How to Hire a Contract Project Manager


stanyanakiev.com-hiringHiring a contract project manager is supposed to be faster and easier than hiring a permanent one. However, after so many years as an IT and digital project manager and with a number of interviews behind my back, I have seen some typical recruitment and hiring mistakes that unnecessarily complicate this process. Here’s how to avoid them.

  • Make sure the project (and your organisation) is right for a contractor

Before you decide to hire a contractor you should think more deeply about the project and your organisation. Is the project relatively short as a 3 to 12-month long, discrete one-off effort, or is it part of a bigger programme that’s likely to drag on for a while, have many phases or even freeze from time to time? The longer the project and the more closely tied it is to your business, other projects or programmes and to the long term strategy of the organization, the more you should be leaning towards assigning a permanent project manager.

Also think about your organisation, and think honestly. Highly politicized environments are not good for contractors who, not being part of the organization, will not be aware of internal politics and usually will not be keen to play games. A contractor comes onboard with a specific mission and wants to do the job. Politics just make that so much harder.

  • Know what a Project Manager is and make sure the role is clear

Project management has been a well defined profession since at least the 1950s as I wrote in my blog post Agile or Traditional Project Management. Project management is not the business of Jack of all trades and is not an umbrella term for everything that doesn’t fit somewhere else. As strange as it may sound to some, a combination of Project Manager and Solution Architect, or Project Manager and Developer into one is not a good idea. No one can be everything. Mixing up different roles does not look professional and does not work unless you are an early startup and bootstrap everything. In this case hiring contractors may not be a good idea anyway, perhaps try freelancers.

On a side note, I believe that recruitment agencies have an obligation to create a better and more efficient contracting market. Many recruiters unfortunately will publish whatever crazy role their client has come up with without trying to educate them about standard specialisations. This is motivated by a desire for a quick buck; however, this is in no one’s interest. If you publish a strange role, you get lousy candidates, you create turmoil on the market and everyone suffers as a result. The more non-standard roles, the harder for the supply side, contractors, to meet demand because it is chaotic. It is a lose-lose game in the long run.

  • Explain the specifics of your organisation and the project

Contractors are typically highly experienced. They have spent many years mastering their craft in permanent roles before they decided to go on their own. A contractor will have multiple projects under their belt and will have seen different client environments. If you don’t start the interview by explaining the specifics of your organisation and the project you risk missing out on a good candidate. Without knowing enough about your needs they may not be able to relate to their experience and give you the most relevant examples you want to hear about.

  • Ask appropriate interview questions for a contractor

A contractor is a very different animal from a permie. When you hire a contractor you sign a contract (hence the name) with an external to your company service provider and should treat her respectively. This person will normally stay with you short term, usually 3 or 6 months, so you should not be looking for the approach and attitude that you seek in your permanent staff. An interview with a contractor is a business meeting where both sides explore potential collaboration. So, focus on the qualities of the contractor that will allow them or not to complete the specific mission you have for them and don’t sound awkward by asking questions such as: Tell me what you disliked most in your last boss. Like it or not, a contractor doesn’t have a boss. They work for themselves and are in business on their own.

  • Look at broader skills and abilities, not just last experience

Recruitment in the UK places heavy emphasis on experience rather than education. Professional certification is sometimes considered but it is experience that rules. The thinking goes like this. If you have done the same projects before, have used so and so technology, then you are appropriate for the role. Perhaps this sounds justified from the point of view of the hiring manager who seeks some kind of assurance in the difficult task of selecting the right candidate. Unfortunately, this approach completely ignores the fact that project management as a profession is quite agnostic. Believe it or not, whether the project is a  data centre build or is saving hippos in Africa, the core project management skills at play are the same. It is about management after all. Yes, it does help to be aware of the specifics of software development vs IT infrastructure builds but beyond that whether the project is in Java, .Net or any of the varieties of JavaScript it doesn’t matter. Really.

  • Project managers are not technologists

This comes as a natural extension of the previous point and I can say it as someone who does have background in software development. Unless your project is about implementation of off-the-shelf software and all that you need is quick routine installation and configuration following a blueprint checklist, you should be looking beyond the specific technology. If you need technical design, look for a Solution Architect. If you need someone to write code, call the role Developer. If it is just implementation or rollout of a specific technology, you need implementation or rollout lead and not project manager. Anything more creative than that, which is my personal experience with projects – no two of them are alike – and you need to consider broader skill sets and abilities. So, don’t overemphasize the specific experience, and you should care even less about technology when you are hiring a contract project manager. Especially if you need someone capable of leading innovative projects which is so important in IT. Look for broader vision, project management skills and capabilities.

  • Quantity is not Quality

I add this last point to share some final thoughts. It is not easy to find a good contract project manager. Recruitment agencies often use job boards to post new roles and it is not uncommon for them to get 250 applications or more for each role they advertise. Now, this number of applications is a double-edged sword. You risk shooting yourself in the foot by taking quantity as a proof of quality. Is it not possible that your best candidate is not among those 250? Or is there no risk that you overlook your best match because of the sheer volume of work you need to do to review this pile of profiles? You may want to find channels that will get you less but better candidates such as perhaps LinkedIn or personal referrals. Finding a quality candidate is hard despite the abundance of applications. I hope though that my tips above will help you to find yours.

 

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