What is a Project Manager?

Finally, I have come across what I consider to be the best definition of a project manager that I have ever seen. I have written in the past about how I dread getting asked that question, “What do you do?” because (a) it is hard to describe what a project manager does without (b) making it sound like a made-up job.

Reading Ed Catmull’s book, Creativity, Inc., this morning, I came across what I consider the best definition of a project manager—one that describes what I do clearly and accurately—but cast in terms of Hollywood production managers. Catmull writes:

Production managers are the people who keep track of the endless details that ensure that a movie is delivered on time and on budget. They monitor the overall progress of the crew; they keep track of the thousands of shots; they evaluate how resources are being used; they persuade and cajole and nudge and say no when necessary. In other words, they do something essential for a company whose success relies on hitting deadlines and staying on budget. They manage people and safeguard processes.

By changing a few words here and there, I have the definition of project manager that I have been seeking for years now:

Project managers are people who keep track of the endless details that ensure software is delivered on time and on budget. They monitor the overall progress of the developmentteam; they keep track of the thousands of lines of code; they evaluate how resources are being used; they persuade and cajole and nudge and say no when necessary. In other words, they do something essential for a company whose success relies on hitting deadlines and staying on budget. They manage people and safeguard processes.

I love this definition. It perfectly describes what I do day-in and day-out on my job. I am particularly tickled by the line, “they persuade and cajole and nudge and say no when necessary.” A project manager who taught me a lot about the job two decades ago summarize this line back then with a simple phrase that I often repeat: “As a project manager, all you have is your charm.”

I’m only a quarter of the way into Catmull’s book, but it has proven its worth with this definition alone. I feel a great sense of relief in having a good, accurate, and succinct way of describing what I do.

5 comments

  1. Ha! I’ve tried that, but it sounds too much like a self-referential definition. And I’ve struggled with what it means to “manage projects.” I think what I’ve come to realize (thanks to Catmull’s definition) is that most people I talk to don’t know what is involved in making software, beyond sitting down and “writing code”, whatever that means. I’ve always been fascinated by what goes on behind the scenes in the movie-making process, but know virtually nothing about it, which is why Catmull’s definition of a production manager resonated so much with me. The other problem I have (and it is certainly my problem is that anything with “manager” in it has a self-important feel to it. But what I like about Catmull’s definition is that it implies that my role is there to help other people perform their job in as creative a way as they can, so that they aren’t worried about budgets and schedules and can focus on making a great product. I’m not so much managing as protecting.

  2. FYI, I read Catmull’s book when it first came out. I enjoyed it, but shortly after the news broke about all these companies conspiring to not hire coders away from each other, to keep their employees’ salaries lower than the market would otherwise have allowed.

  3. Michael, that’s interesting, because Catmull seems to address that specific issue in one of the chapters of the book. Was it just Disney Animation and Pixar or was it a wider set of companies? (Not that it really matters; it’s bad regardless.)

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