A project manager is very often a liaison between 2 sets of people: Those who do the work (engineering) and those want the work (sponsors). The manager’s role is to bridge the gap of understanding between the two sides. One person I worked with referred to this role as being a “glorified coordinator”. The image of a sandwich, with the project manager in between, comes to mind.
The “middle man” concept of a manager raises an important question: Why don’t the sponsors talk to the engineers directly? Not only will this avoid the direct costs of having a manager, it also reduces the inevitable information loss when communication happens indirectly. Managers are usually the primary vilification target of popular business literature. So why not get rid of all the managers?
Such an approach, while tempting, has many pitfalls. First of all, even if you get rid of the title, you still have project management tasks. These include estimation, planning, controlling scope, managing risks, coordinating with other groups, and many other activities. You can call the person who does this a “senior programmer” if you may, but they are project management tasks.
Developers, untrained (theoretically or practically) in project management, can find it difficult to meet the demands of the job. For example, they may see technical risks, but fail to see business or human resource risks. They may lack the capability to coordinate and negotiate with people at different levels of authority, something that can challenge even senior project managers.
The project manager can sometimes bring a useful separation between the sponsors and the engineers, and can bring harmony to disputes regarding expectations. For example, when there is an argument over deadlines, the project manager is better placed to act in the best interests of both parties because she can see the business need and the technical challenges equally well. Since the project manager has no emotional attachment to either side, she can do a much better job of setting the right expectations.
While a project manager can add much value to a project, they can also over-manage. When a project is going reasonably well, a full-time project manager does not have much to do, and many of them resort to “active” project management. Sometimes this can be in the form of time-wasting status meetings. At other times, the manager may start becoming more intrusive into the work of the developers, creating little benefit and more angst.
The line between too much management and too little management is not very clear. It depends on the organization, project requirement and team members. But perhaps a simple rule may help: Take up the tasks that remove obstacles from the developer’s path and meet the needs of the sponsors.