Random Acts of IT Project Management

Project Management for Information Technology

I Am Not a Specialist, I Am a Manager

Posted by iammarchhare on 14 August 2009

There is a rank in the Army called “Specialist”.  There used to be about 3 levels: Specialist 4th Class, Specialist 5th Class, Specialist 6th Class (pretty rare), but by the time I entered, they were phasing out all but the “Spec 4” class.  The numbers, if you didn’t catch it, reflected the paygrade, so that’s why they don’t start with “1”.  Therefore, a Spec 4 and a Corporal are both “E-4” paygrade and make roughly the same amount of money (with some variation for years of service, etc.).

In many ways, it parallels the business world.  You go to “boot camp” or “basic training” (high school) to learn general things, then you go on to “advanced individual training” (college) to learn your craft.  However, when you come out, you are still basically a generalist.  Sure, your job title is well defined, but you are only expected to have a general level of proficiency in all tasks.  As you evolve, you learn more about your particular function and become a “specialist” or “Specialist”.

So, why was the Army doing away with most of the Specialist ranks?  For one thing, a “Specialist” is not a noncommissioned officer (NCO).  Therefore, in many enlisted members’ eyes, the Specialist had no real authority (even though that wasn’t strictly true, but the attitude was still prevalent).  However, an even more disturbing factor was that the Specialist concentrated so much on honing their skills for their particular job specialty that they often, intentionally or unintentionally, neglected their leadership skills.

I used to joke that I was a jack of all trades and master of none.  There is a particular truth to that statement, though.  I have a broad range of experience, even within IT.  That means I know only so much about many different areas.  I am not a specialist.

However, that’s not really a bad thing.  I do know a little about a lot of things.  That makes me a better manager.  I can talk to a network guy about IP addresses.  I can talk to the tester about user interface issues.  I can talk to the developer about classes.  I have setup LANs in computer labs and businesses.  I have assisted with testing.  I have done quite a bit of programming.  I no longer am, if indeed I ever was, an expert in any of these.  To be a manager, though, I don’t have to be.  That is why I have the specialists, the subject matter experts, to help advise on technical matters.

I think people have a tendency to pigeon-hole others.  I have a certificate that says I am a “project management professional”.  Does that make me a specialist?  I hope not.  I would argue that there are unique skills for being a project manager, yet any “manager”, if they are to be effective, must be much more of a generalist than a specialist.  In spite of what some people seem to think (and, sadly some are PMPs), it takes no real talent or ability to plug an EVM formula into a spreadsheet and update it weekly.  It’s what you do with that information that’s important.  It’s whether or not the project is successful that’s important, and that may take many different skills and may even be different for every project.

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4 Responses to “I Am Not a Specialist, I Am a Manager”

  1. EmiJoy said

    A few years ago I got to pick my own title at work. ‘Manager’ seemed so bland, so I picked ‘Solutionairess’ 😉

    I would add to that tool-box-of-skills-useful-to-a-PM, understanding people and their different personalities! 🙂 Often the ‘human factor’ is overlooked but can add greatly to the flow of work. One of colleagues blogs about it [here].

  2. PM Hut said

    My opinion is that you’re overlooking the fact that you’re clearly a specialist as a Manager, the same as you were as a programmer (as you stated) and as a tester. I think of IT Management as an art: I have to know about a little about everything (sometimes, due to my background, I know much more than just a little), and of course, work out the inter-department politics. I think the 2 terms, specialist and manager, are not mutually exclusive.

  3. @EmiJoy: Great video at the link you provided (I edited it so it would appear correctly, btw)! “Solutionairess” sounds like a great title to have as well.

    @PM Hut: I am trying to make the case that a manager must be well-rounded, versed in many topics and must know their way around the environment they are in. I am thinking of it as a continuum from specialist to generalist, since no position really relies upon one single skill.

    The one thing that companies do not do well, IMO, is prepare people for leadership roles. However, that’s my next blog topic 🙂

  4. […] by iammarchhare on 17 August 2009 Last time, I blogged about “I Am Not a Specialist, I Am a Manager” and got some really good feedback.  I want to dig into it a little more and bring it down to a […]

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