Age, Experience, and Project Management

In a thread over at ZMan’s place somebody left the following comment:

The point appears to be that a young engineer entering into the workforce should shut up and listen to his elders and betters instead of getting ideas above his station about wanting to be a project manager. From experience I can say that this attitude is common in industry, or at least it was 15-20 years ago.

At first glance it makes sense. It is unthinkable that somebody with no experience should be put in charge of those who have twenty years under their belts, and I know too well the disaster that can unfold when over-educated bright young things are given the run of a place at the expense of older people who know what they’re doing. The problem is this assumes the problem is peoples’ age rather than simple shit management.

There is no reason why somebody young and with very little experience cannot be a project manager. The key is to give them a project which is small, easily manageable, and not very important. It can be something as simple as reorganising a warehouse. The idea is they understand the fundamentals of project delivery early on, when failure doesn’t matter and there are plenty of people to jump in and help out. Chances are on the first day he’ll start issuing instructions to one of the old hands who will roundly put him in his place, and he’ll have learned a valuable lesson: some of the old hands are worth listening to, and you need them. But that doesn’t mean they ought to be in charge. He’ll also learn about planning, preparation, organisation, reporting, budgets, etc. in an environment that is more forgiving than he can expect in future. If he does well he can be given a slightly bigger project, and then another, and so on across a whole career.

The skills required in a project manager are wildly different from those required to be a good discipline engineer. The two require different personalities for a start. There is no reason to think that one must prove oneself as an engineer before becoming a project manager. I would advise that one still needs to be an engineer, or technical at least. You wouldn’t want a historian turning his hand to industrial project management. But you wouldn’t want an engineer with 20 years’ experience doing so either.

The mistake a lot of companies make is taking their best, most experienced engineer and giving him his first project management role at age 40. The skillset is completely different, but companies have this annoying habit of thinking project management is something anyone can do on the fly. What happens is the engineer hates the role – he’d rather have stayed as an engineer, but likes the increased pay, prestige, and “manager” title – and does a lousy job. All of the fundamentals of project management are completely new to him and he has been put on a large, complex project with many pitfalls. This is no place to be learning the ropes. His reaction will be to hunker down into what he knows best – the minute details – and start trying to micromanage everything, because he doesn’t know how to delegate, doesn’t trust anyone, and believes everyone is winging it as much as he is. Micromanagement is a sure sign the person in question is not confident in their own abilities; those who are don’t micromanage, because the idea of somebody being competent is not alien to them. You can often tell what discipline a project manager comes from because they try to do all the design of that area themselves. Meanwhile the project management tasks – particularly communication and organisation – don’t get done.

The genuine old hand engineers know this. Provided they are used properly and treated with respect, they have no problem reporting to young whippersnapper project managers. This is unsurprising when you consider the military: young men with no experience are taught a specific set of skills and are then put in command of much older and more experienced men (the NCOs) with a different set of skills. It is vital that each respects the other’s role and experience for it to work, but it’s been proven to work over centuries. The decent old hands will help the young, ambitious guys not shoot them down.

The sort of old hands who come out with the remarks like those in the comment I quote above are almost always bitter individuals whose own ordinariness or incompetence has left them in the same position for the past two decades and all they have to fall back on is their time served. They make the mistake of equating time served with experience, and compound it by believing such experience is more important than competence. One of the best project managers I worked with was inexperienced, but boy was he competent. I’ve lost count of the number of “experienced” project managers I’ve come across whose entire career was a litany of blithering incompetence.

I’d say to any young engineer, treat any old hand engineer with a healthy skepticism until you’ve figured out those who are worth talking to. And then you listen to everything they have to say.

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18 thoughts on “Age, Experience, and Project Management

  1. I’ve seen some great engineers destroyed by them being forced to project manage because that’s the only road for progression and pay grades. It’s truly bonkers as an idea. The kind of bonkers that can only persist in large companies.

    Project Management requires about 2 years of reasonable technical experience in the right environment. Then, as you say, time to introduce them to running a smaller job. I’m also less and less convinced it needs an engineering degree at all. There is a very identifiable mindset required that I just don’t see in most engineers.

  2. Tim,

    That’s a great deconstruction of the Project Manager problem, but it also applies to managers generally, especially in the public sector.

    Management of a group of people or tasks is a fundamentally different skill set to doing the tasks themselves, and it’s rare that HR departments recognise this fully (despite the fact their jobs a primarily focussed on understanding nuance between jobs: especially in cases of redundancy and reorganisation))

    I respectfully disagree, though, with Mr Moore’s notion that you can only be a PM after 2 years of experience in a technical role- it’s not relevant that a PM understands the details of a task: they do however need to understand the risks (which arise from the techie overstating/understating the downside) and how each task relates to another. Sure, a more detailed understanding of what the techie is actually doing is helpful, but not a prerequisite, especially if the PM has very good people skills.Your point about PM’s gravitating to their comfort zone as soon as the going gets tough is very valid, though- I’d not seen it put that way before.

    On that point of people skills, I suspect that’s why (in my experience) you see a greater proportion of women as PM’s than as techies- there’s an assumption that women will have a better grasp of the people side, without the autism sometimes found in the (male) technical staff. I’ve seen this arrangement work well, right up to the point that the female PM in question either pulls the “but I’m just a lickle gurl and I’m too dumb to understand the difficult bits, so can you please have X done by tomorrow” or, equally destructively, assumes that shouting louder will get a project back on track.

  3. I am a qualified Civil Engineer, have worked at most levels of design and construction engineering in most sectors internationally during my earlier years, I work with them day in and day out in my role as an Executive Director of a rapidly growing noe medium sized international contractor.

    I think there is a lot of truth in the saying that when it comes to any organisational structure that Engineers should be on tap not on top.

    That is not meant to be disparaging of engineers just my observation as a purist that engineering and engineers in all sense of the word are not meant to run things other than engineering efforts and engineering teams.

    Engineers that remain engineers tend to not be focused on wealth creation either and are happy with their relatively decent wage and humble lifestyle.

    It would be rare to find a career engineer at director level in most organisations unless say in design consultancy firm, otherwise the majority of directors of large engineering contractors tend to be qualified engineers that moved successfully into project management earlier on in their career.

  4. Utterly vaguely related, because my background was not in the noble calling of engineering but because I worked in the media and was — pause for laughter — a graphic designer at one stage. The business I was in had several graphic designers (you think those ‘rag outs’ of old newspaper headlines are actually torn real paper? Ha! They are drawn up that way)

    But what surprised me one day was a fellow designer who proudly said his ambition was to become the company’s first Art Director. His vision was he would sit back, smoking his pretentious French camel-dung cigarettes and merely say whether he liked something or not and tell others to take his preferred approach. Far as I know he never made it to that exalted role, but it would in all fairness have been a trivial job at best.

  5. @Watcher
    “His vision was he would sit back, smoking his pretentious French camel-dung cigarettes and merely say whether he liked something or not and tell others to take his preferred approach.”

    Sounds like a JD for a consultant?!

  6. I remember once lifting the flap on a photocopier to find a sheet a paper that had been left behind by a project manager. It was headed “Census of units of urinal accommodation”.

    I thought it encouraging that he’d started by scoping out the work. No I didn’t; I just laughed.

  7. JohnSquare;

    “I respectfully disagree, though, with Mr Moore’s notion that you can only be a PM after 2 years of experience in a technical role- it’s not relevant that a PM understands the details of a task: they do however need to understand the risks ”

    I have heard this view a lot and disagree, but then again I believe almost all of the theory of project management is deeply flawed and lacks the necessary chaos for a successful project.

    A good PM needs to understand how imperfect the technical side is. The fastest way to this is spend some time buried in it. Not too much time, but just enough to develop a good nose for it.

  8. “Women become project managers a fair bit.”

    I am not seeing any noticeable increase though and I have never ever met any female project director. There are not enough female undergraduates or cadets starting to provide for any future increase in ratios.

    I worked with Sue Murphy when we were both with Clough Engineering, she was a trailblazer in the boardroom and the first sheila to smash through the glass ceiling of the testosterone driven boardroom, being and being seen to be resolute in your approach was what I learned from her.

    Sue Murphy is the CEO of the Water Corporation of Western Australia. She is also an Adjunct Professor in Project Management at the UWA Business School.

    http://www.business.uwa.edu.au/school/board/sue_murphy

  9. Offshore oil and gas makes a similar mistake where they force the head tool-pusher into becoming an OIM. You could insert those roles into your excellent piece and it would just about be the same.

    By the way, I saw that exchange on the Z man, and I thought, ‘here we go – Tim is going to nail him to a wall.’

    Instead your response was measured, dignified, and illuminating. I was extremely disappointed.

  10. In my own job, I have spent the last year being driven mad by someone trying to micromanage me. Just recently, though, I have been managed by someone much younger than me who just tells me what to do and lets me get on with it, and pops over once in a while to check what direction I am working in, throws in a quick “good work”, and then leaves me alone again. God it’s a relief.

    In the world of computer programming, the best managers (who are worth their weight in gold) generally come from the ranks of programmers who are competent but not brilliant, are smart enough to realise this, and who have other skills. A technical understanding of the job is necessary, as is an understanding of the mindset of the job. Brilliance in the job is probably a liability, partly because the brilliant have difficulty understanding (and therefore managing) the non-brilliant, and secondly because brilliant people should be left doing what they are brilliant at.

  11. I noticed your comment over at zman, one of the best blogs around at the moment with great comments. There is as always the odd prick about and you caught one…nice retort by the way.

  12. I’ve seen some great engineers destroyed by them being forced to project manage because that’s the only road for progression and pay grades.

    Yup. I’ve witnessed several companies trying to implement programmes that would see senior technical people hold the same status as managers, but none was successful.

    It’s truly bonkers as an idea. The kind of bonkers that can only persist in large companies.

    Indeed.

  13. Management of a group of people or tasks is a fundamentally different skill set to doing the tasks themselves, and it’s rare that HR departments recognise this fully (despite the fact their jobs a primarily focussed on understanding nuance between jobs: especially in cases of redundancy and reorganisation))

    This is one of my biggest gripes about modern HR. They have lobbied their way into getting huge, sprawling departments and seats on the board, and are always dreaming up new and innovative techniques involving psychological profiling, personality tests, etc. But when it comes down to it people are assigned to positions almost at random, taking into account only time served and degree of compliance the individual has shown towards management instructions and initiatives.

  14. His vision was he would sit back, smoking his pretentious French camel-dung cigarettes and merely say whether he liked something or not and tell others to take his preferred approach.

    That’s the job I want!

  15. Instead your response was measured, dignified, and illuminating. I was extremely disappointed.

    I must try harder. *Hangs head in shame*

  16. I noticed your comment over at zman, one of the best blogs around at the moment with great comments.

    Absolutely.

    There is as always the odd prick about and you caught one…nice retort by the way.

    Thanks!

  17. I quite like the Myers-Briggs classification of personality types as a sniff test as to whether people are in the correct role.

    If your profile starts with an “I”, project management probably isn’t for you or you will have to really concentrate on overcoming that introversion.

    The issue with taking a good engineer (or IT technician, accountant, etc. – anyone with a specialism) and making them manage a team of people is that there aren’t enough hours in the day for them to be able to manage at the level of detail that will provide the with comfort.

    At a very simple level, they must unlearn so much to allow themselves to find the aggregated metrics and proxy measures that indicate progress is being made or not.

    If I have to try to get someone to do this, I ask them to consider how to answer a question along the lines of; “if you could only communicate with your team for a day a week, what would be the information you would need to know they’re doing the right thing? What if that day became just one hour?”.

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