The Face of Stupidity

At various times I have written about the “science” of project management, which claims vast increases in productivity and its new roots (mainly from the 1950’s) but in fact compares unfavorably against many historical projects, such as this post on a railway built in Skagway, Alaska in a rapid fashion in a brutal climate over 100 years ago. This isn’t to say that project management isn’t important, or that it shouldn’t be viewed as a critical skill set, but just to say that a proper historical perspective shows that project management has been around forever in various guises, even without mumbo-jumbo technical jargon created expressly for the field.

A recent article, with published photo, in the “PM Network“, showed the extreme limits of someone swallowing the methodology hook, line and sinker. I kept the caption with the photo but here is the text:

Companies want specific industry or technical experience rather than project management experience, which surprises me.

Let’s think about this astonishing statement, for a minute. When a company is hiring a candidate for projects, and they have multiple candidates to choose from (which is pretty much the norm with today’s economy), why WOULDN’T they look for someone from their industry (say, energy), with a specific technical capability (perhaps engineering), along with project management experience.

Project management expertise is mostly a social skill (ability to communicate, lead) along with some tools (planning diagrams, checklists, budgets, and an overall plan) that can be picked up and refined over the years. However, specific industry skills often take years or decades to hone, and technical expertise is often acquired through college or through dedicated programs with direct experience.

The fact that this project manager felt he could just walk in the door at a company and pick up their entire industry and the technical nature of the project as an afterthought is just striking. This shows how desperate companies must have been for talent during the booming economic years – because this model of hiring and planning is clearly less efficient than finding someone with project management expertise AND technical and industry skills appropriate to the job.

I am not trying to “pick on” this guy – many people are out of work today through no fault of their own and the job market now is extremely difficult, or nearly even frozen. I am just surprised that he would say out loud that he is SURPRISED that companies would look for a candidate who had deeper and more relevant expertise and wasn’t just a “generic” project manager.

Maybe “the face of stupidity” is too harsh, but at least “the face of naivete” or perhaps “a clear sign at how desperate managers were to hire staff in the last economic boom”.

Cross posted at LITGM

27 thoughts on “The Face of Stupidity”

  1. I do think there is such thing as transferrable project management skill (much of which is a matter of experience and astuteness rather than of particular methodologies), but it is not a substitute for content knowledge.

    I once saw a person with a reputation as a dynamite project manager come into a business in an industry he wasn’t familiar with and try to apply his generic project management style without learning much about the industry or company culture, and without much humility. He lasted about 3 months.

    In another company, the following interchange was observed:

    Meeting Attendee: Has the XYZ problem been resolved?
    Project Manager: OK, we need to identify an action item to find out from Fred King what the status of this issue is.
    Intern: Why do you need an action item? I’ll run out and ask Fred where it stands and come back and tell you.

  2. I agree also that there are transferable elements to being a PM… I am a PM and member of PMI.

    But I also agree that we aren’t far from doublespeak.

    There was a good article on management doublespeak a couple weeks ago in the onion but I can’t find it…

  3. Unfortunately, I found out that statement being completely untrue in my field. Companies’ HR departments are looking for resumes that highlight specifically project management experience and vocabulary, even if the position they advertise for is not for PM. A coworker from marketing department told me that my resume present me as “doer”, not “organizer and/or manager”, and that it doesn’t have “appropriate key words for HR search engines”, by which he means all kinds of same “technical mambo-jumbo” you mention. “But I AM the doer”, -I said – “that was always the point of pride for me – and how the architectural companies would function if their design/production staff will consist exclusively of organizers?”

  4. From the Carl’s excellent post, linked above, about the Skagway railroad: “… can you imagine building a railway in two years? You couldn’t even get permits for a new railway in less than a few years, and then building would take many more years to come.”

    I immediately thought. “Sure I can. In China.” They would do the exact same thing. They would decide to build it, move tens of thousands of workers to the site, and just do it. China in 2009 is a lot more like the USA in 1898 than the USA is. They need to do things right now, and they do it.

    I am not saying we should be like China, with little regard for externalities, property rights, etc.

    But we have gone way, way too far the other way.

  5. I don’t think formal project management methodology is worthless at all. It’s just that serious domain knowledge is very important. If you don’t know software development pretty damn well, you will almost certainly make a hash of managing a software project. If you don’t make a hash of it, you’re probably relying heavily on somebody who does have the domain knowledge.

    There is an old myth that management can be made into a context-neutral science. Robert S. McNamara’s tenure as Secretary of Defense was one triumph of that school of thought. John Sculley, the Man Who Almost Killed Apple, was another. We’ve got a whole thundering herd of clueless naïfs just now digging into the job of running Chrysler and GM into the ground.

    Some people think “rational” means “reductive” and “reductive” means “infallible”. That’s how naturally smart people make themselves into functional morons. We elected one last fall. We’ve got lots more of them in climatology, who think they can perfect the accuracy of a computer climate model by excluding everything that’s too complicated to understand. Self-made morons.

  6. I wasn’t saying that PM knowledge is useless. I am a damn PM. I was saying that it was inexplicable that someone would think that, all else being equal, a company wouldn’t hire someone with PM knowledge AND technical and industry knowledge.

    I also wrote about Scully in a post not too long ago…

    I agree on the search engine issue for jobs – it is a bad game – you just need to figure out what words they are looking for and beat them to the punch.

    If you are good, once you get your foot in the door, you will shine.

  7. Carl, I wasn’t suggesting that YOU were suggesting that PM knowledge is worthless. And anybody who suggests I suggested otherwise can… well, I dunno, but I’m open to suggestions…

  8. Lex, you just described the Golmud-Lhasa railway, only it was hundreds of thousands not tens of thousands of workers. I was involved in the design and testing of the locomotives for it.

    Just a curiosity: We were waiting at a station (still being constructed) on the Tibetan Plateau for another train to pass so we could resume testing. They were tiling the platform. There were four men laying the tiles (smoothing the sand, and tapping the tile carefully into place), there was a man inspecting the work as it was being done, and there were the labourers bringing the tiles and sand from the trucks, in wheelbarrows. The later were all women.

  9. ” …why WOULDN’T they look for someone from their industry (say, energy), with a specific technical capability (perhaps engineering), along with project management experience”

    It is often a good idea to go outside of the industry to get a fresh perspective on things. Industries can get so inbred that they often cannot break out of the way things have always been done. Defense is one that comes to mind. Defense contractors can become so focused on knowledge of compliance with arcane DOD requirements that they begin to think that experience with DOD regs is more important than operational execution skill. In fact, it is often a lot easier for a good engineering project manager from another industry to pick up the DOD requirements than it is for an old school weapons system engineer to learn how to more effectively bring a new system to market. The better defense contractors routinely look outside of their industry to keep this from happening.

    The automotive industry is largely a victim of failure to do this. Compared to other manufacturing sectors, automotive is very average in their execution, yet it is almost impossible to find a want ad for an automotive position that does not require prior automotive experience. They are so internally focused that learning from similar, but different industries rarely happens. Bringing Mulally into Ford from Boeing (admitedly not for project management) has been a successful exception to this thinking. Their big project management area is new product development, and automotive can use all the help it can get from consumer products manufacturing, which routinely brings products to market much more effectively than automotive. GM, for instance, could learn quite a bit from Apple about the methodology of managing cost, quality and speed to market.

  10. I’ve seen a lot of this in the computer industry from the other end of the spectrum with technically adroit people with poor social and management skills. I’ve often thought that we should use a system like the German Imperial general staff which paired a aristocrat with the moral authority to lead with a commoner promoted on merit. We could partner a technical guru with organizational genus and make a killer team.

    Works in theory but in reality the clash of egos might make it difficult.

  11. Not getting your surprise here. A number of people involved in technical work have no desire to be involved in PM duties. Conversely, those with extensive PM experience have no desire to go back to the technical grunt work.

    The majority of engineers I come across view the PM concepts (design, specifications, execution, and change management) as useless activities. Then again, they end up spending a lot more time and capital correcting features that should have been defined during the design phase, or worst, giving the client a useless and unwanted system/ process.

  12. Shannon…but in practice, we would probably pair a techie whose glibness and arrogance have led people to think he’s much smarter than he really is with an elite-school MBA who is totally lacking in emotional intelligence and real leadership skills.

    (sorry. must.avoid.cynicism)

  13. There certainly is some merit to bringing in a fresh approach to business fields that are dying. To a big extent this is how I personally got into the energy industry – at the time they were all vertically integrated, with no idea how to tell which parts of the business (generation, transmission, distribution) were making them money. We brought financial and modeling skills that let them at least attempt to try to analyze this issue and try to make better decisions. No one in that field knew anything about how to do real analysis, because they were all regulated beasts, so why bother (it just comes out in rates, anyways).

    PM’s without any specific technical domain knowledge or industry experience, or experience that is super-relevant to a changing industry (i.e. if you are going from a regulated utility to an unregulated market), then you likely aren’t going to be as successful as someone who is a PM WITH those skills, as well. That is the SURPRISE part.

    Good PM’s who are excellent in communications should at least be able to figure enough buzz-words to get their foot in the door and go on a crash course (at night) to learn enough to not sink immediately – in the long term, there are no good PM’s that don’t have a pretty solid basis at least in their industry and enough technical knowledge to be dangerous when talking. This is just my 2 cents.

  14. Important to note that industry knowledge is NOT purely a matter of technical knowledge…it also encompasses what the customers are like, how they buy, what kinds of things matter to them, etc etc. Ditto for understanding of competitors and of the industry regulatory environment.

    I expect one thing that Alan Mulally has discovered in his transition from Boeing to Ford is that selling through a network of independent franchisees is very, very different from selling through a company-controlled sales force.

  15. I’m late to the party, but I feel like I have to say something about this, because I too am a PM and a PMI member.

    But I don’t have my PMP, and I have zero incentive to get it as long as I am with my current employer, who has made it plain that I am no more or less likely to be laid off, promoted, or given a raise based on that credential.

    [Sidebar: This is not due to any real freedom from credentialism on their part; it has a lot more to do with 1) the many people whose training and certification they paid for about a decade ago, a large portion of whom promptly moved on to greener pastures or even started their own businesses, and of course 2) their generally declining fortunes, currently expressed by such policies as no HVAC in the main campus buildings after 6 PM or before 7 AM, no corporate travel without VP-level approval, almost no purchases of office supplies, and consolidation of employees into fewer buildings so that they can lease part of the campus out to other employers.]

    Back on point — Seeing Like A State seems apposite. There will always be a tension between abstract, schematized knowledge and more local, “partisan” knowledge. PMI is something of a racket, and I suspect that many of the key concepts it promotes were originally developed to take the heat off of beltway bandits in the wake of godawful cost overruns on military projects.

    On the other hand, I (perhaps naively) view PMI and the PMBOK as a way of vectoring Anglospheric values into developing nations. To that extent, it may be a very good thing.

    Incidentally, Harold Kerzner, one of the gurus of the field, thinks recessions are good things — the longer and deeper, the better — because they force rapid methodological improvements. I attended a talk he gave a few years ago where he explicitly expressed a wish for a recession that lasted decades. He ought to be feeling great these days.

    Finally, the older I get, the less technical I am, so I’m part of the problem. My saving virtue, unless it’s my ultimate hypocrisy, is that I despise credentialism. I will not hide behind an acronym following my name.

  16. Oh God. Kerzner. I remember many times falling asleep trying to read through his books.

    Generally, most PM concepts are common sense and solid organization, and are practical and helpful to possess.

    I mainly got my certification because I was tired of people who HAD the certification telling me that I wasn’t qualified. I didn’t receive any special insight from the training for it.

    Funny on PMBOK. I have a PM help site ( and used to put it up there way back in the early days of the web and they sent me a cease and desist letter. It was very polite, though.

  17. The same can be said of CEOs — just look at the hash-up John Scully did when in charge of Apple.

    The entire reason why Apple lost out to M$ and the IBM PC is because he was too ignorant of computing to understand the marketplace, and why the imbecilic Gallic arrogance of Jean-Louis Gassee was blatantly wrong. Jobs has brought the company back from the brink but they’re still somewhat of a niche market and, even there, only by basically becoming a Wintel compatible box.

    For a better understanding, there’s the excellent Wired Article from a decade back:

    They Coulda Been A Contender

  18. > Careful with that Chinese construction.

    LOL, did you read down further to entry #8 (they are numbered to decrease downwards, not upwards)

  19. > all else being equal, a company wouldn’t hire someone with PM knowledge AND technical and industry knowledge.

    1) Interesting that multiple people thought of John Scully — I had not read the comments further before posting that.

    2) I’m also put in mind of a friend’s tale of going to the initial M$ Visual Basic rollout developer’s conference, back in the early-mid 90s. While at the conference, he got to meet the head honcho in charge of the project — not some mid-level guy but THE Guy In Charge. In passing, the friend casually used the term “BNF Grammar“. It quickly became clear that this guy had no clue what the term meant. Now, I don’t know what they teach in IS classes these days but back then anyone who was taking a degree in CIS took at least an introductory course in compilers, which absolutely certainly would have gone over the concept. Some quiet asking around and my friend found out that the bozo Idiot-In-Chief was a clueless marketdroid with no knowledge of computers at all. … and from this we begin to grasp some of the utter cretinisms associated with M$ software.

  20. > 2) their generally declining fortunes, currently expressed by such policies as no HVAC in the main campus buildings after 6 PM or before 7 AM


    “Don’t come to work early, don’t bother to stay late”.

    I can see why they have generally declining fortunes as a business. You don’t make it ahead as a company by making sure all your employees are 9-5 clock-punching zombies that ought to be government workers instead.


  21. Actually, they’re getting smart about this whole situation and encouraging, if not quite yet mandating, telecommuting. Indeed, I expect widespread telecommuting to be one silver lining of the whole economic meltdown.

  22. Depends where the people deciding who to cut are. If they’re also remote, it doesn’t matter so much. Although in my experience it doesn’t matter much anyway. We had a lot of people scatter to the four winds during an ill-fated attempt at outsourcing all of our IT to IBM Global Services, who pushed telecommuting hard. They were no less likely to be re-insourced and no noticeable fraction of them have been laid off since.

    I suspect that my nephews (ages 16 and 10) may never regularly report to a physical office.

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