PM. On an org chart it stands for Project Manager.

It also stands for post meridiem, meaning that the sun has moved more than halfway across the sky, because I don't care what the current debate among cosmologists is, time has a direction, like water flowing downriver, or the sun moving across the sky.

PM can be Post Mortem

PM can be Premeditated

The 'P' is for time, pre and post and present. Projects are built out of time. Forget money and manhours and your brilliant architecture and visionary technology and ninja programmers and righeteous infrastructure. It's all garbage, because the only thing that you can't get more of is time.

Throw a glass plate on the floor and it will fly into a hundred-odd pieces of chaotically regulated size and shape, as determined by the material properties of the plate and the Hertzian propagation of force through it.

Here's what won't happen. The pieces will not zip back together like amorphous choreographed cockroaches pulling a cheerleading routine. The plate will not reassemble itself for the fuck of it, and if you don't like it take it up with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, because that's entropy kids and all atom-smasher coffee-house thought experiment bullshit aside it means cry your baby eyes out I don't care - Time has a direction. And on a strictly personal scale it means you get a finite amount of it at the starting gun and the meter is running down to zero RIGHT FUCKING NOW.

You can chop it up like julienned carrots. You can melt it down like TNT and pour it into shell casings. You can manage and schedule and pencil and move around little rectangles of blue pixels on your monitor with your mouse and it's all shit because the one thing you can't do with time is get more of it.

The Project Manager's job is to manage time. Time and resources. And Resource Number One is time.

I am a time machine in a button-down cotton shirt from J. Crew.

I know the past, control the present, and create the future.

I'm the frustrated pretty Creator of a crummy universe that nobody, and I do mean nobody, would give a shit about if they weren't all being paid so fucking well.


This week on Behind the Eight Ball

"The schedule is sliding"

"It's sliding like an ice cube on a linoleum floor"

"The schedule is sliding like a goddamned avalanche."

"We still don't have those approvals do we?"

"We are waiting on the preapprovals to route so that we can traffic for approval."

"Well, I never routed for the preapprovals."

"What do you mean you never routed for the preapprovals?"

"There was an upstream dependency. We were waiting on the delivery of new copy based on new product data from the client, and we couldn't upload the new data until we had deprecated the legacy code from the application server. When did you need the approvals?"

"Three days ago. What's holding up the deprecation again?"

"Oh. Approval."


A good one, a classic one, looks like a flying buttress cantilevered against the past and sunk into the earth somewhere in the future. I'm talking about the project plan. The usual project plan is a Gantt Chart, a big graph looking monstrosity of interlocked timelines. It starts at the projected beginning of the project and ends at the targeted delivery date. Many people don't seem to understand them. Trust me, if you can read a calendar, and are familiar with the concept of 'the future,' you can read a Gantt Chart. The truth is that most people don't want to know how to read a Gantt Chart, because then someone might make them the Project Manager.

I build project plans, Gantt and PERT charts, and workflow diagrams. I create Work Breakdown Structures. I have actually used those words in sentence, without irony. 'Once we complete this WBS we can plug it into the Software Requirements Specification and the MPP.' MPP is 'Master Project Plan' for those of you keeping score at home. These words come out of my mouth and I think Where is Steve and how did he get me into this mess?

It is a big game, played with hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions. And that has the effect of taking most of the fun out of the game. Because people seem to get very serious once something has more than a couple of zeros tacked onto it.


Let me assure you of one thing. There are a lot of things I don't understand about our post-industrial media-saturated society, but you can take this one to the bank: every website you use, every bridge you cross, every airport transit system you ride, every piece of embedded software you use - they all had a Project Manager attached. For better or worse, every dumb advertisement, every billboard, every anonymous plastic widget with a candy wafer of printed circuit board inside it - they all had a premeditated postmortem premenstrual postmutilation Project Manager attached. Every badly laid-out parking lot, every fucked up schedule, every cheap-ass planned-obsolescence piece of consumer-grade shit that populates your overstuffed crapbox house or apartment or trailer has some anonymous bastard's name on it - the project manager. He is sitting at his workstation right now, moving little blue boxes of pixels around his monitor, and he is thinking loving thoughts of you. And absolutely none of it would get done without him. It's why he loves you so much. You make him possible.

All those buildings downtown, the ones that you look at and wonder, "What are all the people in those buildings doing?" A measurable percentage of those people are Project Managers. They are keeping the lights on and the water flowing and the shelves full of brightly packaged boxes of crap you never needed in the first place. These are smart people: engineers, and coders, and MBA's. They went to school, learned some seriously tricky stuff, and one day, because they were good at symbolic manipulation, and had decent social skills, and some command presence, somebody made them project manager.

They did not grow up wanting to be project managers. I can promise you this. The job is so damn abstract that it is nothing that a kid would ever imagine doing. Me, I wanted to be an astronaut. Yeah. Then I wanted to be a submarine captain. Like Captain Nemo, who I've always felt was something of a badass. Being in charge of a submarine sounded pretty good. Now I am the submarine captain of a lightless, landlocked vessel, crewed by desk jockeys, on a mission from nowhere to nowhere, a mission of vital national unimportance, with the whole nothing of anything hanging in the balance. But I'll do it because the pay is good, and my middle-class Eagle Scout upbringing will have me quarterback this project into the end zone the same as it would have had me running chest first into a burst of 12.7mm machine gun fire as a platoon leader, because that's what a leader does, Son. I can run that satchel charge into the bunker even though my frontal lobes were carried away by a supersonic slug or another 90 minute commute on the train because I was born to it and the reflexes are housed in my brainstem, and they can recover my body with my arm outstretched towards the objective, the the words "Follow Me!" just now fading from my gung-ho can-do team-player lips.

And buildings full of assholes just like me are making project plans and holding meetings and squeezing their temples in their hands, and taking another 600 mikes of Vitamin Eye and 'moving the ball down the field.' All these project plans are flowing together, flowing out of hillside offices populated with eager Eagle Scouts, the little projects are like a unnamed mountain creeks, cascading into bigger production plans like regional rivers, flowing into the big muddy continental watersheds like city planning documents and the 2003 budget for the Federal Government of the United States of America. And armies of anonymous Eagle Scouts are keeping the planes in the air, and the computers up and the phones on, from the charts on their walls and the phones on their desks, and quick gung-ho jogs down the hall, action item clipboard in hand, another bullshit 'let's get in front of this' smile plastered on their face in a reflexive rictus while they are really thinking about fucking the girl they met last weekend, or the sound of green water falling down an oversteepend granitic face in the mountains, or pulling back the slide of a stone-cold forty five and ripping loose the bandolier of magazines that they duct-taped to their stomach that morning so that they would have all the handloaded ammo they needed to kill every last one of you, right at your desks, right between the eyes, doing it for every other project manager that ever wanted to pull the trigger but didn't have the guts to do what every last one of us wants to see done.


The idea of all that work getting done, by all those Eagle Scouts, it might make you misty eyed. It might lead some people to believe in things like the mystic communion of souls, that somewhere, on a drafting table or monitor outside of time, there is a project plan that is the superset of all project plans, the Project Plan with a capital 'P' where job stage 1 is 'Create Time' and the final milestone is the heat death of the universe and the judgment of the quick and the dead.

But I don't believe in any of that shit. There is no plan. If there was, things wouldn't be such a goddamned hash. Because a Project Manager is surprised every morning that the lights are still on and the city is not on fire. Because, short of working County Homicide, there is no surer window into the frailty of human resolve and morality than managing a project staffed by a bunch of your fellow human beings.


Nobody knows what the project status is, because they don't care. This is despite the fact that people seem to talk about it an awful lot. It is a very popular topic of conversation. As the project manager, it's your job to keep track of the 'big picture.' Programmers don't like the big picture. Neither do Creative Directors. Business Analysts don't care how anything works; they just want to know what it does. Information Architects don't care what anything does; they just want to know how it works. The executive management doesn't give a shit about anything, just that what was contractually agreed to is being delivered to the client and that the project is in positive variance. That means you haven't spent more money building out the deliverable than the client gave you for the project.

It means that you are the only person that really knows what's going on. Millions of dollars flying around. Racks full of computers connected to a global network. Code and art and biz and rules and laws and work and time. New cars made of actual steel and actual plastic rolling out of an actual factory in the Midwest, waiting for an electronic analog to their carhood to announce their arrival in the world.

It might make me feel important and responsible if I actually gave a rat's ass about what I was doing.


This week on Behind the Eight Ball

"Jesus wept, does this PM have a rotten attitude or what?"

"Yeah, he thinks he's god's gift to the glorious tradition of project management..."

"I mean, where does he get off? 'I am a time machine in a button-down cotton shirt.' Christ! What a load of shit!"

"That's what I'm talking about! What makes him think he's so special?"

"Like we give a shit that 'he's having chest pains.' Sounds like he's looking for an out - the pussy! Two words, Chief: Stress Management."

"I swear! I mean, this guy could be ass-up head-down in some goddamned Southeast Asia rice paddy, knee deep in ox shit, picking rice for the local Commissar. Sounds to me like he won the goddamned genetic/geographic/socioeconomic lottery to me!"

"You said it, brother! 'Boo-hoo, I"m so sensitive! I'm an artist trapped in this cruel capitalist world.' What a Mary! Like making a bunch of charts is an existential crisis? Like I give a flying lateral fuck for what an existential crisis is?! I drive a 700 series BMW and call-girls snort crank off the tip of my cock every Friday night! Looks like we found the weak sister, if you know what I'm saying..."

"I say fire him and the dumb motherfucker that hired him."

"Yeah - put that on the action item list and smoke it. What's the status on that project anyway?"


Warm up your J Crew time machine.

Remove Pentel P209 mechanical pencil from shirt pocket and carefully stow in left hand tray of desk drawer.

Assess Progress.

Review Deficiencies.

Reconcile outstanding action items.

Step out the door into darkness of the long set sun.

The earth is still moving in one direction.

The train will still arrive at 6:29pm.

The doors will open as the engineer closes a relay at his workstation.

Tonight, walk past the doors.

Walk to container ships setting out to follow the path of the sun.

Throw things off track, off plan, off target, off spec.

Hide in the darkness of a hollow steel container.

Deadhead container. Headed back to a factory on the opposite rim of Pacific 8000 miles away.

Container only known by barcode.

Become only known by barcode. Become cargo. Become destination.

A line item in a project plan.