Sometimes you just need a technical project manager

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Photo by A. Drauglis

As a developer, my skills are applicable across a wide variety of domains.  However,  I re-engaged recently with a prospective client that I wrote about a while ago. They had used another booking solution over the past few months and still had the same pain.  After thinking and doing some research, I can to a conclusion that hiring a developer was not the right answer for them.

This company had an interesting set of constraints:

  • Wedded to a platform (Shopify) because of previous investment and its excellent shopping experience.
  • The platform doesn’t provide all the functionality needed.
  • Users (both internal and customers) are ill served by another system to login and manage.
  • No third party plugins seem to meet the needs, either alone or in combination (at least, no solutions that I could find).  It’s apparently a fairly unique problem set.
  • They were not interested in solving the problem in incremental steps.
  • They had budget limitations (don’t we all).

In this situation, the best solution is to look for someone who can undertake the following steps:

  1. Write up a clear description of the problem. This doesn’t have to be a detailed requirements doc, but should be a clear explication of the issues, needs, timelines (if any), and current systems.
  2. Post the description to the shopify forums and contact the platform vendor directly, to see if anyone has encountered any of the same issues and ask how they solved them. The point of this isn’t to solve the problem, it’s to see if anyone else has solved pieces of the problem. This will help the company identify partners and/or adjust scope of the project. (If Shopify customer support says ‘whoa, we’ve never heard of this’, it’s a different size problem than if they say ‘well, you might want to bolt these three pieces together’.)
  3. After the client has more knowledge, send the requirements to Shopify focused dev shops (and possibly Elance contractors who work with Shopify, but not just Shopify themes). Work with at least two to three of them to see what a solution would cost, either custom or building on their current code. At this time, avoid getting development quotes from anyone who doesn’t have experience with Shopify development (like me!), simply because the integration with the platform is so critical.
  4. Evaluate the results of the RFP process, including following up any avenues that the experts or forums turn up. Consider whether the budget allows for a comprehensive solution or whether it makes more sense to look at point solutions for the high pain areas.
  5. If the results point to a comprehensive solution being within budget, engage the solution provider.  If not, identify the high pain areas and go back to step 1 with the smaller scope.

So, what this client really needs is a technical project manager (TPM). While most freelancers have this skill to some degree, as it is hard to survive without it, making a full time living as a contract project manager is difficult. I know of only one person in 15 years who was making a living as a contract project manager (and she’s not doing it anymore). This particular project doesn’t seem like a full time effort, so the client should be able to get by with a moonlighter, at least until the results of step 4 are known.

Good technical project managers are hard to find. From a friend’s company’s job req (his company who is looking for a TPM, and the job desc captures the description of the skill set well), they have:

balance between hands-on technical knowledge, a ravenous appetite for order, and an understanding of humans and how they work.

Developers (or former developers) who want to project manage and have people skills aren’t quite the unicorn as someone who can both design and develop, but they are almost as rare.  Unless the company can find a contract project manager who has technical chops, they’ll want to either source this internally or find an external contractor with another skill set (developer or designer) who wants to PM this project.

This is a great chance to for an employee to expand their skill set. Based on my experience managing vendors during my time at 8z (a 4 month website relaunch and a longer term, less time intensive data provisioning engagement), I would advise that this employee have technical skills.  Challenging custom solution providers on technical grounds, or at least being able to follow along, ensures the company will get the best solution. This doesn’t work for “take it or leave it” SaaS apps, but this project appears custom enough that the TPM really needs to have both business and technical considerations in mind when managing the development shop. If they are looking for an outside contractor, engaging with a designer or developer who has PM experience would be an option.

As far as stretching budget, proposing a lower price to the development shop in exchange for shared ownership of the code might make sense. The partner could market this code to other clients and recoup some costs, while the client retains a perpetual license.

Sometimes, a generic developer isn’t the right answer for a software development problem. A technical project manager (or someone wearing that hat) can often stretch budget and leverage skill sets of focused development teams.

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