What does a project manager really do?

Ivan Kosovec
  —  6 min read

They say variety is the spice of life... Whoever came up with that may have been a project manager. You see, project management sounds like it might be somewhat dull, but really, it keeps you on your toes. There's always something changing.

Let's look at the projects themselves. We're taking on work for all kinds of different clients, who all have different philosophies and approaches to how their work should be done. As a project manager, you really have to be able to pick up on what makes each project unique. Sure, many of the software development projects we handle have similarities, but each project has a slightly different feel. Sometimes this is because of the length of the project, sometimes it's because of the personalities involved, and sometimes it's the range of subjects. You really get to learn a lot about a bunch of varied topics when you're managing projects for different industries.

Personalities are a big key. Project managers need to be able to read people fairly well and quickly learn what methods of communication work best to keep everyone on the same track. On any given project, the manager will be dealing with different skill sets, different backgrounds -- both educational and in on-the-job experience -- and even different languages.

Confessions of a project manager

You'll probably understand a bit more about the day-to-day operations of a project manager if we pull back the curtain on what we really do. Most people experience the project manager as the person who nags if things get behind schedule, but there's a lot more to the job.

Project manager multitasking

First, we manage the time, budget and scope of the project. That can be trickier than it sounds, especially when it comes to creating the best possible finished product within the scope. Scope creep -- or letting the definition of the project grow to include things not part of the original plan -- is real, and it is detrimental to everyone.

At the same time, it is incredibly common for a client to have a great idea mid-way through, and want to implement that right away. But if we've done our job right as a team, we've identified the best way to solve the problem given the time and money available, and trying to work around that after the project's already started just leads to misunderstandings, missed deadlines and, in a worst-case scenario, a cancelled project.

Of course, if our team identifies a different dimension to the project, we can look at that as a possible future phase. But the project manager needs to be a bit strict about sticking to the original plan to ensure that expectations are met.

The job also involves a lot of back-and-forth communication with our clients and being able to "translate" client questions and requests to the project team. It can be a fun job acting as liaison, but it can also be demanding. Sometimes it seems like software developers and engineers are speaking a completely different language! So working to make sure everyone involved with the project understands everyone else can be challenging, but it's absolutely necessary to a successful project.

Ultimately, good project management can involve knowing when to upsell or suggest feature improvements. That's different from changing the scope -- it's a way to add value at the right time in the project so that everyone benefits.

Project manager in all sorts of roles

Four keys to understanding the project manager's role

If you really want to know how successful managers get through a project and come out the other side with a great product or piece of software, there are four things that are key. You'll know you've worked with a fantastic project manager when you observe these:

1. The project manager is never the hero

The hero gets -- or takes -- credit when everything is going well or a major milestone has been met. In contrast, the project manager plays the role of trusty sidekick: Back in the shadows, quietly making sure everything turns out for the best.

You see, even though the project manager is the single point of responsibility for the project, they should serve as everyone's best friend. Both clients and software development team members should feel comfortable bringing up issues with the project manager. Good project managers solve problems, not create added tension.

2. Need info? The project manager has it

Wondered who said what at that meeting two weeks ago? The project manager knows (or can refer to their notes and find out). Did the client really ask for that feature? The project manager was on the call, documenting what was discussed.

What's more, a good project manager has email records to back up the decisions on important questions. This benefits both the client and the development team -- yes, it may seem repetitious to put everything in writing, but a written confirmation of what's been agreed on can save a project that is sinking into a morass of "We said we wanted that, why isn't it there?" or "We agreed we wouldn't do that in this phase, why bring it up now?"

3. The project manager is proactive

Once your development team has to play from a reactive position, it's too late. The client loses trust in the project team that is difficult or impossible to regain. So a top-notch project manager identifies issues and potential threats really early in the process so that any issues that do pop up can be solved more easily.

To maintain their aura of proactivity, good project managers will hold daily "stand-ups," or quick meetings, where all the project team members have a chance to talk about any concerns. They'll go around and answer three important questions:

What did I work on yesterday?

What will I be working on today?

Are there any questions or roadblocks I need to bring up?

The team benefits from knowing exactly what everyone else is doing and expects to complete. The client benefits because the project seems to run very smoothly. If there is an issue, it's communicated in advance with a plan for managing it. This helps the client build more trust in the project team instead of doubting their ability to complete a quality project.

4. The project manager brings the team together

Problems aren't hidden. Questions aren't glossed over. Instead, the project manager makes sure there's a feeling of teamwork -- of being all in this together.

Sometimes honesty is hard, especially when a project is behind schedule or missing a key component. But when everyone's involved, and everyone understands the stakes, it's easier to work together and make sure everyone knows what's happening. That means clients, too! Good project managers involve clients in the design and development process and make sure every person on the team has access to the same information, all the time.

At Infinum, we take project management really seriously. As you can imagine, a poorly managed project is going to result in heartache or a headache for someone -- or everyone. By cultivating excellent project managers who adhere to these four keys, we work to ensure that projects get done on time, on budget and with the features we planned for. Of course, there can be hiccups in the process, but with our experience and planning, we can overcome any issues and deliver a great finished product. Give us a call to talk about your project and how we can make it happen for you.

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