Not too long ago I found myself "resting", as an old actor friend used to put it, and looking for a new project management role. The process of finding a job in IT has changed enormously over the years, with online job listings increasingly taking the place of interviews for the pre-selection of candidates.
Years ago, when job-hopping seemed to be a rite of passage for a programmer, the approach to job hunting was to search through the Yellow Pages, dress in your finest strides and pay a personal visit to several local recruitment agencies. This was a personal approach, where the job seeker and agency could chew the fat together over a cup of coffee and possibly a cigarette.
After these opening moves of recruitment chess, having identified past colleagues in common and chatted about what you were looking for, you would get around to reviewing what was on the agency's books, fill in a few forms and arrange an interview or two.
This face-to-face approach was very effective, as the candidate could get a flavour for the agency's competency and build a rapport with the recruiter. At the same time, the agency would get a pretty good idea about the candidate's suitability for the available roles. This placed them in a very good position to tell their client what they thought of the candidate.
How things have changed. Welcome to the new way of pre-selecting staff.
In my working career I have managed internal projects, projects with third-party suppliers, easy projects, difficult projects, large projects, small projects, projects that I wish I had never even heard of, and projects that probably wished the same of me.
Some have been a breeze, others were more of a hurricane. Those where I made mistakes taught me some excellent lessons. In short, I have gained a lot of all-round experience. So how much would all this experience benefit me during the search for a new role using today's less-than-intimate online job boards?
I was astounded by some of the requirements stipulated as "must haves" by companies wanting to fill project manager vacancies. Some positions stated that, "candidates must have good knowledge of Java and C#", and others required "experience in UML and SQL".
I do not know what other project managers spend their time doing, but in my career so far no one has ever asked me to write any code. There is really no good reason why this should be necessary, so why is it asked for?
I apologise for stating the obvious, but one thing I have learned is that a project manager's job is to manage. Yes, it is useful if the manager has some knowledge of the technical aspects of the project, but it is only "useful", not a "must have".
The manager has a project team consisting of an analyst, an architect, a developer and people who are employed for various purposes, including identifying and analysing various technical options.
As long as the manager has the capacity to understand the technical issues to the point where they can make informed decisions, then they should be able to fulfil their responsibilities.
Another thing that puzzles me is the requirement for candidates with industry-specific experience to fill project manager posts. I have managed all kinds of commercial projects that have come my way. Before I encountered many of them, I did not have the slightest idea about the business for which I would be managing the project.
The application development projects I have managed, as far as I am concerned, have all been business projects, for which IT has provided one component out of possibly several to achieve the business goal.
My role as project manager is to coordinate technologies that are a good fit for business problems.
If there is a business issue to be resolved, then analysts will advise the project manager and the project manager will confer with the "key user" - or whatever he or she is called according to the methodology being used - to resolve the issue.
If the issue has a technical angle, specialists within the team will be called upon. Of course, the business may not be clear about its objectives.
A skilled project manager or analyst will recognise this and take appropriate action, but any ensuing decisions are for the business to take, not the project manager. Knowing the business sector is simply not a requirement for a project manager.
Often, managers who have experience of many different sectors are the ones who have the most to offer a business and can ask, "Have you considered taking this approach?" The diversity of their experience is their strength. Identifying candidates with this type of experience should be a priority for recruitment agencies and job listings, not a narrow focus on prior knowledge of a sector.
Another interesting feature of online advertisements for project management positions is the frequent demand for candidates who "must be Prince2 practitioners". Let us pause to consider the fate of some schemes that have used the Prince2 (Projects in Controlled Environments) project management methodology, as reported in Computer Weekly.
● Electronic Passport Application system: suspended after two months after devouring e-mails. The system is responsible for a backlog of 5,000 applications. The relaunch date of the project is unknown.
● Rural Payments Agency system: delayed farm payments for more than 8,000 people, forcing hundreds of farmers to take out loans to cover business costs.
● Inland Revenue Working Tax Credits scheme: payments delayed for up to six months.
● National Programme for IT: costs have so far escalated from £2.3bn to £12.4bn.
All of the above used Prince2, a product of the Office of Government Commerce and a de facto standard for government IT projects.
To a layperson reviewing these projects, it must seem that placing a Prince2 practitioner in charge is like wheeling in Fox Loxy to take care of your chickens.
Maybe I am being unfair. Perhaps these projects would be in an even worse state without Prince2.
The demand for Prince2 practitioners leads me to believe that enterprises large and small must have such poorly performing IT projects that their search for an effective remedy has reached a state of desperation.
The mantra of the moment is Prince2, but if the projects listed above are any indication then Prince2 is of about as much use to project managers as bicycles are to fish. Those appointing project managers appear to be keen to back a three-legged horse.
Furthermore, formal methodology accreditation provides no indication of a candidate's skills in working with people, building teams and managing expectations the "softer" skills that are essential to any project's success.
Do not misunderstand me. I know Prince2, have used it on several occasions and recognise that, as with many other methodologies, it has some excellent features. However, the management of a project is only ever as good as the person who does the managing.
That person can learn Prince2, Process Continuum or whatever they like, but they will only be as good as their ability to use it. The reality is that knowledge of a number of different methodological systems is better than certification in just one. A manager should be able to use these methodologies like a tool box, selecting the most appropriate methodology for the particular job in hand.
The ability to identify the most useful tool at the right time from a choice of methodologies will not guarantee success, but it will improve the chances of it. What does it matter which tool, or combination of tools, is used as long as the project benefits?
Rigid adherence to the dictates of Prince2 leads to completion dates that rapidly disappear over the horizon. Sticking firmly to a methodology places the manager in a straitjacket and stifles the flair and creativity that the experience of diverse approaches brings.
Perhaps IT managers who are recruiting would be wise to get recruitment agencies to do a little more than have short telephone chats with candidates. Eliciting the breadth and depth of skills these candidates have acquired, rather than purely placing ticks against a list, is the mark of a skilled recruiter.
I appreciate that time can be short and the number of applicants can be high, but time spent at this point in the selection process will pay dividends later on.
To summarise, when looking for staff to fill project management positions, enterprises ought to embrace and capitalise on the advantages of diverse experience rather than the limitations of the same old approaches. Silver bullets will not be found using tunnel vision.
Alan Smith started his career as a programmer with ICL and has since worked on a wide range of IT projects
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