Thursday, October 27, 2016

Death of the IT Project Manager

I was one of the early adopters of the Project Management Professional qualification and held it for nine years from 2003 to 2012. I was reading about the PMETs who are losing their jobs and wanted to understand why there is such a wide gap between the skills desired by the markets and the skills which middle-aged PMETs like me have.

I also read a really badly written book called the Neo-Generalist by Kenneth Mikelsen, one of the worse books ever written in support of a generalist career which paints the picture of a polymath as someone who is a trickster, hipster, and has few practical skills. The book was a horrible experience but it gave some insights into how the modern economy is changing.

For a start, lets look at the typical engineering/IT career path for Generation Xers.

In your 20s, you start out with a Bachelor's in Engineering and is highly specialised in one discipline. It easily lands you a solid job with an above average pay because you can do what you are paid to do. But your knowledge is "I" shaped, it is narrowly focused in one discipline.

In your 30s, you branch into project management. Some guys get MBAs but project management is the only way to maintain a high salary glide-path in your 30s. At this stage, with a certain amount of maturity, your knowledge becomes "T" shaped because you have to develop some organisational and business skills which are fairly broad and general in nature.

At this stage, a lot of people don't realise that becoming a PM has a hidden cost.

The broadening of skill sets comes at a sacrifice on technical skill sets, so it become rusty after a while. The introduction of cloud computing was a hint as to what was to come. And paradigm shifts like functional programming, DevOps and data analytics represent a knowledge hurdle which a technology professional needs to overcome but companies will generally not invest in their workers in Singapore.

So in your 40s, your knowledge is "T" shaped with a broader horizontal line but shorter vertical line and the next paradigm shift eventually kills your career. The older generation of IT Project Managers can talk about servers, routers and switches, but we have since moved into the cloud and are running projects to analyse datasets owned by the company.

The bulk of us in our 40s ask ourselves why are we jobless in spite of having an engineering degree and MBA. Can't really blame the industry as I've attended talks on Blockchains where the Senior staff of some local firms are plugging security solutions which are over a decade old for a technology which isn't even centralised and controlled by one party.

It gets even more exciting if you hit your 50s. If you survive, you will be just those director level staff with no real technical skills whose only job is to keep costs low and retrench staff. At this stage, your knowledge flatlines into a "-". I do not have kind words for senior IT staff as they are quite obstructive and do not add any value to the business. A skill-set is to repeated cut costs through outsourcing and hollowing out of the IT department until they do not even have a team to manage anymore. This explains why Gen-X has some real beef against the Boomers. What skills do Boomers have that Gen-X don't which entitles them to a salary of $250k -$350k. Worse, they are the ones with the hiring and firing power. And don't get me started on how the Boomers benefitted the most from the asset inflation throughout the 90s which Gen-X did no fully get to subscribe to. 

An IT professionals only recourse now is to become "π" shaped. Project managers in their 40s have to literally kill their careers to function as a technical specialist again in a radically different field so that they can continue to be taken seriously. Data Analytics requires a statistics foundation which very few 40-something year old IT professionals can handle. Alternatively, an IT PM may have to take a qualification in a vertical like a "HR qualification" to remain relevant. 

But for the bulk of 40-something year olds, the key question is whether you can accumulate enough wealth to survive a long winter. 

The IT industry with government policies on immigration has basically allowed many engineers to climb a ladder in their 20s but in their 40s they find these ladders got taken away by a combination of policy and technological change. 

They suddenly have no valuable skills and no capability to develop new ones which are in high demand in Singapore today. 

I expect that the same will happen to the elite Computer Science graduate today. 

Hope they can resist the lure of project management career track for as long as they can.


  1. Chris totally agree with u. I was a technical guy and was working under a pm who is in her late 40s whom has low technical skills and is just making life difficult as her learning has plateaued but is somehow being forced by upper management to take on roles like data analytics pm etc...... One thing their ego is very big as well. I have since changed into a pm role in another company as I could see the impending death of technical work due to outsourcing due to the change in CIO. I am in myearly 30s and I am not sure if it is the correct choice after what I have read.

  2. What would you do if given a 2nd chance, Chris?

  3. Bruce,

    Life has no room for regrets, but my biggest career mistake was leaving the private sector for more work life balance.

    Then I learnt that I hated those work cultures where there was ring fencing and blame.

    I think I am giving myself a second chance right now actually.


  4. A very well written post. Enlightening reading. Thanks.

  5. my question is not so much to regret about our life paths we have taken, but lessona to draw for the newer generation.

    in fact, with such a thoughtful writing on the topic that is so heavy in anyone's life, i'm pondering, does that mean newer 'we' should avoid technology sectors, or any fast changing line of business?

  6. Actually you should not avoid the technology sector. Whoever does that will face bigger problems in the future.

    Technology will affect every single other vertical in Singapore.

    If you have read carefully on my "pi" shaped model concept, the professional of the future will be a dual specialist with broad based interpersonal skills.

    But the problem is that it's really hard to be specialised in tech, one vertical and have general management skills at the same time.

  7. Hi Chris

    Good post. I guess everywhere is about the same, replace "technical" with "operations" and "pm" with "policy". It's about same same.

    The professional of future could be not just dual specialist, but maybe even triplet or quadruple. "Broad based" not just on local stage, but a global stage.



  8. Hi chris, good post.

    I think this not only applies for the IT sector, per se. It is actually happening in quite a few sectors. I, myself, an in a extremely niche skillset, that it becomes an Achilles heel. I cannot advance further, nor able to venture into management role. Its a typically caught between a rock and a hard place.

    I am still thinking what exactly my next step should be. I can possibly go into a broad base management ie mba or PMP. But there will be "downtime" with regards to income.

  9. Thanks for sharing guys :

    a) Yes, I agree that this problem may extend to other sectors. If any reader agrees, do share your problems on this blog.
    b) Foolish Chameleon, have you seen the CFA program ? No downtime with regards to income and as prestigious as an MBA.

  10. I am also an IT PM and the majority of my colleagues are between 35 to 45. I am at the 35 side of the fence. The 35 and 45 has a scary gap in terms of technical knowledge. If we go to the 30 yo group, they don't have sufficient breadth technical knowledge. So 35 is like the prime age and god-like. Every once in a while, the 35 yo group will cuddle together and wonder whether in 5 years' time, the 30 yo group will think we are obselete, but we just continue to brain storm and support each other in learning and hope that when we are 40, we are even more formidable and able to take on anything that comes our way.

    Eventually age is just a number. The attitude counts more than anything. Never stop learning. I was also considering MBA but I ended up just learning one or two foreign languages. I am still learning languages as it balances the brain which I want to believe will help me find a job when my IT skills become obselete.

  11. Hi Chris,

    Excellent post. While I am not in the IT sector, I am reaching 40 in a few years time. I totally agree with you on the point of Baby Boomers, who benefited from asset inflation but still hoarding management posts. They should just leave the scene and give the next generation opportunities to build wealth.


  12. Thanks for all the comments so far !

    Look out for the next post because it will get more interesting after this !

  13. Chris,

    I come from engineering background. This is a first suggestion I heard.
    What doors does CFA open for me?
    How does it value add to ne?

    Also, the only reason why I cannot take lessons based curriculum, is that I am frequently traveling overseas. At best, long distance learning, but again, It takes a lot of discipline to do LD learning. I am not sure I am up for it.

  14. The CFA will teach you how to value equities.

    It is exam based and some people self-study to pass it.

    You can go to the CFA Institute to learn more about it.

  15. hi ng, dun quite understand your biggest mistake of "leaving the private sector for work-life-balance".
    does it mean your biggest mistake was entering public sector?

  16. I'm an example of gen x hired by boomer gen only to be fired in one year time without any clinically strong reason to do. Basically I was fired to keep his own rice bowl.

  17. Chris, very interesting post. I think just like any industry right now, age 20-40 is very important to wealth as much as possible as the risk of retrenchment is very high once you hit 35.

  18. Yes, my biggest mistake was joining the public sector.

    Cheryl, I think your 40s are a more dangerous period for retrenchment because you can usually recover from retrenchment in your 30s.