At a recent British Computer Society Project Management Specialist Group meeting in London, Miles Shepherd said that people of his generation “became project managers by accident,” often as a result of having an engineering background.

Accidental project management is the way that many project managers are created, even now.  Bas de Baar has written a book called Surprise! Now You're a Software Project Manager that is specifically designed for software engineers who wake up one day and find themselves with the new job title of ‘project manager’ and have to take on the mystery art of getting things done on time, on budget and on scope.

I also became a project manager by accident – kind of.  When I was at school I didn’t know project management as a discipline even existed.  I wrote lists, I did my university work in a structured and organised manner, but no one ever told me that I was managing projects and that I could make a career out of it.  And I never asked.  Once I was working, I saw people doing project management jobs and realised that was what I wanted to do myself.  Knowing that project management roles existed was the first part of getting into it, but once I realised that I specifically sought out roles to apply for in the business change and project management sphere.

Nowadays, Miles said, project management careers are planned.  I suppose that is largely true – as it is for me.  “There’s a demand for education and training independent of technical knowledge,” he said.  This has created an industry around training our project managers, who once upon a time would have been grateful to have a copy of Bas’s book, or my other favourite ‘accidental project manager’ text, Making Things Happen: Mastering Project Management, which is also aimed at software engineers.  These days, books like these are the preludes to taking project management courses.

The difficulty with becoming an accidental project manager seems to be that you take on all the management stuff while still being expected to (or wanting to) deliver all the detail and work on the tasks too.  On small projects this might work – you don’t need a separate project manager for a development job that will only take a day or so.  But for big projects, you can’t be expected to manage and do as there is just too much doing that forms part of the management, if that makes any sense.  You’ll be so busy managing the project that you won’t have the time to do it too.

Making the jump between engineer and project manager should be encouraged; some of the best project managers I have worked with started out as coders.  However, the thing for their managers to remember is that slapping the label ‘project manager’ on someone doesn’t make them a project manager.  Especially if they love coding and don’t much love filling in risk logs and writing initiation documents.  They might be good at coming up with ideas, but can they facilitate the discussion leading to getting those ideas out of other people and then document them all in something like iMindQ?