Professionally Speaking

Is Project Management in Your Future?

This month, Greg and Steve discuss the pros and cons of taking a leadership role on your company’s next project.

From time to time, we’ve talked about career options such as management or more senior technical roles, but we haven’t talked about an important role you may want to consider—project management. In a traditional hierarchical organizational structure, it was usually up to line managers to make things happen. Now, with flatter matrix structures in many companies, it’s up to the project managers to manage and guide the implementation of the projects that actually make a difference.

What do project managers do? They work to achieve a set of pre-defined objectives—called the project scope—and, at the same time, manage the delivery of the project to ensure it’s delivered on time, on budget and with the required level of quality.

Let’s look at a simple example. Say a client wants a hardware upgrade performed on a mission-critical application server. The project manager records what the client requires, works with the technical people to determine how the upgrade will be done and documents it for approval by the client. The work is estimated, and a price provided to the client. Assuming approval to proceed is granted, the project manager builds a detailed schedule that lists each task, the estimated effort required for each task and any prerequisites.

Before the schedule can be confirmed, the project manager ensures that the needed resources (human and equipment) are available and coordinates the scheduling of the server outage, the ordering, and the delivery of the correct hardware for the upgrade. All the while, the project manager is tracking the progress of the project against the schedule, so that when and if things go wrong, corrective actions are in place. The project manager establishes backout and test plans and makes the decision whether the change is implemented or cancelled.

This is a simple example, but I hope it gives you a feel for what may be involved. A larger example—such as a rollout, moving a computer room across a city or the implementation of an ERP package—requires more planning and resources, but the concepts are similar.

This isn’t a job for everybody. Some people feel daunted by the pressure to deliver the project and prefer to stay in a purely technical role. It requires an organized mind and also significant maturity. One of the most important issues is a change in project deliverables. Those new to the project-management game often want to please their client and agree to everything new requested (and usually at no extra charge). However, experienced project managers have specific processes for handling project changes, making sure the client understands the cost and schedule implications before proceeding.

If you don’t intend to make a career in project management, some basic training in the field can be very useful for all technical staff. Even when handling small tasks by yourself, it’ll help you think of how to better plan and track these tasks. It also means that when you do work with project managers, you understand their approach and can work better with them. One of the good things about moving to project management from a technical background is that you’re well placed to understand the technical details of your project and any issues that may arise. This, of course, doesn’t mean you have to lead the technical effort—that’s what the technical people are for—but it does mean that you won’t be “blinded by science” and can make informed decisions on how your project should proceed.

For those of you considering this career path, there’s a non-vendor-specific professional certification in project management that’s becoming quite common. The Project Management Institute has a certification program that first apprises all candidates to ensure they have sufficient practical experience. Then, candidates complete a certification exam that tests their theoretical knowledge of key project management concepts. You can find out more at www.pmi.org.

About the Author

Greg Neilson is a manager at a large IT services firm in Australia and has been a frequent contributor to MCPmag.com and CertCities.com.

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