A recent Wall Street Journal article examined the current trend of MBA graduates seeking jobs in product management. Although the article debunks this perception, some graduates envision working as a product manager as being a "mini-CEO" -- and therefore anticipate having that kind of experience and influence, even with a freshly minted degree.
In reality, there are a variety of reasons why students are drawn to the field. Some see product management as a steppingstone to broader strategy roles within large companies, while others see it as the right training ground for entrepreneurship. Still others might want specialized experience in a specific industry, such as pharmaceuticals, where managing a product involves regulatory requirements that make the job uniquely complex and challenging.
There is an interesting parallel, however, between product and project management. Just as product managers must call on marketing, design, and problem solving skills, so too must software project managers. For the same reason that MBA programs are making investments in these skill sets, software companies should look for and help funnel high-potential IT grads into these roles, and computer science students should seek to cultivate these skills for greater success.
Here's what makes project management a good fit for IT degree holders:
- They see the big picture: Marketers see the marketing side, and engineers are focused on engineering, but the project manager has to have a clear vision of every component of a project and how all of those pieces fit together, including how to communicate effectively with stakeholders. In many ways they are the hubs of every development project, ensuring that all of the pieces are moving in unison.
- The ultimate goal is always in sight: Because they are involved in every part of a project, it gives them a unique perspective on the project as a whole. It also means that they're able to remain more objective in terms of how things should be implemented, and are less likely to get dragged into the weeds in any one respective area.
- They're not afraid to make mistakes: MBA programs value product managers who are able to "fail fast," and software project managers should learn to adapt the same methodology. The mark of a truly valuable manager is being able to quickly -- and accurately -- identify when something isn't working and walk away from it in favor of trying something new.
- They have to own the "fix" for those mistakes: When someone on a product or project team messes up, it's the manager's job to identify the mistake, help design a solution, and implement the solution effectively. That project or product manager is often the interface to the rest of the organization -- including senior management -- and therefore bears both the burden and the privilege of communicating effectively about the error and how it is being addressed. This impacts not just the project team but also other internal stakeholders, decision makers, and customers.
Although people considering a move into pure software development may seem like an obvious route for new engineering grads, project managers (including those outside the IT organization) play an equally vital role within a company and to the success of its projects. As projects become more complex, and incorporate more stakeholders, they will be even more important.
So, if you're looking for IT talent, look for the degree holders with an aptitude for big thinking, team leadership, and cross-discipline coordination. You might just find a coder who can project manage like a rock star.
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