November 25, 2020

Changing Careers

I changed careers about 20 months ago (and took way too long to write about it here).  After 12 years in IT project management, I entered an electrical apprenticeship with the Akron IBEW.  This feels like an odd, although not unprecedented, move for someone in their thirties with a mildly promising academic lineage.  Let me explain.

As an aside, I started writing this post almost two years ago when I was resigning from my project management job. Some of these sentiments are a bit harsh in retrospect, but I left them in. They might help others struggling in a similar position.

Problems with Project Management

Althought only any IT project manager for about 12 years, I managed projects since my Eagle Scout project in 1998--including the year I spent in AmeriCorps managing service proejcts for 40+ AmeriCorps members in Columbus, OH. Initially, the scouting and AmeriCorps experiences taught me the importance of project management and how an effective project manager can chagne the world for the better. Unfortunately, I learned across four organizations and a greater number of projects that IT project managers don't really have that impact.

IT Project Management

My problems with IT Project Management are many. The few that make the cut for this post are: IT Project Management neglects the person, it avoids accountability, and it perpetuates life-draining values.

Neglecting the Person

IT project management separates the humanity from the people doing the work. We are taught early on in our careers to treat people as resources--the same as equipment or software licenses we have to acquire. There are lessons about how to manage people, but the focus from managers leading the field is on how to control these people as if they were non-human entities churning out code.

When we act this way, we sow division in our organizations. Coders are tools to crank out code. I had routine calls were 20 or more managers from various organizations would be talking to the one coder actually making the software about why he was late or unable to squash specific bugs. That coder is a person with a family and responsibilities outside work. That coder is not a machine you can query at will about its performance. Project managers seemed unable to operate with this knowledge and ignored it.

Avoiding Accountability

Project managers don't take accountability, they assign it. They become the storytellers for projects. They tell stories to executives about project progress. They tell stories to resources about what executives want. They relay information, but they don't own that information. They don't own the decisions or implications of those decisions.

Project managers can become like the Jump to Conclusions Mat character in the movie Office Space. They take specs from executives to engineers. They take the plans the engineers make back to the executives. There is no accountability other than an accountability for effectiveness in storytelling between the two groups. That doesn't help projects progress.

Life-Draining Values

While managing projects, much of my day was spent creating the storytelling aparatus. I made clever charts and slides that showed our progress. I devised MS Project macros that would forecast project performance based on actual performance to date. While these efforts were rewarded by executives, they were life-draining for the project, not life-building.

Projects are organic structures composed of people all working at individual goals with differing processes, priorities, and incentives. Consolidating this into a set of metrics or four boxes on a PowerPoint slide misses the true status of the project and mechanism to create the most good for the most people.

Project managers need to adopt a mentality that builds on the organic nature of project teams and stakeholders to create the maximum good from the project. Not just good in terms of corporate outcomes, but good in terms of benefits to everyone working on and affected by the project. Project managers need to see the life in the projects, not drain the life from the projects to create sterile artifacts to fit a mold.

Way Forward

Given this, why become an electrician? Why not try to foster this change in the project management field without abandoning it?

To answer the second question first, project management, as a field, does not value the humanity inherent in projects. I tried to incorporate that aspect in reports and discussions, but never gained traction. There was no appetite for that path. I did find success, career-wise if not project-wise, when taking the path devoid of humanity. At some point, you have to know when you lost and move on.

I hoped a skilled trade with a union would provide the balance I see around me. We all work toward a common goal everyday. We are on the same team, have shared experiences, and realize the humanity everyone brings to the table. So far, this is proving to be the case.