Ineffective project managers give the rest of us a bad rap for creating overhead and being a burden to their teams, especially at lean, agile shops like WillowTree that need to stay focused to quickly deliver a high-quality product.
I saw this firsthand when joining a new team at a previous company. The lead Android engineer welcomed me with open arms - he’d been making the case for a project manager on the team for months. Meanwhile, the lead iOS engineer made a point to keep me out of the way.
The reason for the difference? The iOS engineer had suffered under an ineffective project manager, while the Android engineer had not. The Android engineer was dreaming of all of the work a project manager could take off of his hands. No more reviewing the 1,000+ ticket backlog in JIRA, no more scheduling and facilitating scrum ceremonies, and no more managing the client and their seemingly never-ending requirements.
The iOS engineer had also been hopeful when he heard a project manager was being brought onto the team the year before. Alas! Instead of being freed from frequently talking with the client, he found himself having to follow up with the client team directly for clarification on requirements that were copied and pasted from an email by the PM. And the meetings! Scrum ceremonies became extravagant affairs, with the team members spending more time in meetings than actually getting work done.
This is what team members think of when they describe a “bad” project manager. The average team member typically isn’t concerned with delivering on time and under budget. For them, a good PM runs fast meetings, removes blockers, owns requirements, and talks to the client. In short, a good PM makes their life easier.
Here are some tips to make sure you don’t become a “bad” project manager in the eyes of your team members:
Run efficient meetings
Keep meetings focused towards a specific outcome, and end on-time. Invite only team members who will participate in the meeting and benefit from the discussion. Prepare for scrum ceremonies with fully written tickets, a prioritized backlog, and list of specific issues that need to be discussed.
Write excellent requirements
Think critically about requirements and client requests, and, if needed, ask for more information before taking them to the team. If you don’t understand the feature, your engineers and QA won’t either.
Respect flow and heads-down time
Find natural breaks in the day to schedule meetings or client calls. Do not interrupt a team member’s work for a “quick question” if it can wait until they’re free.
Make life easier for your team members. Make sure they have the tools, hardware, resources, information, and time that they need to stay focused on the work at hand. For example, if an engineer needs to get on a call with an API provider, the PM should handle the logistics to make it happen.
Go beyond the call of duty
Seek out opportunities to add value beyond your job description. For example, if the team needs to start using a new tool, research it and give them a rundown. Or if the QA team is running behind, do a test run of low-hanging fruit so they can focus on the bigger issues.
Keep learning and ask thoughtful questions. Get to know each team member’s discipline so that you can answer high-level questions for the client and anticipate requirements questions before the team has to ask them.
It took several months for me to regain the trust of the lead iOS engineer, and, by extension, his team members. I was fortunate to have the support of the Android engineer, who acted as my advocate and was critical in getting me ramped up on the product. I learned a lot about what it means to be an effective project manager - one that teams look forward to working with.
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