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Special Report: Application Lifecycle Management

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Technical Leadership is Not Project Management
Here are three key things a technical leader should do to deliver software successfully.
by Rob Keefer

June 1, 2006

In his book Blink, Malcom Gladwell relates a story about Paul van Riper, a retired marine. In 2000, the Pentagon asked van Riper to play the part of a leader of a country that was harboring terrorists in a war game called Millennium Challenge. The stated purpose of Millennium Challenge was for the Pentagon to test a set of new military philosophies. These philosophies called for much planning and the heavy use of technology.


On the opening day of the war game, the "good guys" showed up in full force. Thousands of troops were deployed into neighboring countries, aircraft carriers were posted offshore of the rogue country, and they knocked out all satellite communications. They issued an ultimatum to the rogue commander and waited.

Van Riper didn't cower. He led his troops to battle, firing off a large number of missiles and sinking many important ships that had been posted off his shore. This took the planners at the Pentagon completely by surprise, and caused them to reevaluate much of the philosophy they were testing.

War is messy and unpredictable. So is software development. Project managers can plan a software development project, but once the project gets underway, it rarely follows the plan. A technical leader understands this, accepts it, and knows how to deliver the software in spite of the chaos and change that accompany a software development project.

Three distinct differences in philosophy differentiate a project manager from a technical leader: Project managers focus on a plan, tend to find fault, and focus on process; technical leaders focus on purpose, provide feedback, and set a pace for the team.

Plan vs. Purpose
Project managers are often chided for not understanding what goes into software development. They are trained to focus on a schedule and need to know how the work is progressing according to the plan. Unfortunately, software development isn't as easy to predict as most project managers would like, so developers are often behind schedule.

Good technical leaders, on the other hand, keep the purpose of the project in mind and want to know how the work is progressing toward that goal. Technical leaders know that there are hidden problems in every software development project, and exhibit the courage and expertise to press through issues and arrive at a solution that meets the overall objective. Leaders evaluate the progress of the team according to the ultimate goal of the project, not according to a plan.

A good technical leader also knows that teams need small successes to stay motivated and build camaraderie. He or she organizes the initial phases of a project in order for the team to achieve early success. These tasks should be relevant to the overall purpose of the project, but not necessarily difficult. When the team meets these objectives, the leader celebrates the success and then focuses on the next objective.

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