Is he able to do anything about it?

    Anyone can manage a project (or "program") with few or no challenges though a bad manager can screw even these kinds of projects up.  This isn't a terribly interesting truth, except perhaps in a "train wreck" sort of way when it comes to bad managers screwing up easy projects.

    Where a good manager helps and a bad one hurts is when the (I need to watch my language) hits the fan and things get out of control.  Decisions must be made and usually they aren't pleasant ones to make.  Good managers will not only make the right decisions, which is only possible because they are in touch with reality, but he will have the authority (convincing his bosses that what must be done must be done) and the leadership (convincing his team that what must be done must be done) to execute those decisions.

    An excellent manager is an experienced manager who can not only do the above but can foresee bad situations before they happen and either prepare for their onset or even avoid them entirely.

    There are a lot of analogies I could make, most of them military or sports-related, but I hope you get the idea.

  • MikeGalos

    All the responsibility with none of the authority is not a joke. It's the key to successfully being a Program Manager as Microsoft has traditionally defined it rather than a generic project manager.

    You see, if the person who has the responsibility has the authority then they can get things done by saying "do it or else" rather than "do it because it's right and here's why it's right..."

    If a Microsoft PM can't explain to his team why something is the right thing to do then it's time for him to rethink his plans and assumptions.

    The groups that do best understand that ownership of the design and the schedule must be in the same person and that person needs to understand both the business and technical issues in order to make the proper trade offs. That person is a good PM. Yes, they're rare but it's worth finding them.

    The groups that do worst split design and schedule and that means that when trade offs inevitably occur, the choice that is made isn't based on all the factors but is, instead, a personality and power fight between the person who owns the design and the person who owns the schedule and often (usually?) the end result is precisely the wrong choice.

    Mike
    Formerly: 13 years as a Microsoft employee - 10 as a PM
    Currently: 2 years consulting to Microsoft as a PM

  • Minh

    MikeGalos wrote:
    All the responsibility with none of the authority is not a joke. It's the key to successfully being a Program Manager as Microsoft has traditionally defined it rather than a generic project manager.

    Thanks for the insights, Mike. I found this to be fascinating. So MS has baked this into how it runs projects. Do you find this to be a hinderance when it comes to Agile methods (w/ all the SCRUM talks during Vista development)? Or are you guys moving towards Agile at all?

    MikeGalos wrote:

    The groups that do worst split design and schedule and that means that when trade offs inevitably occur, the choice that is made isn't based on all the factors but is, instead, a personality and power fight between the person who owns the design and the person who owns the schedule and often (usually?) the end result is precisely the wrong choice.

    Interesting. I assume this means that the PM would solely takes care of the scheduling (business goals) bits, since there is usally already a technical (design goals) guy in the group.

  • Minh

    JChung2006 wrote:
    Good managers will not only make the right decisions, which is only possible because they are in touch with reality, but he will have the authority (convincing his bosses that what must be done must be done) and the leadership (convincing his team that what must be done must be done) to execute those decisions.

    Yeah, my company's PM mirrors MS PM, in that they have almost no authority. I guess I can sum it up with a good PM knows what really is going on AND has the ability to convince people.

  • BruceMorgan

    Minh wrote:
    
    JChung2006 wrote: Good managers will not only make the right decisions, which is only possible because they are in touch with reality, but he will have the authority (convincing his bosses that what must be done must be done) and the leadership (convincing his team that what must be done must be done) to execute those decisions.

    Yeah, my company's PM mirrors MS PM, in that they have almost no authority. I guess I can sum it up with a good PM knows what really is going on AND has the ability to convince people.

    A program manager is not a "manager" in the people management, "annual review writer" style.     Don't be mislead about the PM position because of that.  "Program Managers neither program nor manage".  Remember that.

    The PM role is complex and hard to sum up in a sentence.  Most successful PMs are highly technical, but not always.  Most successful PMs are visionaries to a degree, but not always.  Most successful PMs have great organization skills, but not always.  Almost all do have good communication skills, but that's not the same thing as ability to convince people.

    I have heard the PM skill set summarized as the Three B's:

    Bridge builders - creating and maintaining effective working relationships between people on a team, within a larger group, and across multiple groups with different goals and priorities.  This is high on communication skills, and softer people skills such as empathy and interpersonal awareness.

    Bulldozer - this is all about execution and getting things done, all lose ends are tied up, things are moving forward.  A "bulldozer" makes the meeting schedule, ensures closure on decisions, writes the spec on time, ensures the developer has everything he/she needs before they need it, etc.   The skillset here emphasizes project management, attention to detail, planning/organizing/coordinating.

    Big brain -  the visionary where cool ideas come from.   The skillset here emphasizes creativity, industry awareness, strategic thinking, and the like.

    To be successful, PMs need all of the three Bs to a fairly high level or they will be ineffective.  At worst, a one-skillset PM gets pigeon-holed as the team clerk (the bulldozer failure mode), the guy you send to meetings with other teams (the bridge builder failure mode) or the guy who sits in his office thinking big thoughts but accomplishing little (the big brain failure mode).

    At higher senority, then specalization can become possible - it's where full-fledged project managers come from and where PM architects come from.

  • Mark Brown

    Well put Bruce. I don't think I could have said that any better.

  • Minh

    Mark Brown wrote:
    Well put Bruce. I don't think I could have said that any better.
    Yes. Thanks, to Bruce, I think I recognize the bulldozer failure mode in one of our PM.

  • Rory

    BruceMorgan wrote:
    
    Minh wrote: 
    JChung2006 wrote: Good managers will not only make the right decisions, which is only possible because they are in touch with reality, but he will have the authority (convincing his bosses that what must be done must be done) and the leadership (convincing his team that what must be done must be done) to execute those decisions.

    Yeah, my company's PM mirrors MS PM, in that they have almost no authority. I guess I can sum it up with a good PM knows what really is going on AND has the ability to convince people.

    A program manager is not a "manager" in the people management, "annual review writer" style.     Don't be mislead about the PM position because of that.  "Program Managers neither program nor manage".  Remember that.

    The PM role is complex and hard to sum up in a sentence.  Most successful PMs are highly technical, but not always.  Most successful PMs are visionaries to a degree, but not always.  Most successful PMs have great organization skills, but not always.  Almost all do have good communication skills, but that's not the same thing as ability to convince people.

    I have heard the PM skill set summarized as the Three B's:

    Bridge builders - creating and maintaining effective working relationships between people on a team, within a larger group, and across multiple groups with different goals and priorities.  This is high on communication skills, and softer people skills such as empathy and interpersonal awareness.

    Bulldozer - this is all about execution and getting things done, all lose ends are tied up, things are moving forward.  A "bulldozer" makes the meeting schedule, ensures closure on decisions, writes the spec on time, ensures the developer has everything he/she needs before they need it, etc.   The skillset here emphasizes project management, attention to detail, planning/organizing/coordinating.

    Big brain -  the visionary where cool ideas come from.   The skillset here emphasizes creativity, industry awareness, strategic thinking, and the like.

    To be successful, PMs need all of the three Bs to a fairly high level or they will be ineffective.  At worst, a one-skillset PM gets pigeon-holed as the team clerk (the bulldozer failure mode), the guy you send to meetings with other teams (the bridge builder failure mode) or the guy who sits in his office thinking big thoughts but accomplishing little (the big brain failure mode).

    At higher senority, then specalization can become possible - it's where full-fledged project managers come from and where PM architects come from.


    Wow. This rocks.

    I've been working at Microsoft for two and a half years, and this is the first time anyone has been able to explain to me what a PM actually is/does.

    I've asked the question in a few of my interviews, but nothing quite so coherent as what you just wrote has been said.

    If it's all correct (and I'll just take your word for it), this is the best explanation of PM in existence.

    I'm actually going to copy the text of your post and save it to my desktop so that I can refer to it in the future.

    Seriously, Bruce - thanks.

  • DarthVista

    Rory wrote:
    
    BruceMorgan wrote: 
    Minh wrote: 
    JChung2006 wrote: Good managers will not only make the right decisions, which is only possible because they are in touch with reality, but he will have the authority (convincing his bosses that what must be done must be done) and the leadership (convincing his team that what must be done must be done) to execute those decisions.

    Yeah, my company's PM mirrors MS PM, in that they have almost no authority. I guess I can sum it up with a good PM knows what really is going on AND has the ability to convince people.

    A program manager is not a "manager" in the people management, "annual review writer" style.     Don't be mislead about the PM position because of that.  "Program Managers neither program nor manage".  Remember that.

    The PM role is complex and hard to sum up in a sentence.  Most successful PMs are highly technical, but not always.  Most successful PMs are visionaries to a degree, but not always.  Most successful PMs have great organization skills, but not always.  Almost all do have good communication skills, but that's not the same thing as ability to convince people.

    I have heard the PM skill set summarized as the Three B's:

    Bridge builders - creating and maintaining effective working relationships between people on a team, within a larger group, and across multiple groups with different goals and priorities.  This is high on communication skills, and softer people skills such as empathy and interpersonal awareness.

    Bulldozer - this is all about execution and getting things done, all lose ends are tied up, things are moving forward.  A "bulldozer" makes the meeting schedule, ensures closure on decisions, writes the spec on time, ensures the developer has everything he/she needs before they need it, etc.   The skillset here emphasizes project management, attention to detail, planning/organizing/coordinating.

    Big brain -  the visionary where cool ideas come from.   The skillset here emphasizes creativity, industry awareness, strategic thinking, and the like.

    To be successful, PMs need all of the three Bs to a fairly high level or they will be ineffective.  At worst, a one-skillset PM gets pigeon-holed as the team clerk (the bulldozer failure mode), the guy you send to meetings with other teams (the bridge builder failure mode) or the guy who sits in his office thinking big thoughts but accomplishing little (the big brain failure mode).

    At higher senority, then specalization can become possible - it's where full-fledged project managers come from and where PM architects come from.


    Wow. This rocks.

    I've been working at Microsoft for two and a half years, and this is the first time anyone has been able to explain to me what a PM actually is/does.

    I've asked the question in a few of my interviews, but nothing quite so coherent as what you just wrote has been said.

    If it's all correct (and I'll just take your word for it), this is the best explanation of PM in existence.

    I'm actually going to copy the text of your post and save it to my desktop so that I can refer to it in the future.

    Seriously, Bruce - thanks.
    This does rock. This will help when I write up some plaques for the rooms in my yet-to-be-dedicated temple. I'm thinking of modelling it up in Legos or maybe cardboard just for a prototype before the real bricks get laid.

  • MikeGalos

    Minh wrote:
    
    MikeGalos wrote:
    The groups that do worst split design and schedule and that means that when trade offs inevitably occur, the choice that is made isn't based on all the factors but is, instead, a personality and power fight between the person who owns the design and the person who owns the schedule and often (usually?) the end result is precisely the wrong choice.

    Interesting. I assume this means that the PM would solely takes care of the scheduling (business goals) bits, since there is usally already a technical (design goals) guy in the group.



    The whole point of a true Program Manager is that they MUST own both scheduling and technical design. If there is a dedicated schedule owner or a dedicated feature owner then you're in that miserable state of politics rather than function. If there is already a design goals guy in the group and they don't own the schedule then the PM isn't doing the real PM job.

    Yes, there are some groups inside and outside of Microsoft that have "non-technical PMs" but they're not following the real methodology. They've been coopted either by management who don't understand the role and want a traditional Project Manager or they haven't been able to find people with the mix of skills needed to really do the PM job.

  • MikeGalos

    Minh wrote:
    
    MikeGalos wrote: All the responsibility with none of the authority is not a joke. It's the key to successfully being a Program Manager as Microsoft has traditionally defined it rather than a generic project manager.

    Thanks for the insights, Mike. I found this to be fascinating. So MS has baked this into how it runs projects. Do you find this to be a hinderance when it comes to Agile methods (w/ all the SCRUM talks during Vista development)? Or are you guys moving towards Agile at all?


    It varies with how the team implements an Agile methodology and how religious they are to it. My current group is Very dedicated to Agile and while some of what PMs do changes (as do ALL disciplines) the need for PMs doing PM things absolutely remains critical.

  • MikeGalos

    As an FYI: I absolutely agree with Bruce's 3Bs description. Nicely summarized.

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