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Project Mismanager

In IT, it is difficult to measure individual productivity, and it is particularly difficult to determine whether a project manager for a development project is 'pulling his weight'.

When I popped into the CIO’s office, he was staring straight ahead, curiously unresponsive. I felt sure he wasn’t dead, since his color seemed OK, and I distinctly saw his nose twitch. I made my usual footling attempts at light conversation, but he wasn’t up for it. I shrugged, and then I sat in a chair, waiting quietly.

“Bastard!!” he croaked

As an employee, I’d learned to ride with the blows. “Yes?”

“Not you, for heaven’s sake! I’ve just had a conversation with Amir. He’s resigned.”

“Oh heavens, not another leaving card whip-round” I replied sympathetically.

“I asked him to hand over to you all his work in progress. He replied that it wouldn’t be necessary because, for the past year, he’s done no useful work at all, at least for us. He thanked me prettily and nonchalantly walked out. There will be no need for a leaving card.”

No useful work…I savored the phrase.

“Well, he is a project manager after all.” I observed. I meant to say that it was difficult to check on a project manager’s progress at the early stage of a development project but the sentence came out wrong.

He glowered at me and suddenly pretended to become interested in reading an obtuse strategy document. I knew what he was thinking, though. Amir was his direct report, much against my advice as development manager. He couldn’t pin anything on me, but the board would be displeased about Amir’s lack of supervision, if they found out.

“OK. Perhaps I should just discreetly finish off the work that he was doing, despite there being no hand-over?”

“Impossible. He was supposed to have delivered the planning and design documents, detailed timings, costings with all the dependencies…I’m expected to show the board the feasibility study, the requirements catalog, the current services description, description of the new services, Estimated cost savings and the data dictionary.”

“If it is impossible, then you’d be really, really, grateful if I delivered all this to you in a months’ time, wouldn’t you?”

He knew what that meant; he had two options. One entailed an unpleasant board meeting where he would have to find an explanation for Amir’s resignation, and the non-delivery of the promised project proposal for sign-off. The alternative was to rely on some spectacular magic, followed by a large £20,000 bonus payment to that smug fool Phil Factor and a tranquil board meeting in which he merely had to receive their thanks modestly.

“I would be very, very, grateful if you would please sort this mess out in any way you can think of that doesn’t involve criminal activity. Immoral, yes, criminal no; we have our principles.”

His eyes dropped back to the impenetrable strategy document. The interview was over.

I liked Amir. He was a cheerful and engaging character who was the perfect companion for a night out. He was an eastern European from the republic of Elbonia (true country of origin redacted) where he had, he once told me, been a disk jockey, before heading to London to make his fortune. We agreed that the topic of Project Management was off-limits in our conversations, which suited me since he was an expert musician with an encyclopedic knowledge of many of my favorites, such as Frank Zappa, George Duke, Vicki Genfan, Derek Trucks, Otis Rush, Buster Jones, and Adrian Legg.

Amir was always a bit cagey about the truth of his IT experience. I never pressed him on the subject, though it was very difficult to fit solid IT experience into the colorful mosaic of stories he told me about his past, and the companies in Elbonia where he’d supposedly done IT work were extraordinarily difficult to track down. However, his knowledge of project management buzzword was prodigious and dazzling. He was a clever man with an agile and fertile imagination.

He was always apparently hard at work, at his PC, poring over figures, writing documents, fiddling with Gantt charts, and massaging costings. Even on Friday lunch times, when we popped over to a nearby Victorian hotel to drink Bombay Gin, he’d be in a rush to get back and stuck into an afternoon of work.

Strangely, despite all the hard graft, he seemed short on deliverables. It is hard to detect whether project managers are really working effectively. All project management software produces prodigious paperwork with very little effort. You key in your players, the cost of their time, the amount of time they can give to the project, the phases of the project, all the sub-phases and so on in minute detail, and who might, in your fertile imagination, be assigned to all these myriad subtasks. Then you put in the dependencies, and sit back and let the software generate sheet after sheet of arcane diagrams and calculations that have little more basis in reality than a politician’s declaration of expenses.

In short, project management software provides an excellent smokescreen to fend off even the most persistent attempts to find out how much work you’ve actually done. As a development manager I’d managed a few IT projects in my time and after a few years, you discover that most are so similar that you can use the last one you did, change the names and some of the activities and leave your colleagues gasping with wonder.

However, whereas a salesperson should look immaculate, the canny project manager should look careworn. I used to affect tousled hair, bloodshot eyes, earnest expression and a rapid stooping walk to give the right impression. It helps to refuse to attend meetings, or take on any work, because you are much too busy.

Earlier on the day Amir resigned, I’d walked over for a chat with him.

“Amir, I hate to tell you this, but it seems to me that you do hardly any real work here.”

He looked offended.

“No, Sir. My work is done. All finished on time, within costs. I’ve just had sign-off from the users.”

I looked mystified.

“Sign off for what? As far as I’m aware, the plans and costings for your project seem to have been in preparation since you first arrived and we’ve seen more or less nothing.”

He laughed genially.

“For you guys, no, I’ve done nothing at all. I’ve been sitting here managing a project for another company for almost an entire year. I’ve been quite busy really, but fortunately, it all worked out really well. The best bit is that I got paid twice for the time I spent doing it. Now I’m off.”


“I’m just popping around to see the CIO to hand in my resignation, and say ‘thanks for the fish’. I can’t wait to see his face”. He grinned.

“But shouldn’t you be doing a hand-over to someone?”

“Hand over of what? As you say, I’ve done nothing much for the project beyond a pile of progress reports, and heaps of project modeling. You know how Microsoft Project works, just choose the sample development project, change the names, key in stuff and it churns out enough reports to stop a tank. It’s impressive enough to fool the CIO, at least.”

Amir’s frankness was more refreshing than his lack of integrity or scruples.

“Well, fine, but I’m struggling to see how anyone else gains from what you’ve done.”

He looked apologetic for a moment before returning to his usual genial self.

“Yes, I suppose you’ll have to pick up the bits.”

“Not if I can help it!” I said, though already with that sinking feeling that I was the most likely candidate.

“Well, just in case, I do happen to have a directory full of raw material about the project: surveys, responses, stakeholder statements, interview transcriptions, reports by data and technical architects, that sort of stuff. I just haven’t had any time to process it. So busy, you know. I was just going to delete it, as it is too much effort to sort through it.”

I had a quick look through it: gold dust. To the untrained eye, it looked like dust but it was gold to any experienced project manager. Amir was wrong; the hard graft was not in the compilation and integration of this material, but in getting hold of it all in the first place. Once you’ve done more than ten software projects, they are all curiously similar, and global replace is your best friend, applied liberally on your template reports from the raw data that Amir had almost accidentally gathered. The cast may be different, but the plot runs on rails.

I pretended nonchalance but a plan had begun to form in my mind: if I was going to have to mop up after a disaster like this, and spend weekends toiling over a screen, I might as well benefit from it.

“Just zip that lot up and send it to me, Amir, before you delete the directory. I might look through it if I have time. My suggestion is that you keep the interview short and just give him a management summary. ‘I’ve done nothing for the company all year. Now I’m off. There is nothing to hand over. Goodbye.'”

The plan worked like a dream.

A few months later, I became the first person to walk into our local garage and pay cash for a new car. The salesman was in tears since we’d agreed the price before discussing payment, and all his profit came from the commission from the finance company. A couple of years later, I happened to glance at a copy of Computer Weekly, and Amir’s face beamed out. He was now the head of IT for a huge NHS trust and the reporter was asking his sage opinion about the latest trends in IT. He looked the part, which is probably all that matters.

This is another of Phil’s ‘Confessions of an IT Manager’, a series of articles which have been compiled into a book that has been enjoyed for several years by IT staff.

‘Confessions of an IT Manager is a book form of a series of articles first written for Simple-Talk by a seasoned IT manager who tries to explore the real world of work in IT rather than the world as we’d like to think it is. By writing under a pseudonym he is able to get uncomfortably close to real life, real events and believable people, describing experiences and predicaments that were occasionally painful, sometimes profitable but always funny.’ (Google Books review) A great read, with a lot of substance, the book will be enjoyed a lot more by those who have some experience in the field. There are moments where laughter is inevitable so it’s not a good choice of reading in the office while you pretend to be deeply concerned by some technical issue. ‘ (Google Books review)

You can download it from here

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