Fast Track Into Management

Think you've got what it takes to be a successful project manager? Apparently so does about half the IT world. Granted, technical recruiters and industry associations say the demand for project managers is surging. But so is interest in the position. The Project Management Institute Inc. in Newtown Square, Pa., reports that there are currently 27,000 certified project management professionals in 26 countries.

It really should come as no surprise. The job of project manager is a natural steppingstone for people with technical experience and an eye on a management career. And at most companies, the pay isn't too shabby. Project managers can earn approximately $100,000 a year, on average, and more, depending on the scope and length of their experience.

How do you really know if you have what it takes to be a project manager? And how can you persuade your boss to give you a shot at the job? Consider the examples of how the following two project managers made their move.

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Project Management Skills Checklist

If you think all there is to project management is writing a to-do list on a napkin at the lunch table, you're about two decades behind the times.

So says Paul J. Rutkowski, project management professional, senior manager and project/program management curriculum specialist at Lucent Technologies Inc.'s Corporate Learning & Performance Center in Naperville, Ill., and a director-at-large at the Project Management Institute.

"Today, projects are much more global and complex," Rutkowski says. "Customers are demanding speed to market because a project's timing affects business operations. They require flawless execution to realize business opportunities. Effective project management is the way to make it happen."

Rutkowski says the project manager has an "awesome role." Some of the skills project managers need to succeed include the following:

• Leadership: the ability to create a vision and inspire a team to achieve project goals successfully.

• Communication: with the project team, customers, project sponsors, vendors and others. Rutkowski estimates that more than 80% of the project manager's time is spent using this skill.

• Conflict resolution: making sure that nobody feels ostracized or less a part of the team, no matter what the final decision.

• Negotiation: understanding how to leverage vendor partnerships and build relationships with people whom the project affects.

• Team building: once the project team is assembled, team members need to understand their roles and responsibilities to work together effectively.

• Listening skills: not having a predisposed notion, but truly listening to team members, customers and managers.

• Relationship management: among various constituents at all levels of the organizations involved.

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Salomi Patel

Project manager

The McGraw-Hill Cos.

Hightstown, N.J.

When Salomi Patel joined New York-based McGraw-Hill in May last year as a programmer, she already had several years of work experience and an undergraduate degree in computer science. Because her goal was to move into management, Patel enrolled in the part-time MBA program with a concentration in MIS and e-commerce at nearby Rutgers University.

"I told my boss that I didn't want to be a programmer for a long time—I wanted to be a project manager," says Patel. "I got the technical skills so that I could one day manage technical people and projects."

Within six months, her wish was granted. Patel's boss, Corri Russell, a manager at McGraw-Hill's Construction Information Group, was planning to take maternity leave and needed someone to take on project management duties while she was out of the office.

The group was rewriting an application that collects information for the Construction Group and puts it up on the Web. Russell asked Patel to lead the project.

"Salomi has all the qualities you would look for in a project manager," explains Russell. "She has a technical background, shows a lot of initiative and is quick to learn. As a programmer, she had taken on a leadership role in her project—even before expressing her interest in becoming a project manager."

Patel says her graduate work has been helpful in preparing her to meet the demands of the project manager's role. But the day-to-day experience of doing the job is what has sharpened her skills.

"When I was a programmer, I tried to think like a project manager," Patel says. "I didn't only focus on the module I was coding—I tried to learn about the entire project from a business point of view."

Once she was promoted to project manager, Patel discovered unexpected challenges.

"I had to learn how to communicate with team members," she says. "If they were not performing up to expectations, I realized that I couldn't be blunt. I had to find a better way to give them the message. It was hard in the beginning, but I learned how to be polite and demanding at the same time."

At Russell's suggestion, Patel attended a McGraw-Hill workshop called "Managing Projects for Success." In the three-day course, she says, she "learned about the project life cycle and how projects should be executed at McGraw-Hill." The training provided company-specific templates and processes and gave Patel the chance to "build a network of project managers from other departments," she says.

Patel found the experience so helpful, she returned for more company-sponsored training for project managers in business writing. In the fall, she plans to take the McGraw-Hill workshop on business communication.

With her skills as a project manager, and an MBA with a concentration in MIS, Patel is aiming for a career in technical management.

"Things are working out the way I hoped they would," she says. "Eventually, I want to take on more senior level management positions within [IT]."

Bill Matasker

Project manager

Verizon Network Integration

Edison, N.J.

In his work as a network engineer at Verizon Communications, Bill Matasker gradually began to take on project management responsibilities because there weren't enough project managers to handle the workload. Verizon had just launched a massive project called Access New Jersey, in which the company provides free telecommunications equipment to connect the state's public schools and libraries to the Internet.

Matasker says he found that he enjoyed "seeing a project go from a piece of paper to a working network." When a project manager slot opened up, he offered to fill it and got the job.

"The director of operations knew my technical background and had seen the work I'd done on some of the complex accounts," says Matasker. "He thought I would be a good fit."

Matasker started by managing smaller projects for approximately the first month.

"That's the ideal way to start as a project manager," says Matasker. "You can get your feet wet without the responsibility of a million-dollar account. But that period doesn't last long. When the job load increases, then it's a baptism by fire."

Matasker has remained relatively unscorched in his two years as a project manager, even while simultaneously overseeing dozens of projects valued in the millions of dollars. He says he did it "with some luck, but mostly dealing with the inevitable unforeseen problems as soon as they arise and keeping in mind that the resolutions should always be win-win for the customer and for your own company." Along the way, Matasker says, he's picked up some other "fire-protection" pointers.

"Never lie about the project status," he advises. "There is no reason to lie. Time runs out. Resources change. If you are doing everything you can to the best of your ability, there is nothing more you can do. The customer may get upset over the truth, but if you lie, you're screwed."

Matasker says he also believes that successful project managers must approach each team member with an understanding of that individual's unique situation. "You have to understand where each person is coming from and what he or she hopes to get out of being involved in the project," he says.

"A lot of project management is common sense—communication and organization skills you acquire just by living and learning from your mistakes," says Matasker.

The ability to listen is one of the most important skills a project manager can have, he adds. And it's one of the hardest skills to master.

According to Matasker, one of the most rewarding aspects of being a project manager is gaining the confidence of colleagues and higher-ups.

"When you hear through the grapevine that people believe a project will run smoothly because you are the [project manager] on the job, it gives you a great feeling of satisfaction," says Matasker.

Vitiello is a freelance writer in East Brunswick, N.J.

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The politics of project management

While there are plenty of how-to resources for project managers, the politics of project management is one topic they likely won't find in the industry literature, according to Bill Hagerup, a 30-year IT veteran and a consultant at Ouellette & Associates Consulting Inc.


To meet that need, the Bedford, N.H.-based firm is planning a new workshop, "The Politics of Project Management," which will complement its current IT project management and professional development offerings.


CW: What do you mean by the "politics of project management?"


Hagerup: Project managers have all the responsibility for getting the job done, but no direct authority to make it happen. The people on the project team report to somebody else who probably has a different agenda.


To make matters worse, project managers need resources—dollars, time and people—and there is never enough to go around in any organization. So project managers must compete for these scarce resources with other project managers in the same organization.


Given that competition, conflicts naturally arise. Project managers must use politics: the art of acquiring, developing and using power to influence others to do what you need them to.


CW: What about project managers who want to avoid politics?


Hagerup: They can't. Politics is out there. It's real. Project managers will surely encounter two kinds of political problems: some that others create and some that project managers create by their own blunders.


So those who ignore politics, or who think of it only as being unethical and nasty, are making a big mistake. And they often become scapegoats when projects fail.


CW: What do project managers need to know about politics?


Hagerup: Like the fable of Star Wars, politics has a dark side and a side of light and right. The dark side includes sharklike behaviors of scheming, arguing with customers and bullying.


Project managers and team members need to stick with the positive side of politics and navigate the political potholes in their organization. They need to build relationships and get to know people on the project team, as well as the customers, vendors and sponsors. Part of politics is motivating people by helping them to see what's in it for them when they cooperate with the project goals.


CW: Aren't most project managers too busy for politics?


Hagerup: Project managers are busy people. And many naively believe that if they keep their noses to the grindstone and work hard, everything will be OK. But there's more to the job than mastering project management software and generating reports.


While that approach may have worked on smaller jobs, it won't work on projects that are more complex, highly visible and have the potential to change the corporation. In the end, there's really no choice. If project managers fail to make time for the politics of their projects, including communicating, relationship building and facilitating agreement, ultimately, their projects will fail.

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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