Some of you know I worked at Microsoft years ago (’94-’03) as what they call a program manager. In any other company the job would be known as team lead or project manager, and it was an awesome job.
When I was hired 1994 there was a cult around the role. Program Managers had a reputation for being people worthy of being afraid of for one reason: they knew how to get things done. If you got in their way, they would smile. And then eat you. They drove, led, ran, persuaded, hunted, fought and stuck their necks out for their teams with an intensity most people couldn’t match. The sort of people who eliminated all bullshit within a 10 foot radius of their presence. How to be this way, and do it without being an asshole, was one of the things I tried to capture in my book, Making things happen. All teams need at least one leader who has this kind of passion and talent regardless of where you work or what you’re working on.
But that cult has faded. I have many friends and a few clients at Microsoft, and talk with more through email and on the pmclinic discussion list, and I’m convinced true PMs are a dying breed. I suspect they were a dying breed before I started at the company and I was just lucky to be hired into a pocket still running strong. Group managers like Joe Belfiore, Hadi Partovi, Hillel Cooperman, and Chris Jones all created a landscape for PMs like me to drive and lead their teams, and made it possible for us to do a lot of good for our teams that no other role could do.
One change is the enormous growth of Microsoft since I was hired. I started in ’94 as employee #14,000 something, and now there are nearly 90,000. Bureaucracy, overhead and dead weight collect in big successful companies and Microsoft is no different. This makes it much harder to consolidate the kind of power a PM needs to behave the way I described above. The PM role has been stretched so thin there are PMs for everything, and if ever a position needs to be created that isn’t quite a marketing, programmer or tester position, but isn’t a leadership or management role, the PM label gets used anyway. Somehow it’s a crime for there to be more than 10 job titles at a company. I’m not sure why.
In many cases teams have so many PMs, and authority is so loosely distributed, than would should be simple decisions require a meeting of 8 or 10 or 15 people. Cycles of meetings on the theme of “are you ok with this? How about you? And you?” As if everyone deserves a vote on every decision. This kills momentum and wastes the value of what PMs can do. And as this goes on for years, with larger and larger staffs, no one knows what it’s like to have a clear, fast process for making basic decisions. Few remember what it feels like to be on team that has synergy, clarity, trust and focus, eliminating the need for hand-holding, triple level reconfirmations, and spending hours every week un-reversing decisions that should never have been reversed in the first place.
I hear from PMs who I suspect no longer recognize 3 hour meetings that are 100% guaranteed to be a complete waste of time, because many of their meetings are complete wastes of time. By the same token, I know PMs who work on teams that are entirely out of control, and failing in the marketplace, who think it’s normal for a team to be entirely out of control and failing in the marketplace. They’ve never seen anything else. And sadly in some cases, neither have their bosses, or (gulp) their VPs. They believe a PM is supposed to feel, much of the time, useless, ignored, and in the way. Instead of realizing that those feelings come from their failure, and the group managers failure to enable them, to do what the role was designed for.
I gave a lecture at Microsoft before I left in ’03 titled The problem with program managers that outlined many of these problems and what can be done to avoid them. All management roles run the risk of being wastes of space, and project management roles are no different. And if there’s interest I’ll pull some of those nuggets out into future blog posts.
But are there still surviving pockets of old school PMs? If so, I’d love to hear from you, at Microsoft or elsewhere.