The Project Manager

by John Wyatt
copyright 2002

My thanks to Franz Kafka, whose short story The Metamorphosis provided the inspiration for this story; and to all those managers who made their jobs look so important.

Gregory Samson awoke one morning to find that he had metamorphosed into a project manager. There could have been worse things he could have morphed into, such as a hideous vermin; however, becoming a project manager was still a very traumatic experience! Had he been born a project manager, he didn’t doubt for a moment that this experience would seem perfectly ordinary. But, going to bed as a hard-line computer programmer, then awakening to find oneself turned into a project manager – well, that was more than most people could handle! But Gregory had always prided himself on having an open mind, and he resolved to make the best of this unfortunate transformation.

As he lay in bed, wondering what to do next, he could hear Greta, his wife, clattering about in the kitchen, probably making breakfast. At least he hoped that it was breakfast, though he wasn’t sure what project managers should eat. He doubted that the potato chip and soda diet that had gotten him through so many software projects would suffice. Gregory made a mental note to call his doctor and ask if project managers required some kind of special diet.

As Gregory pondered this sudden change in his life, he felt a cold chill. Had Greta left the window open again? She often left it open on warm nights, but last night had been quite cool. He tried to turn to see the window, which is when he noticed that he could no longer swivel his head in the old fashion. Silently, he chided himself: “Of course! I should have realized that, as a project manager, I will be restricted to tunnel vision!” Even the mere act of turning his head to see a different point of view would now involve cumbersome bodily movement. Oh well, he could check the window later. What he needed now was a way to get out of bed. That was when Gregory realized just how much trouble he was in.

Gregory had never, not even once in his entire life, written a plan to get out of bed. In the past, he had always risen in an ad-hoc fashion, and probably not even the same way two days in a row! Now he chided himself for such short-sighted behavior. Clearly, if he was to rise from bed, and be certain that he had arisen in an intended and reproducible fashion, he would have to devise a plan. He lay in quiet thought, devising his plan and anticipating pitfalls. First, what was his goal in rising from bed? Clearly, if he was to expend the effort there had to be some return on his investment. Since today was a workday, and a Monday at that, he must rise soon or he would be late for work. Good! Now he had a goal and a justification! Secondly, how long should it take to rise from bed? He had never thought about how well he rose from bed, or whether the process could be improved. But, as a project manager, he had to be concerned about adherence to schedule and continual process improvement. Obviously, this process could not be started without a schedule, so Gregory began to run through the steps in his mind, estimating how long each step would take.

“AH!” Gregory exclaimed. The clatter in the kitchen paused and Greta called out “Are you alright, dear?” Gregory didn’t want to alarm his wife, so he quickly replied that all was well. But all was definitely NOT well! Gregory had been mentally designing the implementation of how he would rise from bed, before he even completed the plan! Now if that wasn’t putting the cart before the horse, he didn’t know what was! “Well,” he chided himself, “I’m new at this, so it’s to be expected that I would make a few mistakes at first.”

He could hear Greta walking towards the room. His spirits lifted as he realized another of his mistakes: he had been trying to do this task all alone. “There’s no ‘I’ in ‘Team’!” he reminded himself. “All it takes is teamwork!” He heard Greta open the door, but could not see her as he had not yet turned himself to see the door. Then he heard her sharp gasp, and the sounds of the breakfast tray hitting the floor.

“OH! Oh … my GOD!” Greta gasped.

“Yes, is anything the matter dear?” Gregory inquired, suddenly pleased that he had an issue to investigate – to wit, the reason why the breakfast tray had fallen.

“Is…is that you, Gregory? Oh, my GOD! What happened to you?”

“Nothing to worry about, my dear. I’m a project manager now. We always knew that it could happen. Now that it has, I feel oddly collaborative. Perhaps you could help me draft my plan for getting out of bed?”

Greta quietly closed the bedroom door. Now that Gregory was in the kitchen, eating his hastily repaired breakfast, this was the only room where she felt safe. She recalled an incident last year, when a neighbor’s husband had metamorphosed into a congressman.  The poor woman had tried to hide it for as long as she could; but, once the rumors got out, they had been forced to a lease penthouse suite under an assumed name and accept bribes. Greta didn’t think she could take such a change, and hoped that her husband’s condition was only temporary.

She could hear Gregory start washing the dishes. In the past he had always refused to do any kind of housework, saying that it wasn’t his job to do such tasks. “Oh no!” Greta panicked! “What if he starts doing housework all the time! He’ll be underfoot and impossible to manage! Well, if that happens, I’ll have no choice but to talk to a physician.”

Greta jumped as the phone rang! She was in no mood to talk to anyone, but to her surprise she heard Gregory answer the phone. Gregory had always ignored the phone, treating it as an unwanted interruption. She sat dejectedly on the edge of the bed, the walls muffling the ensuing phone conversation. She flopped onto her back, staring blankly up at the ceiling, wondering what the neighbors would think when they discovered what had happened. Her mind churned with the possible outcomes. Perhaps if she locked him in his room, all would be well. After all, programmers were known for holing up for long periods while working. She was sure that her friends would believe her if she told them that he was diligently working on a new program. Of course, there was Gregory’s boss – she wasn’t sure how long a telecommuting excuse would be accepted.

“Greta dear!” Greta jerked upright as Gregory burst into the room, uncharacteristically exuberant. You’ll never guess who just called! That was Ansil, at the company! There’s just been a new job posting for a software project manager! They’ve finally decided to create the position! Do you realize what this means!”

Greta only stared at her husband, trying hard to hold back the tears at seeing the project manager that her sweet, programmer husband had become.

“It means that now I’ll be able to synergize and leverage the combined capabilities of a cross-functional development team by using an integrated systems approach! Isn’t that fantastic! It’s odd, you know, to think that yesterday I wouldn’t even have known what that meant; but today I finally realize just how important it all is!” Gregory was beaming with pride! Greta only nodded dumbly, vowing to make an appointment with the family physician that very morning.

Greta had been whispering on the phone for fifteen minutes. Gregory had no idea who she was talking to, but Gregory had never shared the same set of friends with his wife, so he was unconcerned. In fact, his friends were all coworkers – fellow programmers who shared the same goals. He wondered if his friends would understand his transformation, which clearly put him outside their normal clique. But he could deal with that when the time came.

Gregory was starting to get the hang of this now, having written the assembly instructions for his business suit in less than twenty minutes. Of course, next time he would have to use ink instead of pencil. Perhaps tomorrow he would have time to create templates for all of his commonly performed tasks, such as shaving and eating. He couldn’t help feeling a sense of shame at the way he had repaired his breakfast earlier – all without any rework instructions. Still, he was new to this life and he was certain that whatever Power had wrought this change upon him would also be understanding and make allowances while he adjusted to his new life.

He only had one suit – his interviewing suit – but with his transformation he would now have to buy more. That might strain their budget for awhile, but now that he had a better understanding of the capital budgeting process, he was confident that it could be handled. It was really just a matter of planning the acquisition of capital resources.

“Gregory, dear,” Greta stood at the bedroom door, her eyes reddened, as if she had been crying. “You … I mean, I need you to take me to the doctor. Right away, please.”

“Is something the matter? Was this a planned illness?”

“No, dear, it came rather – suddenly. I … just, please take me to the doctor right away. And, well, you may want to have him look at you too; you know, just to see…” her voice trailed away; her words choked as she found herself unable to speak openly to her husband about – his new condition.

“Just a moment, dear. I’ve had some difficulty, and had to make some modifications to my dressing procedure. Could you please review the procedure, then initial and date my changes?”

The doctor’s office only had a few patients, for which Greta was thankful. The nurse clucked sympathetically as Greta checked in. “Poor thing,” she overheard one of the office staff mutter. Greta tried to hold back her tears – resolved to braving her way through this ordeal. The nurse said that the doctor would see her in a few minutes and would she please sit down and Gregory won’t hurt anybody will he it’s safe to take him out in public like this isn’t it?

As Greta sat down, she saw Gregory begin organizing the magazines on the waiting room table. She could see the shocked looks of the patients, and one woman pulled her young daughter back in horror as Gregory approached. “How could she!” Greta heard the woman mutter to the man next to her – probably her husband. “She should be ashamed to take … that… manager … out in public!” The woman spat the word “manager,” is if by merely uttering the word she could become tainted by Gregory’s condition.

“The doctor will see you now.” Another nurse stood at the hallway entrance, holding a packet of papers. She put her hand over her mouth and gasped silently as Greta led Gregory to the examination room. The nurse didn’t enter the room, but instead dropped the bundle of papers into a holder on the door, then scurried away. Greta could hear the faint, shocked mutterings back in the waiting room. Well, she had endured much in her five years of marriage, she supposed that she could get through this ordeal. Her mother had often wondered why she hadn’t married a nice doctor, instead of a computer programmer. To her mother, computers had always seemed so unnecessary, even parasitic at times; whereas the world would always need doctors.

Franz, the doctor, entered the room, looked at Greta, and asked what was the matter. He then looked at Gregory and, with stoic composure, said that he understood now why Greta had wanted an appointment so quickly.

“Doctor,” Gregory interjected, “I know that your office is constrained by limited resources, making it difficult to plan, control, and execute your daily tasks; but Greta insisted on seeing you as soon as possible. Honestly, though, I can’t imagine what the problem might be. However, as a stakeholder in your medical practice, I must commend you on your rapid response. Now that I understand the importance of time management, I can understand what a strain her request must have placed upon your system of project controls.”

Greta nodded meekly to the doctor, silently saying “see what I mean?” The doctor nodded back, and began to inquire as to when and how this remarkable transformation occurred. Greta answered as best as she could, while Gregory, still unaware that he was the patient being examined, began mentally sketching outlines of possible system development life cycles for designing his daily commute.

Greta told Franz how the transformation had occurred suddenly this morning, though in truth she had not turned on the lights when she rose to make breakfast, so it could have occurred anytime during the night. Yes, he had been perfectly normal the day before. He had spent all day Sunday mounting his new satellite dish on the roof which, in a two story apartment complex, was not a simple task. She had worried the whole time that he would fall and break something. Gregory was always impulsive like that – or had been, before the transformation. Being a programmer, he had no practical tools, but had managed to borrow a long ladder from the company where he worked; the facilities department had lent it to him for the weekend. He was supposed to return it today. He had borrowed the other tools from the apartment manager.

Franz stared at the ceiling in thought during Greta’s discourse, absorbing the details, and finally formulating a conclusion. “Ah ha!” he stated in a scholarly voice, “your problem is evident. You say he had borrowed the ladder from his company?”

“Yes, they sometimes allow people to borrow company equipment for personal use.”

“And the apartment manager had no objections to putting a satellite dish on the roof?”

Greta winced as she recalled the arguments between Gregory and Harold, the apartment manager. “Not after Gregory offered to give him a free satellite feed from the dish. Something about amplifiers and splitters and ESPN. Anyway, the manager was helping him install the dish.”

Franz nodded approvingly. “I see now what has happened. The problem is simple – your husband has climbed the corporate ladder, and this is the inevitable result!’ Franz beamed proudly at his diagnosis.

Gregory sat proudly in his new cubicle, carefully laying out his plans for the next big project. His cubicle was not too large – just enough cost effective space to hold his desk, his computer, his project documents, and some books on project management. The promotion at the company had certainly helped with the finances, and while Greta was still having difficulty adapting at home, Gregory felt certain that she would come around in time. She only needed to see the improvements that his metamorphosis would bring to each project’s schedule, budget, and quality. In only his first week, he had finished benchmarking his team’s performance and, with this new information, he was now ready to adjust the original project schedule. Yes, Gregory was at home in his new form, with his new responsibilities.

Greta knocked on the cubicle wall. “Dear, are you ready for supper now?”

Gregory had no idea why the night staff always bothered him this way. Still, it was nearing 6 o’clock, and his doctor had insisted that he take regular breaks to avoid repetitive motion injury. He sighed, put the finishing touches on his project risk analysis, and said that he would eat now.

Greta brought in his supper tray, setting it gently onto the desktop. “Please, eat everything. Otherwise, I’ll have to throw it out.”

Gregory nodded assent. He already felt stronger on his new diet, so he really shouldn’t resent it when this nice lady on the night crew brought his meals. She seemed to take such an interest in his well being, and she always kept his cubicle tidy. He thought perhaps he should send her supervisor a letter of commendation.

Greta sighed, and walked back towards the kitchen. Her mother, who had been sitting on the sofa, rose to follow her, offering what consolation she was able to provide.

“I’m so sorry that it turned out like this, Greta dear. Gregory was so much nicer when he was just a programmer.” She cleared her throat, as if hesitating to ask her next question. “Is … is the living room going to stay that way, with that awful - cubicle - taking up half the room?” She tried not to show disgust from her tone of voice. Greta nodded dumbly.

“I’m afraid so. The doctor says that he must be kept in his natural habitat. I guess I’ll just have to adjust … somehow.”

Greta had already been looking for a new apartment. The neighbors had been whispering about her dilemma, and she could no longer bear how they turned away whenever she came near, as if Gregory’s disease could somehow rub off by association. And she could no longer bear the sad looks at the supermarket when she bought Gregory’s food. Still, the extra income had been helpful, allowing her to look into some of those new condominiums on the hill. The company had promised to give him a good credit reference. At the newest development complex, the homeowner’s association took Gregory’s kind, and she was certain to find some sympathetic friends among the wives there.

“Excuse me,” Gregory called from the living room. “I need some Quality Assurance input on my latest calculations.” Greta sighed, nodded at her mother’s mournful look, and resignedly walked towards her husband’s home habitat.