Words of Wisdom from a Fortune 100 IT Project Manager

No matter the industry, or which company, every project manager faces the same fundamental issues:

  • How do I keep my team motivated?
  • How do I account for the sudden, drastic changes once the project is underway?
  • What are the best tools for reporting and staying organized?

To answer these, we recently sat down with an IT Project Manager and picked her brain. She works for a Fortune 100 company, so due to the sensitive and confidential nature of her work, we won’t use her real name. Instead we’ll refer to her as “Dana”.

Dana has been working as a Project Manager for over 15 years now, both in financial services and athletic wear. She just rolled off a project with over 200 members, which took over three years to complete. Given the scope, this was what we wanted to talk about first.

Advisicon: On a general level, what were some of the challenges you faced?

Dana: Working in a matrix environment. Many times when you have a project team, not everybody reports up through the same structure. We were borrowing project team members from different organizations. So they had conflicting workloads, conflicting priorities, etc. Their team or organization might not regard the project that you’re managing as a “high priority”.

A: Right. But you’re accountable for that.

D: Absolutely. Accountable, and without empowerment.

One of the important skills to learn as a project manager is how to influence others. Because again, you have no authority, or power, to force anybody to do anything. So you have to learn how to influence people to make them understand the importance of the project, the timelines, and to gain commitments to completing deliverables in a timely fashion.

A: Could you give me an example of that?

D: So for instance, in that huge project that I just rolled off of, even though it’s a technical project, you have to get the business’s buy in. You need them to give requirements, you need them to do testing. Those are all areas where you really need to work closely with the business and keep reiterating the importance of the project and how critical their involvement is.

A: It’s interesting you brought up that intersection of tech and business. Some project managers cite that as a challenge, in that you’re communicating with two different worlds. What are some ways you’ve bridged that gap?

D: So first of all you need to be able to speak two different languages. There’s a language you need to speak with the business versus one with your technical folks. You’re creating different collaterals for those two audiences. So your terminologies, your analogies are completely different depending on which audience you’re speaking to.

A: Does that get pretty difficult?

D: It’s just something you have to get good at, and remember which group you’re talking to. Technical folks, they want to focus on the specific technical details, they don’t necessarily care about the ‘why’, or the budget, or the risks and issues and things like that.

It’s very important to understand the right amount of information to bring to them, because sometimes you have to kind of insulate them. There’s the outside noise of funding issues, or the business isn’t engaging, things like that. And sometimes the business will place unrealistic expectations on deadlines, and you have to be able to push back, and to explain why you’re pushing back, in order to protect the team.

I’ll give you a quick example. The project I just rolled off of, they wanted to release their project on January 9th. What that means is people would’ve had to’ve worked Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years Eve, all of the holidays, to be prepared to release to the business on January 9th. The business, though, doesn’t understand that. They’re just like, “Oh, you flip a magic switch, and we can get it done”. And there’s no reason that they would understand everything that goes into it.

A: So did you get extra time for them?

D: That did not end up being my responsibility, because I moved on to another project. While I was still there, I pushed back emphatically. They did end up pushing out, and it didn’t roll out until later in the month. But still, it did buy them a lot of time.

A: So a good project manager is one who sorts of “goes to bat” for their team.

D: Absolutely. You’re a total advocate for the team.

And it’s really important to make sure that you are giving rewards and recognition to the project team. It’s a very thankless job sometimes because, again, they’re behind the scenes.

A: What are some different ways you’d reward them? Are there certain things you found that were pretty effective?

D: If you have it, swag is a big thing. It’s great to give them stuff that relates to the branding of the project. I mean, hopefully people are proud to be a part of it, and then they’re excited to show off their swag.

Office employee eating an ice cream sundae at work partyA: Was there a time when team morale was low, and you had to do something to “rally the troops”?

D: (laughs) That’s like every technical project. As I said, there’s always an aggressive timeline, and there are always unrealistic expectations being placed on the team.

So I like to do some type of monthly small team building event, whether it’s having an ice cream sundae bar, root beer float bar, and then doing something bigger on a quarterly basis, like going to the escape room is the new big thing.

A: The escape room?

D: So you get together like, say, five of your friends and they lock you in a room. In that room are games and clues you have to solve in order to unlock the door and escape from the room. It’s a team building exercise.

Or we’ll do cooking classes, rope skills, anything to promote team building.

If we’re going to work evenings or weekends, we’ll bring in meals but also try to bring in some type of special treat as well. We’ve brought in a chocolate fountain. We’ve brought in massage therapists, we’ve offered a yoga class in the middle of the workday, just anything you can to do give them a quick break.

A: How do you personally handle the pressure that comes along with large-scale project management?

D: (laughs) Sometimes better than others. Another one of the skills for a project manager is you have to be super organized and able to multi-task. And really be an effective communicator. You need to be able to explain to other people exactly what it is you need from them, in an effective way, so that you aren’t going back and spending a lot of time reiterating what the asks are.

A lot of times I’ll just do a quick check-in with people. You have to be able to make sure that all of those silly little details are taken care of. Those are the things that can kill you.

A: What’s the value of a project manager?

D: I think it’s a term that really gets bastardized. You have people all around who are like, “I’m a project manager! I’m a project manager!” Even if you watch Celebrity Apprentice, they call themselves project managers.

And a lot of times you’ll find that people don’t want to go through the rigor or the expense of having a project manager because they just don’t see the value. They don’t understand that the project manager is really the person that doesn’t do all of the work, but is responsible for making sure that all of the work is completed on time, and on budget, as well as mitigating any of the risks that are associated with the project. And project managers are also there to escalate when things are not going well.

A: What happens when there isn’t a project manager in place, for something large?

D: The project that I just picked up didn’t really have a project manager assigned to it. There were just issues getting funding, and they tried to put a consultant in place for a couple of months, and things just didn’t get driven out. There’s nobody driving and saying, “Here’s what needs to happen, here’s the timeline in which it needs to happen”, nobody holding people accountable for doing the work, completing deliverables, all of that.

A: What sort of advice or suggestions could you give to a project manager on how to best handle quick, unexpected changes that happen?

D: One of the keys to being a project manager is, you have to be able to embrace change and adapt to it very, very quickly. You just need to really develop your PM skill set so that you have the tools in place. No matter what the change is, you have to stick with the fundamentals of what you need to accomplish as a project manager. It’s really focusing on that work, and understanding the noise around you, and how you need to adjust for those changes. And then it’s protecting your team from it as well.

Just focus on the project management fundamentals. You know – managing risk, finances, resources, scope and schedule.

A: What sort of tools do you use to stay organized?

D: There’s the basics. A lot of project managers use Microsoft Project. Another tool getting more popular is called Wrike. I mean, so much of the business world is managed through excel spreadsheets. Sharepoint’s also a great tool, because you can define action items, as well as document management.

A: What is the single most important thing you’ve learned that has helped you with your job?

D: I think I’m gonna have to go back to flexibility. You can be amazing at all of the PM skills, but if you can’t adapt to the changes coming your way, then none of those skills matter. Sometimes you have to look for alternative ways to complete the deliverables within the same timeframe – reshuffle priorities, change your timelines, stuff like that.

A: Is there any one thing you keep in mind, maybe something you’ve learned or heard, that helps you keep your head when this sort of stuff happens?

D: Okay, so this is gonna sound super trite, but I really mean it: I think everybody needs to have fun, as often as possible. The work is the work, the work is hard, sometimes harder than other times, but you still have to have a sense of humor and you still have to try and have fun. And again, that’s why I have so many team building events. You have to keep things light.

Did you have questions that we didn’t cover?

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