Necessary skills for the Agile project manager

As the adoption of Agile continues to explode across IT departments worldwide, the Agile project manager has more opportunity to acquire strong leadership skills and ensure team success.

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“The adoption of Agile processes is exploding in software engineering and IT departments throughout the world, and this is a great time to catch the wave,” says Kevin Thompson, PhD., and PMI project management professional of Prime, Inc., when asked about the opportunities for project managers in Agile ALM environments. However, in order to be competitive, project managers need to be well-versed in the use of Agile software processes;...

understand tracking, metrics and planning in Agile environments; and facilitate collaboration throughout the lifecycle. In this tip, Agile project managers will get a better understanding of the skills necessary to achieve success in ALM environments.

Agile fundamentals

Any project manager working with Agile ALM, of course, needs to be familiar the development framework, whether that be Scrum, XP, Kanban or a combination of Agile techniques that the development team is using. The terminology alone is a change from traditional project management, and it’s important that everyone is speaking the same language.

In some organizations, project managers in traditional environments become Scrum Masters when those teams adopt Scrum. If that’s the case, Scrum Master training is certainly recommended not just for the Scrum Master, but for the entire team. Everyone must be in agreement about the meaning of such terms such as user stories, story points and the definition of “done.”

The Agile project manager has the role of a “servant-leader,” acting as a facilitator to remove blockers. The team, as a whole, is responsible for deliverables. This may be very different from previous project management positions in which a project manager is in a command-and-control position and acts in a position of authority. In Agile, there is no one person who acts as an authority figure.

“The Agile project manager functions more as a facilitator of progress, and focuses more on maximizing the project team's ability to work effectively than on controlling how they work,” says Thompson.

Tracking and metrics

Certainly, an important part of training for the project manager working in an Agile ALM environment is a clear understanding of the measurements being used to track progress. These can often be confusing for those new to Agile methodologies.

One example might be the use of story points for estimates rather than the traditional method of setting deadlines by which tasks must be completed. Some teams that are newly adopting Agile incorrectly translate story points into a time period, such as one story point equals about one day of work. Story points are about “relative sizing” though. Points are abstract and help the team measure how much work can be done in a certain period (for example, an iteration), but are not meant to be equated to a measure of time. Project managers that translate points to time are still thinking in a traditional way. Instead, they need to be looking at the velocity of the team, how many points are the team members able to complete in each iteration, and improving the predictability of the iterations over time.

Project managers working with Agile ALM need to become familiar with the reports that are available to them through the ALM tools being used by the team. Charts that measure burn-down, burn-up and velocity will be tools to help determine if an iteration and the release is on track. Other measurements that would be helpful to the Agile project manager might be defect trends, throughput or build health.

By understanding the capabilities of the tools and reports available, the project manager can be sure the team is consistently tracking the data needed to give the most complete picture of the project status.

Collaboration

Besides having a good understanding of Agile techniques and how to best measure and track status, a project manager working in an Agile ALM environment must understand the importance of collaboration.

Collaboration is more than just a buzz word that equates to teamwork. Collaboration is really about breaking down the silos of traditional software development environments. Agile environments stress the importance of “the whole team.” Roles and responsibilities between developers, testers and business analysts become morphed. Business and IT work more closely together. Development and operations responsibilities become so intertwined that DevOps departments have become a growing trend in release management. Thanks to the benefits and growing trends of new social technologies, communication is enhanced. Likewise, with advances in mobility and cloud computing, collaboration and communication is easier than ever, regardless of physical locality.

The skilled project manager will be familiar with the tools and technologies available to the team to take advantage of state-of-the-art collaboration.

Conclusion

Agile ALM is a trend that continues to grow in the software development industry. Opportunities are excellent for the project manager who is skilled at understanding Agile techniques and knows how to use the ALM tools to the team’s advantage. By using Agile tracking and planning and collaborating across the organization, Agile project managers will have the talent to lead their teams to success.

This was first published in July 2012

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