Is Project Management Peaking?

Arthur Rudolph

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After catching up on Brian’s progress, I started wondering if my own job was easy to outsource to the other side of the world, and decided it wasn’t. Well, it is, though not really. But I started doing a little thought experiment on what might make it obsolete altogether.

The Thought Experiment: What could make most software project managers obsolete?

Project managers, in the best cases, can add a lot of value. The best (paid) ones manage undertakings that are either:

(1) complex, and would surely never happen without someone experienced in the challenges and tools to manage them

(2) necessary, but hard to make a profit on, without someone who knows how to do that

(3) fraught with risk, where the PM’s main contribution is to manage the project in a way that avoids loss or ‘failure’

The above are general enough to suggest that PMs will always be with us. But can a case be made that 10 years from now, most won’t?

There are a lot of project managers in the world today. There are nearly half a million PMP-certified ones, and most people in a project management role today are not PMP-certified.

For #1 above, what if complexity gave way to smaller sized efforts? The inefficiency of communications between departments, teams, individuals, or countries yields once the complexity subsides.

Likewise for #2 and #3, more and more software profits are based on services and other add-ons, where ‘regular’ managers with some project management knowledge could become the norm.

#1 The March Toward Less Complexity

These are the questions that are on my mind. Because I read a Wired magazine article a few weeks ago that showed how it is traffic from smartphone apps, not web surfing, that cellular networks are groaning under. And because of an article a few weeks ago about how more and more software development is being based on the iPhone/Android model of strictly defined frameworks (the smartphone/tablet operating systems) instead of more general frameworks like Windows, and that this is being done to protect users from malware as well as handset/tablet/iPad manufacturers from the general bugginess Windows users face. The same security model will, I think, become popular across all software, not just phones and tablets, and while it’s good overall, there are implications.

Also, apps are less complex in general that other software. They tend to be single purpose, and the definition of a successful one isn’t that it does everything, but that it does something well that you find useful. As those companies (or more often individual coders) try to add in more features, they quickly run up against limits on the device itself. In most cases, they create additional apps, instead of bloating their latest success.

What could this mean for high-end project managers? Maybe very little for the very best of them, because there will always be some complex projects needed, somewhere. Even if it is primarily to care for the current complex systems. After all, there are still people making a living with buggy whips.

For the lower-end project managers, it might even be a boon, and these are often the types of location-independent project management jobs that can indeed be sent to a different country.

But for those in the middle it could mean their ranks will be thinned out. As usual, the middle is the most dangerous place to be. Take out complexity, and you’re left with depending on inefficiency for your job’s value. Since much of the inefficiency is due to the size of the community or bureaucracy those PMs deal with, when it is reduced, so is their value.

If I was in the middle right now, I’d make a 5 year plan to move up the value chain, move down (by relocating to a cheaper place), or move out.

#2 The Project Manager Yields to the Profit Manager

Making a profit is hard. Most project managers whom I know never have to think about doing it. Staying within budget, yes. Adding profit, no.

Staying within budget is like being on the cost of side an enterprise, instead of the revenue side. In every enterprise, there are the people who focus on cost containment/reduction, and the ones who focus on revenue generation. Some management people have to do both, but generally it’s one or the other. The head of HR isn’t thinking about revenue creation, the head of Sales doesn’t care what paperclips cost. No matter who you are, you are one side of this split.

If your interest, as a project manager, is on cost containment, then the (merely possible, granted) reduction in complexity as a general trend means this role is less necessary than before. Another reality of our modern life lately, the freemium, means the pressure to find additional ways to create a profit will grow.

Personally, this is where I contribute most of my value as a project manager*, whichever company I am working for, and it’s tricky. At the last company I worked, I eventually had an entire system fashioned for myself, never shared**, that had me bringing in extra revenue for my employer amounting to 10x my salary. I have been sitting on the article I wrote about how to do it for a while now, because I am sure it would kill my career. It was 100% ethically conducted, but why even let the topic come up in conversation with a customer?

#3 If I Wasn’t Here, You’d Be Screwed

This where most of the project managers I know live. Their ultimate role is to manage or protect the project against loss, financial, time, or otherwise, by keeping things moving in the right direction. It’s hard work. It’s time consuming, maybe even life consuming. And it’s thankless. It really is a thankless job. But somebody’s got to do it.

But what is that somebody isn’t you?

What if the general trend really is toward smaller, less complex, inside tighter frameworks? Or what if the general business model is moving away from high priced services and toward offshore project managers where the first taste is free? If I lived in this space, I’d be the most concerned. Not only could the general trending be against my favor, but most of the project managers in my world are in the same boat, so there’s going to be price competition for the jobs I want. Price competition is bad.

If either or both of #1 and #2 come true, depending on #3 for your value to the enterprise becomes risky. I could even argue that we see this already… how many project managers now run multiple smaller projects, where neither is big enough to justify their salary?  Specifically, how many of us have seen this become more common over the past few years? I know I have.

Relax, Maybe I’m Wrong

I could be completely off base, by the way. Maybe projects will become more complex. Maybe profits will become easier to create (okay, I’m being facetious about that one). Maybe the PM role won’t change much over the next decade.

Maybe. But I still feel better having thought about the what-if.


* Interesting note: percentage of project management job listings online that mention the word profit anywhere? Zero.

(** If you are interested in the basics, you can contact me, but you can’t publish it anywhere. It’s a blending of lessons from this book, and this one, and this one. Oh, and what triggered this post’s creation was the first 3 chapters of “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, by Clay Shirky. It wasn’t new stuff, it just triggered the other memories. But maybe it would be new stuff to you…)