PM Interviews: Johanna Rothman

Johanna Rothman runs her own project management consultancy firm Rothman Consulting Group, has written a number of influential project management books, has had numerous articles published and blogs regularly. This week Johanna kindly managed to squeeze me in to her hectic schedule and gave me her views on the problems facing project managers and the best ways to solve them.

Q: Many people may already know you as an author of several project management books or from your blogs on Managing Product Development and Hiring Technical People. Can you give us a brief summary of your career to date?

I started as a developer in 1977. I managed small projects for a few years as a technical lead and then became a tester for a couple of years (starting in 1985). I started managing larger projects in 1986 and, in 1988, I managed my first programme and became a manager of Software Quality Assurance (SQA). In 1990 I became the head of a small business unit. That was followed by a few other middle management jobs in development and SQA and finally starting my consulting business in 1994.

Q: What are you currently working on?

I have several writing projects: my next book about portfolio management, a chapter for the Beautiful Teams book and other articles. I’m working on a new estimation workshop. I have client work that I can only talk about in general terms: a couple of assessments and project management training.

Q: In your work as a consultant what do you perceive as the greatest current challenge for IT project managers and how do you help your clients overcome it?

Senior managers want to see results out of IT. But most senior IT managers (CIOs and their counterparts) don’t know enough about how to measure projects or about how to think about project success. So they ask their Project Management Offices (PMOs) to mandate a single process for all projects and therefore hamstring their project managers. The second greatest challenge is that the project managers have the same thinking.

When I come in, either to do an assessment or to do some project management training, I can help the project managers see that they have alternatives and that they need to assess their project’s context to choose an alternative. With any luck I get to talk to the senior managers about their need for process. Their perceived need for process is really a surrogate for not knowing what to measure.

Q: One of the areas you specialise in is product development. What specific project management challenges do you think are associated with product development?

One of my clients is struggling with this now. How does a project manager help a product manager create a roadmap and how do they help a senior manager (or PMO) manage the portfolio so that the project manager just has the necessary features to manage in a project? Each product typically has several releases and an organisation has to balance which releases of which project they want when. A project manager has to be able to provide a ballpark about ether how long a release will take and/or how much a team can put into a release to make sure the project manager is delivering the value the organisation wants.

By the way a serial lifecycle (waterfall or phase-gate) is the hardest lifecycle to try to predict anything about.

Q: That’s interesting. I think that many people would assume that a serial lifecycle gives you the greatest predictability. What leads you to hold the opposite viewpoint?

With a serial lifecycle you don’t have any real knowledge about the system until integration and test. You have no meaningful data until integration and test. All the data you have is surrogate data. So you have the least amount of predictability until the end of the project.

With an incremental lifecycle you can take the prediction you made about the first chunk you did and learn from it. If you thought that chunk was going to take 1 week and it took 2 you can consider what that means for your project. In an iterative lifecycle you can learn from the prototypes you did to see if things will work out the same way as you thought. In an agile lifecycle you know what you thought you could do in the first timebox and use that for the next timebox.

But with a serial lifecycle you have no predictive powers until you reach final integration because that’s when you can finally measure what you’ve been doing. And, if you leave all the testing until after integration (which is not what you’re supposed to do but is what many people do), you really have no predictive power until after you do one round of testing. And many projects use only manual testing so it isn’t until they’re 3 or 4 weeks into testing that they realise they have months of work ahead of them rather than weeks.

Q: What do you think has been the most important change in project management over the last 10 years?

In the last ten years I’ve seen a huge emphasis on certifications for project managers. It’s important because it’s a red herring.

Gaining a Project Management Professional (PMP) qualification is a laudable goal. Anyone can learn something while studying for a PMP. But becoming a PMP is no guarantee of being able to manage a project. And the change I’ve seen is that companies are looking for PMPs but not helping their staff learn how to manage projects successfully.

Q: What is your number one software project management tip, trick or technique?

If I have to pick just one it would be rolling wave scheduling. The way I do it is this:

  • Lay out the major milestones.
  • Schedule the next 2-4 weeks (no more than 4 weeks) in detail with inch-pebbles.
  • As you finish one week, add another to the end of the schedule.

If you only schedule for 2-4 weeks then you can build in adaptability to what is actually going on with the project. If you can adapt to reality then you’re in great shape.

What characteristics do you think it’s important to look for when bringing people on to a team?

I look for people who can mesh with the already-existing team. A team that knows how to work together will figure out what they need to do to be successful. That means that I look for solution-space domain expertise and functional technical skills but, even more, I look at the culture of the team and hire for that.

How much domain and/or technical knowledge do you think someone managing a project has to have?

A project manager has to know enough about how the people work and what they’re working on to assess risk. In Manage It! Your Guide to Modern, Pragmatic Project Management, I wrote a sidebar “How Technical Does a Project Manager Need to Be?” that addresses this question in more detail.

What is your biggest bug bear/gripe/pet peeve?

Schedule games, especially the Split Focus (multitasking) schedule game and the Pants on Fire (we-can’t-decide-which-project-is-most-important) schedule game. Split Focus wastes time for everyone and prevents projects from moving forward. Pants on Fire doesn’t allow a team to finish a project. Why don’t senior managers realise how damaging either of these games are for the team?

Q: That is a very good question. Do you have any idea what the answer might be?

Too many senior managers don’t manage the project portfolio: the choice of which projects to start and stop when. To be fair I don’t think they know that they have to or know how. Because they don’t, and because senior managers multitask in order to do their work, they forget (or don’t know) that multitasking is dangerous for technical staff.

How do you see project management evolving into the future?

Project managers will have to become comfortable with Agile approaches to the project and the practices. That means that project managers will become more adaptable. I hope that senior managers will start evaluating the project portfolio to avoid the schedule games.

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1 comment so far

  1. Craig Brown on


    Just discoverred your site (Care of Raven.)

    Fantasic interview. Thanks.

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