Are IT project managers facing an existential crisis?

Despite the years of experience and expertise that the middle management layer brings to the Indian IT services industry, it has been facing an existential crisis for a while now. Stories abound of clients preferring senior code writers over project managers, and of tech CEOs aiming the axe at this layer first every time a sizeable lay off is planned. The pandemic has not made it any easier. Have enough project managers made the change to agile methodologies that steer clear of the traditional, and sequential, more rigid ‘waterfall’ approach while working with clients? What does the future hold for them? R. Srikrishna and Srini Srinivasan discuss the question in a conversation moderated by K. Bharat Kumar. Edited excerpts:

What is the challenge facing project managers who have chosen the ‘management’ path, leaving behind the technical stream very early in their career?

R. Srikrishna : There is no role for a project manager in the currently popular agile methodology. The position that comes closest to the project manager is the scrum master, but the scrum master is typically the best coder in the team.

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In some cases, the same person can transition to the new role from the old framework. For example, in a data centre, a project manager’s job is to manage a team responsible for keeping the data centre up nearly 100% of the time. If something goes wrong, a manager would typically join his team in troubleshooting and finding the root cause of the problem. Today, technology can help point to a potential problem area more rapidly than in the past. So, the manager must be tech-savvy to be able to use technology in troubleshooting. Across the board the role has evolved.

Srini Srinivasan: Middle management responsibilities in traditional software development revolved around shepherding the development process through the stage gates. We are now moving towards agile; the traditional role of the middle management is under threat. It probably has not been done away with, but it is certainly under threat.

We have not seen mass job losses in this segment. Have project managers reskilled themselves in technology?

R. Srikrishna: Apart from reskilling, there’s a big change needed in terms of a cultural and social shift — some of it has been happening. Historically in our industry, the success of a manager has been measured by how many people work for that project manager. In a social setting, the success of your work was measured by, “I have 100 people work for me, or 1,000 work for me.” Now, success is not merely managing a large team but the ability to handle a complex project with relatively fewer people.

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At a guess, two-thirds of project managers will make the change on both the technology and cultural fronts; and a third will not. The latter may not become all redundant — they will maybe work in traditional roles with customers where their skills are still valuable.

If you exclude the BPO (business process outsourcing) headcount, the IT services industry would have project managers accounting for about 5% of the workforce. In Hexaware, we have about 5% of our workforce as project managers. About 70% of those would have made a successful transition into new-age skills. Not just the methodology, but also technology, becoming clued into cloud-native development.

The new roles could act as proxy product owners. The product owner is a customer-side role in agile methodology — on behalf of customers and can help drive progress for the team. The expectation is that the vendor is a partner in that journey, to help clients determine the roadmap.

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Isn’t that what a technical software architect helped with earlier?

R. Srikrishna: For sure, substantial tech skills are needed here as opposed to project or people management skills. What is expected of these profiles is also that it would extend into understanding the business context of the product... help the customer think through what the product must do.

Srini Srinivasan: Middle managers need to evolve very quickly by reskilling. Agile software development turns the focus on key issues: how will the team meet business objectives; how will they create value-stream delivery; and how will they make innovation happen? The benchmark is no more around time and cost alone. Demonstration of agility is key.

Here’s what PMI (Project Management Institute) tells project managers who may be working across different methodologies, be it SAFe, Scrum or Kanban: find a way to mix and match the best of different approaches to create a customised way of working that is best for that customer; don’t be constrained by any one methodology or by the conditions. Clients would appreciate that an IT services team working for them has found a way to add more value, more innovation. It becomes important for middle managers to lead that process.


Another developing trend is the move from ‘project’ to ‘product’. It’s been happening for a while, but it is now accelerating thanks to COVID-19. If a client’s focus is time-to-market, this is the theme the project manager has to support. When this mindset shift happens, all team members have to learn how to deliver a product versus a project. In the new model, you budget for business results or value delivery, not on length of time. Key performance indicators are on profit mentality, rather than cost mentality.

How is PMI helping project managers remain relevant?

Srini Srinivasan: Starting January 2021, the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification will have an entirely new curriculum revolving around waterfall, hybrid and agile. It would cover a spectrum of skills. We are going beyond PMP and saying that the need of the hour is to make project managers become more ‘agile’. We have created a whole portfolio of Disciplined Agile certifications for project managers to help meet their professional development needs across stages — entry level, senior scrum master, value-stream consultant, or even a consultant that deals with digital transformation. Then we will support project managers in their switch to managing deep science projects: artificial intelligence, machine learning, automation — we just finished a study with Nasscom to look at what the transition model for a traditional project manager to manage deep science projects should be; how do they bring in the right level of business acumen; skills such as design thinking, collaboration and problem solving, as well as a “fit for purpose” project manager framework…

What are the top three key result areas in the new world a project manager should be appraised on?

R. Srikrishna: The answer would depend on the area: is it a data centre, cost centre, testing programme? Accordingly, the focus changes.

Within software development, the top three things I would call out are: be prepared to code, and code cloud-native. That is an attitude change but also a lot of technology relearning. Second, collaboration and communication challenges get even more amplified in a 100% remote working situation. It’s far more difficult to bring teams together to manage a complex project when everyone is working from home. Even with smaller teams in office, soft skills are crucial. Third, stop assuming clients would tell you what to do. You have to force yourself from a culture and knowledge perspective to challenge the customer across knowledge, domain and business objectives.

When building a product for an airline, for example, the expectation is that you will be part-product owner; so, you need to know the business. Culturally, most managers in India are used to saying “yes, sir”. That has to change.

For managers who do adapt, how do prospects improve?

R. Srikrishna: The boundaries of what constitutes IT services have expanded dramatically. If you think of the kinds of players we have, they include Ernst & Young, KPMG, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte. They are now almost mainstream IT players, as are consulting firms Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey. The biggest strategy they talk about is digital and mobility; they all have the businesses to not only put out the vision but also execute the vision. So in a sense, if you are a rockstar, the kinds of companies you could go to next have changed. You can work in an IT services firm today but join a McKinsey tomorrow. That wasn’t possible earlier. Opportunities for individuals are far more now versus earlier.

Srini Srinivasan: One of the trends in tech firms across the globe is that these rockstar managers are becoming the key conduit as consultants; they show subject matter and business expertise as also social skills. We see a huge trend where these managers eventually end up forming the core of an agile project management office within these organisations.

What traditional roles can managers who are yet to make the cut fill in tech firms?

R. Srikrishna: There are always some roles for people who don’t make the cut into learning new technology. Take the example of PeopleSoft; it is a legacy technology. A vast majority of our PeopleSoft engineers get retrained in other technologies such as Workday or Oracle Fusion or some other cloud technology. Some do not. But we still do plenty of work around PeopleSoft every year. So the demand for legacy technologies will not go to zero overnight. There are other areas – the entire talent management lifecycle and supply chain does not require the highest of new technology skills but does require a lot of old-school management skills.

Are people reaching out to PMI for certifications more now than earlier? What kind of demand do you see, and specifically for what kinds of certifications, now versus earlier?

Srini Srinivasan: The PMP count in India, more than 50% of which is from the IT industry, grew about 9.3% to 43,814 last month, compared with about 40,075 at the end of November 2019. This is a bit faster than the global growth of 7.5% to 1,077,327. In India, 25 organisations have signed up to be Disciplined Agile Training Partners over the past three months. The Disciplined Agile product portfolio was launched in 2020.

A couple of things are changing. The reach-out to organisations like PMI is not just from individuals, who have historically been our high-engagement audience. Now, it is also from companies themselves.

Both organisations and individuals ask for business agility or enterprise agility. The whole objective of most IT services organisations is to become a business partner to clients, as opposed to being a vendor. The client may not always tell you what to do, because they themselves may not know. You, as a business partner, should be able to articulate the road ahead.

Srini Srinivasan is Managing Director, PMI South Asia; R. Srikrishna is CEO and Executive Director, Hexaware Technologies.

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Printable version | Sep 26, 2022 2:37:02 am |