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I've worked at 3 separate startups, most had 1 - 2 PMs, usually roughly 1 PM per 3-5 developers. My current position is similar, there are 4 teams of 2-3 devs, each with their own PM.

My friend's startup has expressed interest in me, but their team structure seems super weird. They have more PMs than developers, and are complaining about not having enough PMs because the devs are completing the work so quickly.

The team has 5 full-time devs, and are looking to expand the team to 8 devs.

They have 7 (!!!) PMs currently, with one transitioning to Head of Product, and looking to hire PMs even more urgently than devs, as the PMs are apparently overworked

Is this actually common? To me, it seems like a lot of wasted resources and the sheer number of managers scares me. Any thoughts?

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    What are the PMs doing on a daily basis? "Project manager" is a pretty broad title. My guess is that they're doing a lot of requirements gathering and analysis (i.e. a lot of business analyst work). But I'd guess that a PM that is managing the work of a small team would also primarily be doing business analysis not actual project management. So then it just becomes a question of whether it is more work to gather the requirements or to code them and it is entirely possible that gathering the requirements is more time consuming (particularly in highly regulated industries). Aug 9 at 19:28
  • Here is a funny analogy: PMs are like coaches of soccer teams, and developers are like soccer players. If any soccer clubs have more coaches than soccer players, it would look very funny. Aug 9 at 22:13
  • I've seen 'PM' used for 'Product Manager.' Are there any product managers distinct from the project managers? If not, that might explain the number.
    – o.m.
    Aug 13 at 5:17

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I've briefly worked in a similar setup. The PM's were essentially doubling as salespeople who didn't know how to say no and thought adding new features was super simple since we as devs loved our work so much we were happy to put in 16 hour days.

The end result was over promising features and and absolute mess in development.

That company no longer exists by the way.

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    Every PM knows that a 'new feature' is just a matter of assigning the task to someone ;)
    – Steve
    Aug 10 at 22:31
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"Really" need? Zero.

Seriously, it's possible for a company to do well without people who have the title of "project manager". It means, however, that the org must have wise, responsible leadership at all levels and strong levels of loyalty. That's rare.

In normal orgs, projects need PM's as a form of guard-rails to keep management informed, divert resources when/where needed, and provide a level of accountability.

However, your trepidation is correct that a START-UP with more PM's than technical staff is a sign that something is wrong.

A good project manager can handle tracking hundreds of concurrent tasks at any given time. I fail to see how it could possibly be legitimate to have more PM's than contributors. Either everyone is working an outrageous number of projects or the PM's are inventing busy work for themselves at a furious pace.

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It depends on what the project managers on the company actually do. Different companies have different ideas of what a specific role entails. And startups tend to be further away from the industry norm than established companies.

Some aspects which a startup might shoehorn in as the work of a project manager are:

  • Coordinating salaried developers
  • Coordinating external contractors (they might have 5 full-time devs, but also a whole lot of external contractors which need to be coordinated)
  • Planning software architecture (usually the job of a software architect)
  • Planning what features a product is going to need in the future (usually done by a business analyst)
  • Looking for people who want to buy the product the project creates (sales)
  • Looking for how to make people interested in the project (marketing)
  • Finding out if it is actually possible to sell the result of the project (market research)
  • Keeping track on who spends how much time on what during the project and to see how those resources could be utilized more efficiently (controlling)
  • Hiring the right people for the project (human resources)

If a company considers all of that "project management", then it might indeed need more project managers than developers.

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Good answers already, I'll just highlight another possibility from experience.

Sometimes startups are extremely top heavy for marketing purposes. Having more people at the top makes them look busy, larger, stable and well funded. It's a common practice from the ones I have seen.

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I would ignore it. The startup is either successful or not. If it's successful you have a good chance to rise in their hierarchy because you came in first. If it fails you will have to find a new job. How many PMs they have - nobody can tell you definitely if it's good or bad. They pay you or they don't, that's what counts.

If they tell you "we can't pay more because..." then you check what they are saying, and that may be a good reason to start elsewhere.

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There is no direct relationship between PMs and developers.

I have seen a PM running a project with 50 people but only 5 developers. There were hardware, engineering, IT, IA, QC, budget, scheduling, and documentation functions that were being done by the non-developers.

I have seen a PM run multiple projects, each of which had 1 or more developers but also 1 or more non-developers.

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No. It is not common to have more PMs than developers.

The common consensus is that a good ratio between PMs and developers is from 1:6 to 1:10, which means 1 PM for any where from 6 to 10 developers. (You can easily google "good ratio between PMs vs developers" to find out.)

There are 2 possible scenarios for your friend's startup:

  1. Scenario 1:

    It could be that his company may be wasting resources if the PMs are not contributing a lot to the productions, and there are more PMs than the actual work for them. If this is true, his company will go under very soon.

  2. Scenario 2:

    However, it could also be that his company is planing to expand really fast and will hire a lot more developers in the near future.

    If this is a very special case where all the developers are super genius who can complete projects really fast, then it is very interesting to see how the company grows. This could be a real-life scenario.

    Maybe, at some point in the future, they will stop hiring PMs, and will hire a lot more developers to reach a more reasonable ratio between PMs vs developers ? Only upper management will know for sure.


You can ask your friend to find out more about the growth prospect of the company: Do their products have lots of users right now ? What is the funding level from public or private investors ?

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By necessity, a project manager manages a project (duh). So here's the thing to consider: If you have 7 project managers, that means you have at least 7 projects. You have 5 developers. That means each developer is working on, on average, 7/5 projects at a time. Given that the common behaviour of project management is to be siloed (i.e. the manager of project A knows/cares very little about the timeline of project B), it's likely that these project managers are pushing and pulling the developers every which way on a constant basis. Does this sound like an environment you want to work in?

Since this is your friend and not a random company, you have a bit more leeway in terms of the questions you can ask to get a feel for the company. Some questions I would ask would include:

  1. "When you say you have 7 project managers, can you explain what the duties of a project manager are?". The answer you should be looking for should be something similar to the first 2 points in Philipp's answer. If he starts talking about sales, marketing, market research, etc, you might want to explain to him that he's overworking his PMs and needs to hire some salespeople. Given that this is a startup with only 5 developers (which implies it's fairly early-stage), and 12 of their employees are (nominally) not involved in anything related to sales, marketing, market research, recruitment, VC raising, or people management, that's a red flag to me.

  2. "When you say that your developers get the work done very quickly, how many hours per day do they commonly work (including hours after business hours)?". You don't want to work for a company which encourages (or even doesn't actively discourage) working copious overtime.

  3. "Define what you mean by a 'project'". Having worked at various companies yourself, you have an understanding of the scope of a "project". "Put a red button on the webpage" is not a "project", and if that's what they're calling a "project" then it's no wonder the "projects" are getting done so quickly and they need a zillion "project" managers.

This should give you an overall feeling for how organized the company is. If you have people with qualifications in project management on the phone with customers, you're probably on the wrong track. Make sure this company isn't like that, don't jump onto a sinking ship.

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IMHO, it is very possible. Going by the book, PM is the most overworked person in the project.

The pressure and work increases with stakeholders, more entities in the project to report to, more PM is overworked.

Devs usually need a good tech lead to breakdown and assign work items, individually, to each dev strongest suites. This way devs can be super efficient and not overworked

PMBOK

Prince2

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    "PM is the most overworked person in the project". I would say that many developers may disagree with this statement. I have seen many developers who work overtime (night and weekend) to get the projects delivered on time. Aug 9 at 21:34
  • @Job_September_2020 I think they were going for a sweeping generalization, obviously the specifics would vary wildly depending on the startup given the culture Aug 9 at 22:17
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    What book? ..... Aug 10 at 14:23
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    @Job_September_2020 good one :) I ill put links in the answer, cant see how to add link to comments
    – Strader
    Aug 10 at 21:13
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    Would help to have specific citations to claims in "the book". Just referencing a whole book is a bibliography, not a citation. (Even a whole title would be an improvement.) Aug 10 at 21:51

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