TL;DR Want to have greater success as a Senior-level-or-higher in a tech company? Learn to lead a project.

Project Management?

Yes, among the deeply technical, a “Project Manager” role is often misunderstood. However, here, I’m talking about leading a project in a project-manager-like capacity, with or without the official title.

Project Manager as a Role

I’ll get this out of the way: A great Project Manager is worth their weight in gold-plated gold. Yet, as belt-tightening continues across most tech companies, Project Managers are generally seen as expendable, and are sadly the first to go. Without Project Managers, who manages and leads a project?

I’m stunned to see people make it to a management-level role who have no idea how to successfully run a project. Project Managers (and, by extension, Technical Project Managers and Program Managers), can make all the difference between a smooth, well-run project–even if it gets terminated early, which can be a good result!–and choppy, start/stop, no-one-has-any-idea-what-is-going-on project. We can’t all be great at everything, so, if you’re not a formal Project Manager, what is really the bare minimum?

Project Management Basics

You can go find plenty of information in books and around the Web on how to be a project manager, but if I had to distill it down, here are my minimum-viable tasks for someone leading a project.

Identify the work as a “Project”

Sounds simple, right? If you’re going to do this, you need a “project” to manage. What makes a “project”? Well, it’s not operational work, though you could have a project around automating repetitive operational tasks. It’s not unplanned break-and-fix or firefighting, but you could have a project focused on SLO/SLAs for managing unplanned work. So, we now know what a project isn’t.

Things that a project are:

  • Scoped: There are tasks that fall into the scope of the project, and tasks that are not a part of the project. Once identified, the project should be “locked in”. If new tasks are requested, you could say that they’re out-of-scope. If new tasks are required, they need to be weighed against other tasks, and will likely make the target end date slip. (Which is often–but not always–ok! Just let the relevant stakeholders know.)
  • Time-bound: there is a start, and a definite end to the identified work. Tasks should have start and end dates that map to a project end date.
  • Sponsored: A group of stakeholders that are both invested in the outcome, and have the ability to grant the time and resources to the project. (On a rare occassion, sure, you can help manage a Skunkworks project because It Needs to Get Done, but nearly 100% of the time, your project will align with team or business goals, it will be well understood, promoted, and supported up through management.)
  • Accountable: tasks in the project are assigned to individuals that are, in turn, accountable for those tasks. The person in the Project Manager role is responsible for accountability to the project itself, and for holding individuals to account for the tasks that they own.

Identify Stakeholders

This is worth calling out separately from short mention in the section above. Identify the stakeholders of the project before starting. Who is “sponsoring” this project? Who cares about its completion? Who can help clear the path when teams or managers tell you that they’re too busy to pitch in?

Somewhat naturally, the team contributers actually doing the work are part of the stakeholders (but will often be noted separately as the “team”).

Sync the Team

If you’re managing a project, you need to keep the team in sync. Slack is the most common tool used today, and that’s a good start: set up a dedicated project channel in Slack (or Teams or whichever business chat service that you use) and talk about everything there. Even more important: schedule a recrring (at minimum) weekly sync to talk to the team, get their updates, and hear from everyone first-hand. You’ll uncover so much more with in-person/video-chat meetings than purely in text. When people talk about their blockers or things that they’re trying to understand, more often than not, someone else on the team will offer to help out. Use this time wisely, and you can accomplish so much. Do not squander or waste people’s time with a useless sync meeting, or by having too many meetings. “Too many” or “not enough” will depend on the project size, and the team size (or how many different teams are involved).


Finally: don’t leave anyone in the dark! Communicate project status. Most of the time, you should be using this as an opportunity to highlight all of the great work that’s getting done. If there is an issue, don’t be afraid to call it out, and be honest about the impact. This might not have an impact (Great! Talk about why!), up through setting the project back. (Also great! Maybe not great, but don’t shy away–tell stakeholders what’s going on early, let them understand and help out if that’s in their power. DO NOT bottle it up and leave a surprise for the end of the project.)

Weekly Status

This one is simple: send out a weekly status update to all stakeholders. Use Email, Slack, or whatever fits your company culture.

Project Tracker

This is both a management task and something for your communication toolbox, so, I’m splitting the difference and leaving it here. Trying to track a project in a text doc won’t be great, and certainly won’t scale. A spreadsheet can be tortured into acting as project management software, but will also run into all kinds of limitations. Do yourself a favor and use some kind of dedicated project-management software. Ideally, learn how to use a Gantt chart or timeline, and find some software that includes it. Jira, Omniplan, MS-Project, Trello, Wrike, etc.

This falls under communication as everyone can see the project’s status whenever they want–including stakeholders! Invite them to the board! If they’re curious about the state of the project in-between updates, they should be encouraged to look at the board first before asking you questions (hey, you have a project to manage!).

That’s all

That’s all? Well, no. People in a formal Project Manager role have all kinds of tricks up their sleeves for seeing a project successfully over the finish line. Yet, I consider these tasks as the minimum during a project’s start-up and active phases. If any of this makes your head spin, hire someone into the formal role. You, your stakeholders, and your projects will be happier for it.