You may not think that the public image of a project manager matters to you very much. I think that’s an error of omission that many of us make.

Why are outsiders’ views of our profession important? Surely we deal in matters of substance, facts and metrics, rather than the rather superficial world of public relations?

To be valued, our activities have to be known and respected outside our profession. The truth is that everyone who lives in a society capable of generating professional software also has to cope with a media-led, political, short-term culture, where skills and experience can easily be taken for granted, if the individuals concerned fail to highlight their value. I see a direct correspondence with professional engineers in the UK who failed to communicate and defend their profession. They are now widely viewed as equivalent in ability to car mechanics and washing machine repair technicians.

(When, as a child, I watched Saturn V rockets take off for the moon, I was enthusiastic about the engineering. Only later did I realize that the engineering efforts were mostly quite conservative—the project management aspect, however, was state-of-the-art.)

The more people who are keen to work in this job function, the better it will be for everyone. Standards of entry will be raised and the expectations placed on project managers will be better matched to the rewards. Better products and tools will result, leading—ultimately—to healthier economies.

The public face of project managers
It’s not so much that the PM profession has a bad public image, it’s that it has almost no image. We know that the day-to-day process of IT project management can often be full of intense drama, frustration, elation, infighting, confusion, risk-taking, and team spirit. The general public is, however, largely unaware that IT project management exists. There are no TV shows featuring the international, high-stakes drama that is PM.

Even some of the journals of professional project management societies make what we do seem entirely a matter of following set procedures—IT accountancy, in fact. The professional face of PM tends to avoid discussion of the really important contribution that is made by PMs to all of those cool consumer items and business tools, etc., which add so much interest and empowerment to everyday life.

In general, employers don’t help promote the image of project managers. We tend to be fairly self-effacing people who know we rely on our teams to be effective. Sometimes the projects themselves are recognized as excellent, without any managers being credited.

(Here is a great source of information on projects that have been labeled as excellent.)

Excellent versus adequate project managers
It can be quite difficult for an organization to identify which of its project managers are truly excellent and which are merely adequate. Some companies see project management as a transitory stage between developer and senior management. This is partly because it’s a relatively new profession and what we actually do can vary significantly among projects, companies, and individuals. This makes it even more difficult to pinpoint and publicly praise a “Project Manager of the Year”, making the effect on project management’s public mind-share negligible. Even people who can easily name inventors and engineers and scientists have problems identifying any of the great project managers of history. Frederick Taylor (inventor of Work Breakdown Structure) and Henry Gantt (inventor of the Gantt Chart), for example, are almost unknown outside the business.

During the holiday season, I got to meet many more people socially who don’t spend their days slaving over a hot workstation. Several such individuals have recently asked me, “What do you do exactly…?” I could reply with a terse, “I work with computers” (which can be a real conversation stopper, or, worse still, result in your being asked to diagnose faults in their domestic LAN setup). Or, I could supply a boring, longwinded description of a detailed technical design challenge I’ve just been working on (which normally has any listeners glazing over with acronym-overload inside of a few seconds).

Selling the profession
Young people I have been speaking to find particular difficulty in rating project management against other candidate careers in terms of:

  • Glamour (Will they be famous? My answer: Probably not)
  • Income (Will a Ferrari take forever? My answer: It depends on how good you become)
  • Responsibility (Does the work really matter? My answer: It’s absolutely vital to industry)
  • Challenge (Will their minds be stretched? My answer: Yes, in terms of creativity and sustained attention to detail)

The analogy I often use when describing IT Project Management is that of an architect. Just as an architect designs and supervises innovative constructions, so the Project Manager plans and oversees the creation of new products, processes and tools in information technology. I usually mention a few brand name desktop applications or computer games that listeners enjoy using and make it clear that they didn’t just happen. They were developed by a managed process.

So, how do you describe what you do?

Every Project Manager needs to be prepared to describe, in an interesting way, how they add value to IT and our wider society. Tell us how you’d describe your work—post a message in the discussion board below or send us an e-mail.