Jul 222008

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Here is a story from the trenches…

Almost 3 years ago during a job interview one of the interviewers made a comment about how they never hire MBA’s for managerial positions. I didn’t get a chance to ask, when she continued to highlight the advantages (brag, really) of working with a superior who had worked as a programmer and climbed his/her way up the food chain. “We never have to talk to an MBA around here,” she added, and went on to finish with “everybody knows the code.”

The Ideal Project Manager?

You know, she’s talking about the kind of person who would know how to make time estimations and complexity assessment because, well, they had worked on similar things themselves. Not only that, imagine a supervisor who has actually worked on the very same projects that you’d be working on! No more lengthy meetings discussing time estimates and project plans, no more trying to hopelessly convince the manager why we need that extra person to pitch in to finish on time, no more wasted time attempting to find analogies of “spaghetti code” and hacks that must be refactored away before we add the next big thing, and more importantly, you’d have someone up the managerial food chain getting more realistic requirements and deadlines right off the bat before you even hear about the next project. After all, they know as much as the team everything there is to know about the codebase and software engineering… or so I thought!

I got hired alright. At first, I was rather amused by the idea; most everyone had worked on what I was working on at some time and every body seemed to have some idea about it. I imagined talking to the project manager about some project and how he’d point out some tricky part and that I should probably add in an extra week just to make sure it’s covered. I imagined hearing anecdotes and funny stories. In my mind I thought I would never have to talk the manager into anything; s/he would know what I’m talking about, and many times I expected them to tell me they’d extend the deadline because they know more testing would be needed. They know the code!

Enter Mr. MBA

Well, before I tell you what you probably expect anyway, let me tell you about an MBA who got hired at a time when there were no candidates for the position of a PM. They needed a PM, and they needed one immediately. So they hired Mr. MBA. Unlike what I had expected from an MBA, and unlike the typical Mr. MBA that I ran into throughout my career, this one was different. For a start his estimates were very realistic and often more accurate than the team’s! He was also very understanding. He’d get feedback from the team, make his own calculation (almost always to the team’s benefit) and take it up the chain. So often he’d take my estimates and add a 20 or 30% and make a comment to the effect of “QA is too busy, they’ll probably delay this project” or “we have external dependency; you can never know how effective they will communicate”. And almost always he was right on the money! The only times that he’d push for a shorter schedule or demand more aggressive results is when the success of the project directly depends on these factors and he thinks there is a way to optimize the project plan. And he’d find a way to reorganize things around and optimize things to get the right results.

How well do you think the other managers did? Needless to say they were a huge disappointment. They were the typical MBA I had in mind. Extremely rigid in their methods. Very opinionated and argumentative. Snobbish. Typically cutting any estimate by half and exclaiming why it would take that long to get such a trivial task done. Complaining and whining at every barrier or issue. Complete babies. And at the end of the day, they cared more about proving they were right than to get things done.


Here is why I think things turned out the opposite of what I expected. I think the reason that managers with technical background failed is because they almost always overestimate their abilities and undervalue their peers’ assessment. You see, where the MBA doesn’t try to imagine himself working on the tasks and projects, instead relies on historic data, experience, statistics and plain common sense, the tech manager tries to guess how long it would take him to do it.

Programmers are not the most humble. It’s easy to overestimate one’s abilities especially when you don’t want to look like you’re on the slow side in front of your once-peers, now subordinates. This is exacerbated by the fact that the manager in question probably hasn’t typed a single line of code in months. But even if they do, they still almost always undervalue the feedback of the team. In short, it’s very hard for someone who’s done a job to play a different roll and assume that s/he know nothing about the subject. After all, their advantage was supposed to be the very fact that they have been programmers. They are expected to use their experience! However, those who can’t get over the feeling of competing with their subordinates are doomed to do a bad job. While the tech manager is wasting energy completing with his/her subordinates, Mr. MBA was trying to solve real problems and work with the team.

Do you have a similar story? What’s your take on the subject? Are managers with programming experience better software PM’s or MBA’s know best?

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  3 Responses to “Tech Savvy vs. MBA Project Manager”

  1. Will not totally agree with you.

    I will recommend a pure MBA for a role where some customer mgt, some PR needs to be done. Pure MBA’s are as a norm very articulate, very comfortable BS-ing, politicking. To get real/quality work done (purely from software quality point of view), the ideal person would be a techie who’s climbed the ladder up slowly, naturally, usually without even desiring (let alone fighting for) it explicitly.

    Also, exceptions can be both sides.

    An ideal combination would be: a highly technical, hands-on background with an MBA degree on the side.

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  2. Harry,

    I agree with you. My point was that techies as managers have their problems. In particular I don’t think anyone who matches the technical and experience profile is fit to be a manager. An ideal candidate would never allow his/her ego to get in the way. From my experience that’s a rare quality. Also, HR is usually not rescreening internal candidates, so you get more of the wrong guys up the ladder.


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  3. I beg to differ. Unless you’re a very skilled Project Manager and a fast learner, it is always to have the relevant experience in the field (in this case the programming field).

    I do agree that sometimes people get promoted or get put in a Project Manager’s position without having the skills of Project Manager (take a look at this article about the ideal project manager for the hard skills and the soft skills of a Project Manager), but that’s a pure upper management mistake.

    A good Project Manager with a technical background is more knowledgeable of a programmer’s ego, as well as his/her (the programmer’s) tendency to give extremely optimistic and unrealistic schedules. The good Project Manager will also be able to estimate tasks without even going back to the programmer (who usually never give even remotely accurate estimates).

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