The Full Stack Project Manager
For the last few years, I’ve been experimenting with my job title, trying to find one that fits the kind of work I do on a regular basis. Nothing has really fit well, or encompassed my full skill set and portfolio of work.
There were certainly a few I could choose from.
Sr. Web Developer, which was nice and captured my long professional history of developing for the web. But it ignores my design and technical communication background, as well as my experience with the server side (I did, after all, write a book on Apache). DevOps came up as a potential descriptor, but that’s really more of an IT movement than a real position and besides, it ignores my other skills. At the same time, I’ve built up a good skill base in project management, which really isn’t reflected in most developer-related titles (it’s implied in Sr. Developer to a certain extent). At the same time, I’ve been wanting to pivot my own career towards a leadership role. I want to move away from working primarily with code and design, and instead help mentor upcoming designers and developers.
Lately, I realized that I have to invent my own title. I started down this path a few years ago with “Creative Technologist.” It was a nice, impressive sounding title that roughly melded together the two primary areas of my professional past. But it was a bit too vague, and didn’t really give a clear indication of where I sat in a given organization (is he creative? does he work with IT?). It doesn’t give prospective clients or employers a good sense of where to place me within their organization. Given my desired career pivot, focusing on the project management aspect of my career history is likely a good idea. However, that focus has the same weakness as the Sr. Web Developer title — it ignores the development side of my career history, and the skills I bring to the table there.
So I need to move on from “Creative Technologist.” But to where?
The Full Stack Developer is highly desirable, because she understands web development as a holistic science.
With the rise of DevOps and a split between Front-End developers and Back-End developers has come a new classification of developer: the Full Stack Developer. This is a developer that can work comfortably in all aspects of a web application; she has enough of a design background that she can scope, design, and build an application’s interface, while also being comfortable with the infrastructure of the application, designing and building the data models and storage required by that application. The Full Stack Developer is highly desirable, because she understands web development as a holistic science. He can move anywhere within the application, from interface to data models, and contribute. A Full Stack Developer is a generalist, but she’s a generalist with teeth.
So today, I’d like to propose a new title — the Full Stack Project Manager. In this post, I’ll describe what a Full Stack Project Manager looks like, and how she or he might work within an organization and a project management / product development process.
What a Full Stack Project Manager is.
In short, a Full Stack Project Manager is a project manager that has a skill set allowing him to understand all aspects of the project or product they are directing development on. She is a highly technical project manager with a deep background in design and communication, and can critically look at the work being proposed as part of the project.
As I will explain in the next section, a Full Stack Project Manager is more than simply a technical project manager. She is involved in — and comfortable with — all aspects of the project, from development and deployment to design and communication, and has the experience and skill set to intelligently contribute to those discussions.
How a Full Stack Project Manager works.
Project Management methodology in an IT context has historically focused on the IT side of the equation; specialist project managers in IT are known as Technical Project Managers and, unsurprisingly, revolve around the technical side of the project. They pay attention to requirements documents, IT standards, technologies being employed by developers, and deployment issues. Design often enters into the equation as an afterthought, if at all — in fact, in the technical project management context, design often refers to how the technical solution will be developed and implemented, rather than how the product will look and function from a user experience standpoint. UX has been growing as a practice over the last few years, but it’s still an afterthought in many project processes.
Design often enters into the equation as an afterthought, if at all
Part of the Full Stack PM model is based on Katie Kovalcin’s article “80/20 Practitioners Make Better Communicators” on A List Apart. In that article, she advocates for members of a project team to spend 20% of their working time distributing their efforts across disciplines other than their own. She argues that this not only helped her team members grow as professionals, but also created a better sense of camaraderie and improved communication between them. It also helps spread the load between team members, building in some redundancy in skill.
A Full Stack PM would not only act as a go-between for clients and the project team; there would be an expectation for her to be able to contribute to any aspect of the project. Although the majority of her time would be dedicated to traditional PM processes and practices, she should be able to critically look at the information coming back from the project team for accuracy in both the quality of solution and time estimated, without having to rely solely on her technical and design teams.
The Full Stack PM should be a strong advocate for both the client and the project team. He should be able to highlight technical challenges before the development team encounters them; likewise, he should be able to flag design issues before they reach the client, suggesting alternate strategies back to the design team. He should be able to effectively match clients’ needs to technical and design outcomes, and help his team to propose the most effective deliverables for those outcomes.
The Full Stack PM should be a strong advocate for both the client and the project team.
…but let’s not micromanage.
There is a danger when describing the Full Stack Project Manager of misconstruing it as micromanagement, or abandoning the trust between the PM and her project team. Nothing could be farther from what I envision the Full Stack PM as being. Trust is essential in any team, and I don’t see the role of the Full Stack PM as abandoning that trust. Quite the contrary, I see this role as being a locus for building trust within the team. There are traditional differences between “designers,” “coders,” and “clients” on technical projects, which often create either a lack of trust between these groups, or which foster a siloing within the project team. A Full Stack PM should foster and encourage integration of these groups by (initially) translating between them, using language each group understands. Within the project team, the Full Stack PM should blur — if not remove — the lines between them, and encourage cross-discipline work as a way of furthering an understanding between them of the respective importance of their work.
It should be as much a role based in mentoring as it is in project management.
While a Full Stack PM should be able to take on the work of either their design or technical team members, she’s not meant to do so in a way that is obstructive or directive. Rather, she should be able (and willing) to step in to help mentor her project team, and help them effectively move past any issues they might encounter by offering an alternate solution that has real experience informing it. She should also challenge her team members when they appear to be padding their estimates or qualifying their work, so that the project and its end result can be elevated to its best possible outcome. It should be as much a role based in mentoring as it is in project management.
I’m interested in hearing your feedback on the Full Stack Project Manager. Drop me a line on Twitter at @staticred or — even better — write a response on your blog, Medium, or your publishing platform of choice and send me the link.