Middle Management Roles: Described Like Never Before

This entry is part 1 of 12 in the series Tech Company Casestudy

What is the job description of a software engineer? Software development. How much does it vary with the company? Very little. How about the job of a CEO? How much does it vary with the company? Very little.

How about middle management? It is lot more complex:

  • Many different titles and job descriptions.
  • Different job descriptions for same titles across companies and industries. Jobs very different than what the job descriptions say.
  • Organization culture would require different skills in different companies for the same job.

It is very hard to understand middle management roles without the larger context of the organization.

Role Descriptions – Current Methods

There are many books about how an organization should be structured. Also there is enough material about dos and don’ts. The issue is that everything is valid only in specific context. Outside that, most recommendations do not make complete sense. And there is no comprehensive picture. There are some case studies in forums like Harvard Business Review. But the context considers only limited roles and does not correlate with practical complexity. Also many of these are written by Management Gurus who have not been in technical hands roles to understand the issues on the ground.

The Result:

  • Application of right management models in wrong places.
  • Wrong investments.
  • Failed careers and organizations
  • Other disasters. Aggregated at country, region-level … recessions and other evils against the society.

More Effective Approach

Here we take specific example of a business and a company. We describe the roles in the organization to accomplish the business objectives. The scenarios, situations etc. Mapping everything to this grand case study would be more effective than discrete blogs. We are going to cover the standard roles and also the special roles designed for specific situations.

Comments on this approach?

Middle Management Roles: The Intended Audience

This entry is part 2 of 12 in the series Tech Company Casestudy

As I mentioned this is to bring clarity to the life of middle management professional under any title. There are many issues faced only at middle management level. There are many universal issues across geographies and industries. There are issues specific to industry, career stage and geography.

I hope to trigger thoughts and get insights from:

  • Practicing middle managers
  • Aspiring managers and other leaders
  • Top management professionals
  • Members who need to interact with middle management
  • Non-technical stakeholders: Other departments, shareholders etc.

The description of the organization goes here. This is the base of this series of posts.

Org Structure Casestudy: A Technology Company

This entry is part 3 of 12 in the series Tech Company Casestudy

The organization chart:


This is an imaginary company – PolarLight Inc. The company is into video based products and services. It has many products and services. It has many sets of products. The products are sold as individual products. They are also sold as group of multiple products together as solutions.

The org chart shows:

  1. Major R&D departments (under two R&D directors). Product development and maintenance.
  2. Marketing: Creating roadmaps, product market strategies, getting customer feedback and making it part of product roadmap
  3. Sales, channel management, customer relationship etc.

Few groups are not explicitly shown to avoid too much details:

  1. Product support group is not explicitly shown. It is structured under marketing.
  2. Technical publications, which creates user manuals is not shown. The organization
  3. Corporate communication and branding team. The group takes care of how the brand should be presented, also takes care of major internal and external communications. It also takes care of public relations.
  4. HR
  5. Finance, Operations and Facilities including IT
  6. There are external consultant organizations. These include legal, external auditors etc. For cutting edge research, they partner with external companies and universities.

Project and Roles

To understand more about the technology, let us dive deep into a project. Polar Light is considering a new project. Creating a new service offering called OVES – Online Video Editing Service. Marketing manager is pushing for it. She is showing lot of data to the management about advantages and returns if it is pursued.

I am going to explain the story of how this service came into existence. Its inception, who was involved and how. Many groups in R&D, marketing and other support groups are to be involved in making it a success.

  • Product Marketing Manager
  • Engineering Director
  • Marketing Director
  • Engineering Manager
  • Program Manager
  • Architect
  • Test team
  • Sales Director
  • Sales Manager
  • Tech Support

And many more roles depending upon organization

Further about the project and the roles, see here

Does org chart work the way shown in chart? Do the personalities define their sphere of influence and ‘practical’ power ?Meanwhile I am curious to hear your interpretations of this structure. Any issues do you see?

If you are in technology business, any comments on the org chart? What works and what does not , per your experience ?

The project OVES

This entry is part 4 of 12 in the series Tech Company Casestudy

Let us talk about the project OVES being executed in ‘Polar Light’ stated in this post.


There is browser based video editor. If you access your account in polar lights site, you will get to the editor.

And you can install tools on your laptop if you want.

Hidden in this process is the cloud service interface and the video database in the internet. You do not see it. but project has to take care of this for you.

This project is going to be the base of all our discussions! Good enough for describing middle management roles and a typical technology company? Thoughts welcome.

This is the project our product is manager is pushing for

Product Marketing Manager: The Job of Showing The Money

This entry is part 5 of 12 in the series Tech Company Casestudy

One of the key jobs of the product manager is to make the business case. She is passionate about a new service OVES. She has put in lot of effort to understand similar services, upcoming ones in market, think of differentiating features, estimating revenue potential and so on.

For the project, she is going to do the following

  • Business plan
  • Meeting customers and getting inputs
  • Constantly clarifying the requirements to R&D teams
  • Product launches and support

Yet, the hard thing is in selling the idea to everyone. To the top management, to R&D and to sales. Each one is complex. R&D would say that time is not enough to give the product release by specified date. For sticking to the date, feature needs to be cut down. And, certain features can not be feasible. With reduced features, the price can not simply be the same. With reduced price, the higher volume has to be shown. Else the ROI number won’t look good enough for the number crunchers at top management. The sales says that you need great differentiators and at half the cost. Yet the user interface should intuitive enough so that it would require zero training. Hmm.


As product manager, she needs to be really smart. Has to have brain for technology, domain, business, domain regulations, legal aspects and organization dynamics.  She is not just an MBA. She had good hold of everything mattered for the project.

Finally approval happens. But only for prototype phase with USD300k budget

The Other Product Manager Role

There is a second role labeled as product manager. This product manager would be more technical and systems person. Can expand marketing requirements and generate system requirements which an architect can take forward. Many times this role is split between other roles and no dedicated person performing this job.

Marketing Director: Marketing Strategy For The Portfolio

This entry is part 6 of 12 in the series Tech Company Casestudy

Marketing Director: What Is He Up To ?

The Portfolio

As marketing director, he takes care of video software products and services portfolio. In the video products portfolio, OVES will be the first cloud based service. Apart from this, he is responsible for marketing of video related tools and online services. The customers include both enterprise and retail customers.

Market Scenario

Market scenarios for video services business is very different than few years earlier. Giving too much for free to customers has spoiled customer behavior. The open source products and too many players have commoditized video products. On the other hand, cloud, in spite of all the hype, is yet to pick up as on 2013. The cloud hosting charges are too expensive compared to traditional web hosting. These put dual pressure on pricing and margins.

His Approach To Survive & Grow In the Market

The Marketing Director needs to come up with comprehensive plan on top line and bottom line growth.

He had supported the efforts of product manager in scoping OVES. He too agrees that cloud based service has great future. However he still is skeptical about the cloud adoption timeline and ability to get revenues and retain profit margins.  As per his suggestion, the cloud and related technical and business dynamics would be learnt through a feasibility study phase. Only then make aggressive push.

He is active in the industry forum. He is going to talk to major vendors and tries to run awareness campaign for paid services in video space. His view is that relying only on advertisement revenue with free service will not be good for both industry and consumers.

Inside the company, he is aggressively pushing R&D to reduce the costs. As per his market research, the competition is creating better products in shorter timeline with smaller budget. Due to this, R&D budget would reduce and R&D leadership needs to find ways of reducing costs.

Engineering Director: Accountability for R&D Management

This entry is part 7 of 12 in the series Tech Company Casestudy

The project is funded, thanks to the dynamic product manager. It is about to be started.  Engineering director has to be accountable for the delivery of the solution. He is contemplating how to structure the responsibility for this project.

He is leading a large portfolio. There are five engineering managers under him. First group works on internet based services while the second works on video analytics. The third group has desktop video products having large install base. Forth and fifth groups have responsibilities of various tools.  Avg 30 people in each team. Each team is into multiple new product development initiatives. Also there are maintenance projects around existing products.

OVES project is a large one. Actually it is not just a project – it is a program of 3 projects. Cloud service. video editor and tools.These team have enough critical mass to start off. However, for the level of complexity, the funds allocated are too less. Hence to deliver, existing experts need to share the time with low cost resources being hands on. Also he needs to shoot for maximum reuse from existing products. The team needs to have right expertise to deliver under the conditions.

Considering all the factors, he assigns the responsibilities to the engineering managers of the respective groups. Thus, first, second and forth groups get the responsibility of the program.

Let us call them:

  • EM-Cloud : Engineering Manager – Cloud service and integrations
  • EM-Tools : Engineering Manager – Tools
  • EM-VideoEditor : Engineering Manager – Video Editor

First major step in staffing is thus done. More about them here

Need for a program manager: This complex program spans across multiple groups. And it relies on part time experts. Hence it needs one person to take the full time responsibility. The program manager needs to be skilled enough to navigate through delicate relationships to accomplish this. The engineering director holds discussion with PMO (Project Management Office) Practice Head.  A program manager is assigned.

Director of Engineering: Other Pains and Pleasures

Thus taken care is one job of the engineering director. He has many other fire fighting tasks to deal with. He has people issues in two of the groups with him. In another project, marketing director is cornering him for the failure of the R&D teams in the delivery. The directory was supposed to show year-on-year R&D cost reduction. he could not do it. He has to deal with that as well. He has to take care of many operational tasks. Quality team wants to pilot new process in his portfolio. Then he also has to face pay hike budget constraints and attrition possibilities.

It is not that he has only pains to deal with. As the boss of 100 plus people he enjoys great deal of power and opportunity to shape the organization and the people.

Any views on what is engineering director’s role? What should it be? In terms of leadership pipeline, what should be the past roles prior to being R&D director?

PMO Practice Head: Driving Delivery Of All Projects

This entry is part 8 of 12 in the series Tech Company Casestudy

Program Management

As the sales grew, the need for integrated solutions increased. This increased the number of projects involving multiple groups. Also for product within the same group, the influence and dependency of open source increased. So the need for synchronizing releases increased. Also the external partners increased. So did the outsourcing. All these increased the complexity of execution. The product development and release was no more confined to 4-5 people teams.

Hence the need for program managers. As the number of program managers increased, the operational load increased. Thus grew the need for PMO.

Quality Process Management

There was initiative of common organization process. Organization process aspects such as CMMI, agile SCRUM deployment etc.There were quality engineers whose job is to evangelize this in projects and organization culture.

Customers in some of the industries mandated quality standards on their vendors. These had both technical (features. ‘what part’) and process ( the way it is developed. the ‘how part’).

The Role

Program management and process deployment combined under one practice head served important purpose – The power (to deploy process) and responsibility (to deliver products, solutions and services) were well balanced.

The Head of PMO leads the above practice. As the Practice Head he reports to Engineering VP just like R&D Directors.

In this past experience, PMO Head has done hands on project management in many projects in many different industries. He has led software product releases, old economic engineering software, turn key projects.. This brings great deal of credibility to what he says. Otherwise, quality was considered a dry subject and he is able to command compliance with the skills he acquired over years.

Upon discussion with Engineering Director, he assigns the program manager to OVES. He was confident that the this program manager can work together with the tough Engineering Managers in video group.

Many organizations have separate quality and PMOs. I am curious to know experiences in both of these models. What worked and what did not work.. anything to share ?


Engineering Manager: The Job of Line Management

This entry is part 9 of 12 in the series Tech Company Casestudy

After Engineering Director tasked them, the engineering managers swing into action.

Consideration for the team formation:

EMs know that individuals can not be perfect. But a near-perfect team can be formed considering the individual strengths, improvement areas, skills, career stage etc.

The tech leaders and members need to be assigned to the project. In early days of the project, technical leaders need to spend full time and expand the requirements. Further, they need to work out the technical aspects of the planning.

The engineering managers need to assign people who have the abilities. While doing so, the risk of existing commitments are to be balanced. When something goes wrong, the leaders can directly put the responsibility of resolving the priority on engineering manager. This EM has to bite the bullets from all sides.

For this project, the EMs pull some members from existing teams. While doing so, they still need to think about the human factors – the chemistry between members, career paths, whether the assignment can help them to prove next-level abilities etc. And, they also need to consider how moving would impact existing projects and commitments.

The tech leaders were assigned full time for short duration. They will work part time after the initial load. Also developers were added. A test lead and a test member were also identified.

More about the job of engineering manager:

The man who is the one to take the maximum pressure on the ground. One side, the technical foot soldiers constantly throw all the issues to him. Many times he has no control over the constraints. Many times the teams and projects are the subject of several experiments of the top management and rest of the organization. On the other hand, the members can be very demanding. A good developer with good hold on the code is an asset. Within no time, some developers show lot of tantrums. And EM has to coach the average ones. Some members very quickly want promotions. Need to manage their aspirations well. Then there are technical glitches, friction between members, frictions across groups, handling customer escalations etc. take a lot of energy.

Any insights you would like to add?

Program Manager: Delivery Responsibility of the Program

This entry is part 10 of 12 in the series Tech Company Casestudy

After getting assigned as program manager by director, program manager quickly starts his work. His job is complex:

  • Nobody reports to him.
  • He needs to get the delivery done from members named by EMs.
  • He may not have the right technical background to fully understand what technical members.


  • Has good past experience of successes and failures, the behavior patterns of members & leads etc.
  • When members update his in status meetings, he can grasp the subject and issues at high level.
  • Is capable of abstracting it to a language understandable by senior management and other stakeholders.

Though nobody reports to him, his power lies in the monthly meeting with senior management. He can create havoc by escalating if Engineering managers do not cooperate.

First escalation happens on day 1: The program manager complains that there is no architect.

The engineering managers fight back saying that there are three highly competent technical leads who are architects. The program manager’s issue is about the overall technical accountability. All three individuals from respective groups will make their parts work and may care less about integration issues.

Engineering Director steps in and names the Tech Leader – Video Editor team as the overall architect. This tech leader has to play architect role for his part and also take responsibility for overall technical solution.

Engineering Director thanks the program manager. The program manager gets quickly into the project and release planning.

Role of Program Manager:

PMI (Project Management Institute) has taken lot of pain to give structure to the role of program manager. Program manager is primarily about being organization savvy, ability to understand the context and the ability to visualize the program’s execution. with this base, everything else will follow.

Program Manager reports into Project Management Office (PMO) Director. Till recently there was no separate PMO and he was reporting to Director of Video R&D.

Any thoughts on what is the single most aspect of program manager persona ?

Do you like to see how the program manager approaches project planning? .. and  agile release planning and introducing SCRUM?  

Lead Architect: Clarity of Technical Roles (Or Lack of It)

This entry is part 11 of 12 in the series Tech Company Casestudy

The Lead Architect in this company is a rather new role. The person who is playing the role had made valuable contributions in the past in some of the products. He is very good in technology and also has deep understanding of the products. He is well networked with technical community. In the past he has mentored senior members on software architecture best practices. Hence the role was created for him.

The role

  • Review the architecture and design across organization
  • Mentor others to be architects

Specialist or a Tech Manager?

However the Lead Architect is still a worried a man. He is not familiar with new things like cloud. Also in video area, the technology advancements were too rapid. The specific groups such as video Editor, tools and cloud have not been keeping him in loop. He is confused about expectations on him. On one hand he wanted to remain specialist. On the other, he had the desire to be in demand from across the organization. For this, he needs to transition himself into tech manager, not just a specialist. He has to be comfortable in NOT knowing all the granular information in some of the areas. He has to rely on some one for details is just not bearable for him.

Hopefully he will make the transition soon.

Technical Marketing Responsibility

Noticing his concern about the job of lead architect, the organization has given new dimension to his role – technical marketing and pre-sales support.

As the business has expanded, the need for support from technical teams was increasing.

Winning enterprise customers required detailed RFP responses. The technical marketing and pre-sales as a function did not mature in the past. In the marketplace, the vendors who made the best technical impact won the deals most of the times. Having technical depth in custom solutions was getting critical.

Adding the Lead Architect to pre-sales function was a win-win.

What is your opinion about technical roles ? Any issues? How did you solve these?



Software Release Manager: Highly Meticulous Job

This entry is part 12 of 12 in the series Tech Company Casestudy

The project OVES is expected to have significant code base. It may run into 2 million lines of source code. The code developed fresh for OVES would be a fraction of this. However lot of reuse was expected from existing products. Video Editor and Tools have existed for several years.

  • Several releases have happened in the past. Each had their specific set of features, drivers etc.
  • Across releases, several features had different functionality
  • the features had different behavior depending upon the operating system and segment
  • Also some customers wanted customization. The organization created ‘base platform’ and ‘customer project’ code base to keep these simpler. Also defined customization practices to streamline these
  • Fixes to defects. Some of the defects which showed up in specific customer releases were traced to ‘base platform’ code. Fixing these would trigger testing of all the dependent projects.

The software versions were well controlled in clearcase. Now the organization is thinking about moving to SVN which is free of license cost, but has less functionality.

Overall, managing the release of software has become very complex. The program manager has started screaming again, to allocate a Release Manager.


This time, the top management decides that a senior member tool group be assigned as release manager. This way, they could stay within project budget. Tools being the most complex stuff from release management point of view, it would address most of the risks.

Any thoughts on the job of release manager? What should be the experience level ? The challenges faced as release manager? How is this role as long term career ?