Many engineering and R&D oriented companies have 3 technical career paths: individual technical professional, management, and project/program management. With respect to project management, however, many of our clients struggle with whether to treat project management as a competency or a career path, or both. We had this debate at length at Microsoft, and it was an issue when I did similar work for Pratt & Whitney and Bayer. It is a topic that stirs much interest and some controversy, and, as with many similar topics, there is no right answer. The “correct” answer ultimately is matter of strategic business direction and what core capabilities you are trying to grow.
Microsoft engineering leaders believed project management was a core competency, something all technical people had to master. Sure, there was a career path that emphasized project management– we called it “Program Management” – but the competencies in that path entailed much more than project management. Program Managers at Microsoft– the term originated with Boeing to describe the role ultimately responsible for an entire aircraft development program — “own” the whole product or product line, from requirements definition to design through project management, testing and release to market. This entails, effectively, determining what gets built and why, when, and to some extent, how and by whom. Program Managers (in theory at least – the role was interpreted differently from division to division) are the major – though not the only – interface between a product development team and other key partners like testing, marketing, and design. In other engineering organizations, these responsibilities are often part of the engineering manager role, or are distributed among senior architects and product management.
Building project management “muscle” was important to Microsoft (and P&W and Bayer) because strategically the company wanted to make sure all engineers were accountable for their part of the schedule, and because the fear was that by making project management “someone else’s job” , schedule and dependency ownership (etc.) would be diminished. So hence at Microsoft we had a dedicated Program Management career path as well as project management competencies for every technical path.
So how you think about this question at your company is a matter of strategic business direction. Here are some pros and cons of establishing a distinct project or program management (PM) career path:
Ultimately, the decision cuts to what is strategically important to the business and what capabilities and competencies therefore need to be optimized over the long term. For example, if the business strategy demands closer integration and synchronization across product lines, a dedicated PM role and path may be instrumental to mitigating and managing the myriad dependencies that come with that. Or, if better talent integration and a more cohesive culture across divisions and business units is a strategic imperative for the company, the benefits of a dedicated PM career path may outweigh the cons.