When I joined Atlassian in 2008 as our first engineering program manager, “project management” was a seldom-heard phrase; “program management” was, well, unheard. Now we have a handful of dedicated project and program managers, a little club that meets monthly to share and discuss all things project management, and a steady flow of staff members expressing interest in this career path. Here is a resource we’ve created for Atlassians with project management ambitions. We hope you find it useful as well.
What does a project manager do?
A project manager is like the conductor of an orchestra, where the orchestra is the team doing the work of the project. The project manager typically does not pick up an instrument and play, because his or her primary function is coordinating the team and the project work from start to finish. This includes responsibility for:
- The performance of the team throughout the project
- The interim and final deliverables of the project
- Most importantly, the satisfaction (and ideally delight!) of the audience; the end users, internal customers, stakeholders, and the project team itself.
The project manager ensures the project:
- Gets off to a good start with clearly stated goals and well-understood requirements (or an agreed-upon plan for the iterative development of requirements)
- Is executed in a planned and controlled way
- Is able to navigate roadblocks
- Can adapt to changes in scope and other circumstances
- Meets all of its goals
The project manager is the hub of communications within the project team, as well as to all the project stakeholders: sponsor(s), the executive team, internal customers, other teams working on related projects, and any other interested parties.
A project manager uses tools and processes such as planning and scheduling software (e.g. a JIRA Agile rapid board, OmniPlan, Gliffy diagrams, a simple table or spreadsheet, or — rarely at Atlassian — Microsoft Project), planning meetings (JIRA Agile), status reports, risk workshops, risk registers, retrospectives (all made super-easy with Confluence), and of course issue tracking software (JIRA and JIRA Agile).
A project manager also spends a lot of time checking on upcoming tasks and deliverables, and chasing down anything that’s late. Being a charming nag is a critical skill for the role!
What makes a good project manager great?
- Establish crystal-clear, single-point accountability (for everything — tasks, risks, issues, assumptions etc.)
- Be a relationship builder
- Ensure commitment from the team and stakeholders
- Avoid over committing yourself and the team
- Know how to prioritize; prioritize everything
- Ensure goals, objectives, and requirements are SMART: specific, measurable, agreed upon, realistic, time constrained
- Have a process to identify and quickly resolve issues and conflict
- Write and require complete risk statements for all impact areas
- Understand your planning horizon and plan accordingly
- Know how to follow up gracefully
Fundamentals of the craft
While we are all about agile at Atlassian, you will be a better project manager if you teach yourself the foundations before going super lean. The methodology you choose to use doesn’t matter too much, it’s the way you apply it that counts.
The Project Management Institute (PMI) has collated an exceedingly dry but comprehensive guide called the Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK). The PMBOK is organized into five “Process Groups” and 10 “Knowledge Areas”.
- Process Groups: Initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring and Controlling, and Closing
- Knowledge Areas: Integration, Scope, Time, Cost, Quality, HR, Communications, Risk, Procurement, and Stakeholders.
If you’re not keen on memorizing the PMBOK just yet, or studying the alternative PRINCE2 methodology, read one or more of the books recommended below as a starter.
Atlassian is an agile company — we move fast and we change direction often, so agile project management techniques suit us nicely. Once you’ve got a firm handle on the fundamentals, concentrate your skills and practices on agile project management.
- Read about the origins of agile software development here
- Get an overview of how Atlassian does agile
- Watch the webinars and read some of the blogs and books listed below
- Talk to your local project manager or engineering manager about how they practice agile project management, and ask if you can sit in on a planning meeting or a retrospective.
- Ask if your company provides internal training on project management, or see the training section below.
- A series of useful webinars from Agile Training, including:
- Steve McConnell - Rapid Development
- Steve McConnell - Software Estimation – Demystifying the Black Art
- Tom DeMarco - Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams
- Frederick P Brooks- The Mythical Man-Month
- Mike Cohn - Agile Estimating and Planning
- Ken Schwaber - Agile Project Management with Scrum
- Craig Larman - Agile & Iterative Development
- Jim Highsmith - Agile Project Management
- You can gain certification as a Project Management Professional (PMP) from the PMI by studying for and sitting an exam based on the PMBOK (see middle panel). If you decide to take the PMP, use this book as an excellent study guide.
- PRINCE2, originating from the UK Government, is an alternative to the PMBOK framework.
- Scrum is one flavor of agile development practiced by some Atlassian teams. You can become a Certified Scrum Master.
- agiletraining.com (US based) offers a range of agile courses, including Agile Project Management
- www.softed.com also offers a range of agile courses (Australia based)
- The PMI offers an Agile Certified Practioner certification.
Until recently, the idea of a template for anything at Atlassian sounded like crazy talk. We’re a startup! (A big, healthy, 11-year-old startup). Happily our engineering teams still regularly ship products using just the classic agile tools of user stories, planning meetings, iterations, kanban boards, retrospectives, etc. But now we’re also regularly undertaking cross-departmental projects, with teams of people who may never have worked together, on stuff that we haven’t attempted before. For those projects we’re finding it useful to have a simple set of templates within easy reach, to get those teams up abd running quickly. Here are some our most commonly used templates attached as PDFs:
(These are exported from the originals in Confluence where they each appear as a single page with nice formatting — if you’re not running Confluence you may want to re-order the content of each template so the most critical information is at the top, and docs like the Project Plan fit on a single page if possible). We’re still refining these templates as we start to use them in earnest; we’d love to hear your feedback too.
If you’re already in a project management role, you may be wondering about next steps in your career. One possible avenue is the program and portfolio management track.
Program: A group of projects managed together to gain benefits not achievable by managing the projects separately. Has a wide scope which may need to change to meet the expected benefits.
Portfolio: “If project and program management are disciplines for doing the work right, portfolio management is the discipline for doing the right work. Portfolio managers oversee a collection of projects or programs and other work that are grouped together to meet strategic business objectives.” (Source)
Below are some resources to explore if you want to find out more.
- Agile Training webinars, including:
- Greg Githens’ blogs Leading Strategic Initiatives and Strategic Thinking Coach
- Expert Program Manager blog
- Agile 101 blog
- James Brown - The Handbook of Program Management
- Johanna Rothman - Manage Your Project Portfolio
- Simon Moore - Strategic Project Portfolio Management
- Anand Sanwal - Optimising Corporate Portfolio Management
- PMI’s The Standard for Program Management and The Standard for Portfolio Management (both on this site)
- Jochen Krebs - Agile Portfolio Management
- Dean Leffingwell - Scaling Software Agility
I hope this guide is useful to you, and best of luck with your next project management concert!