Thursday, March 23, 2017

6 Reasons To Become a Project Manager

clipartfest.com / ms tony mcdonalid from west covina
A little while ago I was asked how I ended up in Project Management and why did I want to be one. It started me thinking. Project Management is typically an accidental position/career (until recently with certifications and even college degrees offered in the profession). Project Managers (PMs) usually come from the technical side of the businesses. People who proved themselves as at least competent (if not more often exemplary) in a particular field (engineering, coding, design, architecture, etc.) find themselves "offered" the opportunity to lead a project because they've proven themselves to this point. "Offered" is in quotations because more often than not it is more order than offer. People are moved into the PM role, often with very little (if any) training, and expected to lead teams because they are considered smart and driven enough to do the jobs of nearly everyone on the project (at least at the smaller levels). This is rarely a good formula. Project Management requires a different skillset than being the technical expert, and without training and mentorship, people tend to fall back to the technical work they are comfortable with while the project suffers. Hence why I often think of Project Management as an accidental career.


While my entrance to Project Management was accidental, this wasn't my path. Coming out of the Army I didn't even know that Project Management was a career option. All I really knew was that I didn't want to spend the next several years of my life doing what I had done in the Army: Network Administrator in Baghdad, Iraq. There is nothing wrong with this position; but, at least in the way I experienced it, it was largely a reactive position with long hours of boredom interrupted by sudden moments of stressful work when a system component failed or a server crashed. At least, this was the case when the network was established after the first couple of months.

With a double major out of Syracuse University, I thought I would focus on the other major: sales/marketing. Alas, it was not to be. As I worked my way through interview processes, I often started as a candidate for a sales position but found myself quickly moved to either technical IT work or team lead positions. In fact, it was one of those sales interviews that led me to Project Management.

I arrived at a Fortune 200 company specializing in oil and gas services and equipment for my sales interview and spent 10 minutes (maybe 15) with the National Sale Director before he said "You're interviewing with the wrong guy. Stay here, I'll be right back." He then left me alone in his office for 45 minutes. This was before smartphones, so I was more than a little confused and quite honestly bored by the time he got back.

At that time he said to me: "The guy you should interview with isn't available today, can you come back tomorrow?" I indicated that I was planning on driving back to the military base (5 hours away) that afternoon and had no place to spend the night.

"No problem, we'll put you up. You need to meet this guy."

"Who am I meeting?" I asked.

"You'll find out tomorrow. We'll set you up in the hotel, take you to dinner, and tomorrow we can conduct the interview."

With no more information I went to the hotel, out to dinner, found a one-hour cleaner for my suit and dress shirt, grabbed some toiletries, and stayed the night in the hotel. The next morning I returned to the office, met the National Sales Director in the lobby, who brought me upstairs to a large corner office. No nameplate on the door, no business cards (or for that matter, anything other than a monitor with no computer) on the desk, and boxes stacked in the corner.

"Matt, glad you could come back today. I'm sorry we couldn't meet yesterday, but I was moving into my new office. I'm Bjorn." a tall Norweigan man said as he extended his hand. I shook it and he pointed at the chair across from his desk. We then proceeded with a 2.5-hour interview, during which I still wasn't sure what I was interviewing for. I only knew it wasn't sales driven because we kept talking about stressful situations, planning, and team leadership. Eventually, it started winding down. But that's when things got interesting:

"Matt, how'd you like to be an Assistant Project Manager? You'd work with an experienced PM, helping him run a multi-million dollar project, and will need to travel occasionally not just in the US, but to places in Europe and possibly Asia. What do you say?"

My response is not one I would recommend to people interviewing for a job:

"Bjorn, I'm not an engineer and I don't know jack about oil and gas. That's why I wanted the sales job, to learn. Why would you be interested in me as a PM?"

And he quite possibly provided the best non-definition explanation of Project Management I've ever heard:

"Matt, we've got engineers to do the engineering work and you can learn the oil and gas. What I need is someone who can get a team from point A to point Z and make sure B through Y are taken care of along the way."

Bjorn then proceeded to explain the "why me" portion of my question:

"You're entire career in the military and even college says you can do this. Your resume shows it, your personality screams it. Let's get you started as an Assistant PM, and when we feel you're ready we'll give you your own project. What do you say?"

I told Bjorn that I was very excited for the offer, and would like some time to think it over. He smiled, shook my hand and walked me out the door.

For the next 5 hours I drove back to Fort Hood, trying to understand what Project Management was. By the time I got back to the base, I received a phone call with the offer from Bjorn. I also had two other offers from previous interviews that came in earlier in the week. Everyone wanted a response by Monday.

The options I had were (marked by blue stars, red is Fort Hood):
Courtesy of Google Maps
1. Move to Phoenix, AZ and become a Network Administrator for the local Ma-Bell, coordinating the network and dispatching repair/maintenance crews.

2. Move to Muskogee OK and become a Team Lead which ran a machine turning large rolls of toilet paper into the smaller rolls we use in our personal bathrooms.

3. Move to Houston, TX as an Assistant Project Manager helping with multi-million dollar projects and traveling internationally.

The salary levels were all about the same and cost of living wasn't dramatically different. Which would you pick?

For anyone who's read this far and remains interested, that pretty much answers the how, but what about the why? I find that the reasons to get into Project Management are also the things that tend to drive people crazy while working in Project Management:

1. Every day is different. Even if you are repeating the exact same scope, schedule, and budget I guarantee that you will not have two days exactly the same. The human factor alone is enough to keep things interesting.

2. You never get done what you expect in a day. This was a hard one for me; but after several years, I learned that no matter how well I planned or what I tried to do, I rarely if every accomplished half of what I thought I would at the beginning of the day. In this role, that really isn't a bad thing; it just means your focus shifts based on the situation. Now, rather than having a list of 10 things I wanted done for the day, I compile a list of everything that should get done and pick 2-3 to focus on for the day. Whichever are the most critical are the points of focus (and sometimes the most critical are the quadrant 2 items to ensure things go better in the future, from last week's post about Chaos Mode). Either at the end of the day or first thing the next day I review the list, add what's new and then decide my next targets.

3. You take a lot of damage. If you see yourself as the self-sacrificing type, then this is a good role for you. Previously, I've identified that one of the primary responsibilities of a PM is to take damage for the team. It's a pretty fun article. In addition, you rarely get the recognition you deserve because your team did the majority of the actual project work (which is as it should be). To quote Lao Tzu: When the best leader's work is done the people say "We did it ourselves."

4. The job is about people. Most people don't realize this, but the PM role is about people a lot more than a non-PM would expect. Your job is to remove obstacles and motivate a team toward accomplishing the scope of a project within the schedule and budget. You find yourself as a leader, moderator, facilitator, mentor, and human shield (see the previous item) way more often than you would expect.

5. You can have a lifelong impact. Project Manager for over a decade, and leader in the United States Army for 5 years before that. When you do the job right your team, stakeholders, sponsors, and bosses will reach out to you regularly to let you know how they are doing, and to check to see if they can work with you again. I've been amazed at how often previous team members reach out; or, for that matter, how often I bump into people who recognize me because of stories from a mutual friend.

6. The sense of accomplishment. In some of the larger projects this can be a long time coming (years in the making, which is why it drives people crazy), but there is a significant sense of pride and accomplishment when the team reaches the finish line and the project is delivered. The culmination of efforts and stresses reaching a final release can be very therapeutic (if you can hold out long enough to get there). The problem with this one is that a lot of the people who are driven as Project Mangers tend to keep looking for the next challenge, rather than taking the time to enjoy the success (in fact my wife often claims this is one of my biggest flaws).

 There it is. Six reasons to become a Project Manager (or six things that drive Project Managers crazy?). Did I miss anything? How did you become a PM and why do you stay?

4 comments:

  1. Wonderful blog & good post. Its really helpful for me. It was my dream to become a project manager. I live in Florida. Can you tell me where to find the best institution for project manager course?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Joseph, I would recommend you start with your local Project Management Institute (PMI). They typically support all types of courses and can direct you to who is good locally. I've learned that the PM courses really depend on the instructors rather than the material. If you really want to get into Project Management, it may be worth your time volunteering at non-profits as a PM. You can gain valuable experience for your resume and do some good with your efforts. Best of luck!

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