Should Project Managers Step into the Code?

I recently heard a conversation around the question, should project managers step in and help code? My answer is, in most cases, “NO!”

The question was based on a faulty premise. Not all technology projects are code-oriented. Projects may be based on a wide range of objectives. For example:

  • Infrastructure & Network build out projects
  • Data Center migrations
  • Data migrations
  • Requirements gathering
  • Quality assurance
  • Documentation development

Even for software oriented projects, I see little to be gained and possibly much to be lost from having a project manager step into the code in almost all cases.

A project manager is trained in, or hold a set of skills that focus on completely different purposes than a software developer. Sure, many project managers in the software space come from a coding background, but the role of the project manager is apart from coding.

I would argue that even if the project manager has the coding skills appropriate to the project, it is problematic for the PM to dive into the code. It suggests the project hasn’t been well scheduled, well budgeted, and well managed. Someone who has not been in the code that “dives in” will lack the context and be unaware of the nuances and cross dependencies. This could be more dangerous than helpful!

The PM’s job is, as I said, apart from coding. The PM should be focusing on planning, scheduling, task tracking, quality metrics tracking, communicating up and out, as well as down and in. The PM is about managing risk, managing change, and coordinating outside the team. Pull the PM into the code and those other functions will be at risk.

Someone who is coding and managing or coordinating the team of software developers is probably better labeled the “Project Leader.” A project leader typically doesn’t have the same breadth of external communication responsibility, and has time budgeted for both coordinating the development team, and actively coding.

It is appropriate for the PM to understand the software technology and application domain. It is fine for the PM to participate in architectural design, to provide feedback on wire frames and prototypes. I see value in the PM being involved in QA, GUI design and feedback, and in general, to serve as the first “user” of the software.

I just don’t believe a project manager should code.

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