Growing into an IT project management job

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Nancy McKinney fits the profile of someone who found herself a project manager by accident. A project manager at Spencer Technologies, an IT and communications provider, McKinney did phone system programming, installation and maintenance, as well as some IT-related work at Bank of Boston for 25 years. Over the course of her career, she started getting asked to manage subcontractors installing phone systems at various locations, which required scheduling workers, dealing with maintenance requests and invoicing. At one time, she says, she was running as many as 25 projects at a time.

Nancy McKinney - Spencer Technologies

Nancy McKinney fits the profile of someone who found herself a project manager by accident.

In her current role at Spencer, she was on the job less than four days when the person in the project management role went on medical leave. It fell to McKinney to take on upgrading printers for a large retail pharmacy chain in 1,300 stores -- in five weeks. The key to getting such a project done, she says, starts with understanding what it is you're being asked to manage.

Building a project management career also requires "using organizational skills, time management, multitasking, communications and a thick skin. I'm working on that last one," jokes McKinney, who has a degree in psychology.

"It takes a lot of time and you have to be really committed; you can't just go home at the end of the day if a task isn't completed," she explains. "You have to have a passion to stay connected and you have to want to be involved in every aspect of a project."

Growing into program management -- maybe

Project managers are sometimes confused with program managers, another role IT people find themselves sometimes moving into, says Jon McCombie, an IT program manager who manages the infrastructure for a big data analytics program at his company, which he did not want named. Program management is typically a bigger role because it involves multiple projects and different activities required to coordinate all of them, he says.

McCombie, who received his PMP certification, says a project is a unique set of discreet activities undertaken in a set period of time to produce a service or good. "It gets little fuzzy because there's a whole set of discrete projects" that could be outsourced or in-house, he says. A program is a set of related projects that may include development work and the operation of it, according to McCombie. When his team completes work on the Web portal it is developing, he says he will continue to have involvement and will work with a different set of people to keep it running.

"There are some project managers who like being a project manager, and that's all. They like the discrete nature of projects," he notes. "Then there are others, like me, who like to have [projects over] a longer term and broader view," and become program managers. "They start out as project managers and expand their scope."

A project manager's unexpected career

McCombie says he "never even remotely considered" project or program management after college. He got a degree in computer science and expected to become a software developer, which he did for the first few years of his career. Eventually he took on a software support role and began managing small IT projects.

"I didn't particularly like software support, but when we did business process analysis I was the project manager for IT in understanding what [the business] wanted," he says. McCombie landed a job in technical project management and became a liaison between developers and customers, helping to interpret requirements and keep developers on track.

"I was the one who got yelled at when we went over budget, if we went over budget," he recalls. "At that point in my career I had gotten away from writing code and I had been bitten by the project management bug."

The combination of skills required

Echoing Kapur and Carter-Bey, McCombie says a good project manager has a combination of people and technical skills. "You have to be assertive without being aggressive; you have to be a good planner and methodical thinker, you have to be an outstanding listener." Technical skills include knowing how to create a Gantt chart and being comfortable with basic algebra, he says.

"You need to be able to look at the big picture and look at the forest and not get lost looking at the trees," he says. "You need to know how to manage up as well as down." Other requirements include the ability to be a good communicator and being persistent, he adds. Like McKinney, he says, "You have to have thick skin, because inevitably things are going to go wrong ... conflict is the nature of this game."

Many organizations are starting to recognize the importance of creating project management offices (PMOs), says Ann, a project manager within a PMO at a large insurance company in Boston, who asked that only her first name be used. PMOs are often formed to create standards around the project management process within an organization, according to Ann. The PMO defines the process and what documentation is required as part of a project. Sometimes the group creates the templates that will be used on an ongoing basis within the organization for projects such as a project charter, requirements, test plans, status reports, etc. The group also usually provides project managers for selected projects as needed, she says.

Ann came out of school with a degree in electrical engineering and computer science and started working as a developer at Accenture, and then became a systems analyst and eventually a project manager.

"I found that I'm good at being a project manager," Ann says, because she pays attention to detail and is persistent. "You also have to be a bit of a nag."

To certify -- or not?

Ann has worked as a project manager for 20 years but has not felt the need to get certified. "I think PMP certification is something some guy made up to make zillions of dollars," she maintains.

Steven Lefkowitz Partners

Steven Lefkowitz, an IT project manager at Partners HealthCare, says he hasn't felt the need to get a PMP certification but does allow that it's a "differentiator" within his company.

Lefkowitz of Partners HealthCare also hasn't felt the need to get PMP certified. "In my day, if you had strong analytical skills that was a way to segue into project management," he says. "Like anything else, once you build credibility and they want to keep you and you're viewed as valuable, you can make that move internally."

But he says that today, project management is recognized as more of a separate career, and when hiring from outside, "PMP [certification] is viewed as a differentiator" at Partners, he says. People interested in making the move into project management should get involved in a local chapter of PMI, he suggests, as well as look for internal opportunities or find a mentor, something Lefkowitz has started to do for a business analyst.

Around 2005 McCombie became aware of PMI, and decided to become certified as a project manager because "it makes your resume look better." The process is rigorous; PMI requires that a person have 4,500 hours of project management experience in the most recent eight years and also have 35 hours of project management training. McCombie refers to the prep work and exam as "sheer unmitigated hell," but says he is glad he received certification.

For his part, Carter-Bey says a PMI 2013 salary study suggested that people who hold PMP certification, on average, earn 16% more than those who do not.

For Ann, the key to success is to take on work without being asked.

"Someone once told me I fill the holes," she says. "I think what makes me successful is I do something even if the work isn't necessarily part of the project management definition."

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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