Dear Project Leader

an open letter to all (IT) project leaders

Doing a project is a multidisciplinary job. It is a serious game with a lot of stakeholders and due to the fact that both you an I are quite expensive, let alone all the facilities we are using, a lot is at stake. It is our job to make it worthwhile.

To act properly in this arena we need to make a few things clear. Although you are officially the leader – it is even in your job title – I would like to add my suggestions too. You might consider me as an SME (Subject Matter Expert), a technical leader or a specialist, depending on the project we are doing.

You are the official contact with the world outside of the project. I am working to get all the deliverables in place. You are managing the process, perhaps even some of the procedures and I am working on the content, most of the deliverables.

If someone told you that you can manage any project, because you know how to lead projects and you are merely working domain free, I would start by telling you that you have been misinformed. Let me explain why:

At some point you want to know from me how much I have done and what I need to do. So I am going to try to explain that I have most of the software up and running, most likely have some open questions (which you’ll need to work on, together with the client) and perhaps I need some external help (like requesting DNSses, load balancers or firewall changes). And I will use some jargon to explain all of this. Most of it is in the details, you see. And jargon tends to be more precise than metaphors.

So how are you going to understand how far we are in the project? You cannot ask me everything, because I might have no idea what the process for requesting a loadbalancer is. Does it require a FQDN? You will need to talk to the client to decide on it. How do we obtain IP addresses and are there any other prerequisites? We probably need to tell them how they can have an indication of our live states and whether or not we want IP stickiness and on what grounds.

Are you still there? Did you get it? And this was a relatively simple example in which case I can answer most questions. Perhaps the change process has a fixed maximum response time. But if it is overdue, you’ll need to escalate. Good luck explaining people what they need to do and why it is important for us, without knowing the exact details and not being able to answer obvious questions you will get back!

So managing a project without domain knowledge is a stupid idea, made up somewhere in the management layers where the details are lost. But you are too close to the details – to close to me – to ignore them.

Another thing you need to remember is the following: Your job is 90% communication. You talk with me and the rest of the team, you’ll probably create a bunch of spreadsheets and you’ll talk to the outside world. I actually need to do some work as well. My job is for less than 50% about communication. So you’ll get about 10% maximum of my time to communicate with you. Perhaps 20% when I am the internal team lead. The more time you claim or need from me, the more the deadline is going to shift, because I need to do the actual stuff. So to do yourself a favour and leave me alone a bit. Let’s timebox our communication moments and leave some time for me to focus on the deliverables.

This gets even more important when the stress levels increase. Something is bound to go wrong in a project. It happens all the time. It is why we have some slack or contingency planned in the project. The moment something is broken, I need all my attention to fix the problem. Any moment that you are breathing in my neck or bothering the rest of the team, you are the reason why fixing it takes even longer than anticipated or hoped for.

Which brings me to another matter. Sometimes things are broken or unclear. At that point we will not know how long it will take. We can give a rough estimate, based on experience, but that is not always the case. I dislike it as much as you do. But if it was easy you wouldn’t have hired someone with the skills like me.

And then there is the baby metaphor. A pregnancy takes roughly nine months. No matter how many doctors or pregnant women you bring in. It still takes nine months to deliver a baby. The same goes for some things I need to do. Bringing more people to some parts of the project won’t finish them off earlier. There is even a good chance that it will take longer, because everybody will use more time to communicate with more and more people.

So if you want to do a good job as a project leader, please help me do my job. The best project leaders are project facilitators with some domain knowledge. Experience will come over time and I am more than willing to help you. You can even take the credit if we deliver on time and budget.

I am usually hired as a subject matter expert and part of that is doing projects. I hope you can learn a little from me. This will let both of us flourish and do a good job and a good project. Because that is what we were both hired for.

One response to “Dear Project Leader”

  1. This is really amazing tips i will link this guide to my blog, keep posting!

Leave a Reply