In the trenches

In the course of his career as a software developer, project manager and now acting IT director at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), Mark Reilley has seen all of his employers repeat the same mistake of choosing a star technical expert or a bored but deserving functional manager to take on the new challenge of project management.

“Project management tends to be viewed as a reward, rather than choosing the best person for the job,” Reilley says.

John Kocon, project management officer at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, agrees. “Even a person with great technical abilities will not be successful as a project manager without having business knowledge and communications skills. They may have strengths in one area, but they can’t have significant weaknesses,” says Kocon.

A variation on this mistake is relying on project managers who look great on paper, with dozens of training courses and even certifications to their names, but no real horror stories and lessons learned that they can apply to the project at hand.

“I’ve had some real bad experiences with people who are certified. They may go by the book, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot to me,” says Jann Davis, director of systems development and asset management and a former project manager at PacifiCorp, an electric utility in Portland, Ore. “By emphasizing certifications, then choosing and training the wrong people, we set them up to fail,” Davis says.

By contrast, true excellence in project management is best learned and then applied repeatedly on the job, not in a classroom, say veteran IT project leaders with track records of success. Here is a compendium of some of their most valuable lessons learned.

Be a collector of stories

In his more than two decades of leading projects in hardware, software, research and application systems, Alistair Cockburn has come to view successful project management as a process of solving predictable problems as well as surviving worst-case scenarios by applying one or more strategies that worked on previous projects.

That necessarily means learning by doing, says Cockburn, who has never received any formal project management training but has managed multimillion-dollar IT projects for large companies, including IBM and the Central Bank of Norway. He’s also author of two project management books, Agile Software Development (Prentice Hall, 2002) and Surviving Object-Oriented Projects (Addison-Wesley, 1997).

“A core part of the job of project manager is coming up with inventive ways to get out of incredibly constrained situations by an escape route that worked before,” Cockburn says. In one project he managed, his team was required to deliver new software every three months. The challenge was that it took more than half that time to gather and nail down users’ exact requirements.

The solution, which he calls the “gold rush” strategy, was for programmers to begin writing code as soon as they received even partial verbal descriptions about what users wanted. That way, the project continued to move forward, even though refinements were made continually. Cockburn says he used the same strategy on several other projects at a time when incremental software development wasn’t nearly as standard as it is today.

In another case, Cockburn was up against a tight deadline and having a problem finding people with the right mix of skills to deliver the project on time. His solution was to develop a grid that graphically laid out the required and available skills and then to break the project into stages that coincided with technical experts’ availability.

“A lot of project management is collecting a lot of these little strategies,” Cockburn says. “It’s about knowing situations and how to buy your way out of them.” The best way to gain that knowledge is to seek out other project managers and listen closely to their stories. “Start a project managers’ club, and once a month have a brown-bag discussion group where you can collect stories,” he advises. “Project management is all about doing what has worked before, but a lot of these strategies aren’t obvious.”

Knowing how to buy your way out of sticky situations, of course, requires prior experience in doing so, notes Kocon. “That’s why the ideal path to project management in IT is having the opportunity to work in several different IT positions,” he says. “Maybe you start with coding and testing, then work your way to managing and into a supervisory role. It’s also important that you have business responsibility for things like budgeting. A knowledge of the IT organization and how IT fits into the overall organization to make it successful is critical.”

Follow your instincts

Before Reilley packs for any trip, he makes a list of the days he’ll be away, what he’ll be doing on those days and what he’ll need to wear in each situation. He works jigsaw puzzles from the edges inward. He applies the same kind of systematic thinking to managing IT projects in his role as acting IT director.

“To me, project management is the way you think,” Reilley says. At Washington-based CPB, “we look at everything as a project with a discrete beginning and a discrete ending. The only way to get it done is with steps in between. It seems to me a mind-set, rather than a skill,” he adds.

Still, beyond the mind-set, Reilley says he has acquired most other necessary skills, such as ferreting out disgruntled users and coming up with diplomatic solutions to nagging problems before they become full-fledged crises.

“I keep my ear to the grapevine for grumbling, so I can head off problems at the pass,” Reilley says. One of his tried-and-true tactics is to address a user’s doubts about a particular project or resistance to using new software before the user makes it known publicly.

“I head for them right off and tell them I heard they had doubts about the project. I offer to answer their questions and show them a demo,” he says. “I’ve learned from experience that, usually, if end users don’t want to adopt a system, it’s because they’re afraid they’ll look dumb, not because they hate the system.”

And, Reilley says, there’s a certain salesmanship and a lot of psychology involved with performing the project management job well. “You’re selling change to end users and to bosses. You also have to be a cheerleader for the team and get to know what motivates people to perform,” he explains.

A project manager has to do all of this and at the same time not get too involved in any one step in the overall process. “The biggest thing is, you have to be able to step back and comprehend the whole thing,” Reilley says. “As a project manager, you have to keep the big-picture view.”

Follow the money

Good project managers must by nature be ultracompetent multitaskers who pay keen attention to detail and consistently follow up on even the smallest problems and their resolutions. But frequently, the job boils down to the twin issues of politics and finances, says PacifiCorp’s Davis.

Davis’ most recent successful project leadership job was managing Project Discovery, a US$10 million customer service and call centre initiative. The key to bringing the project in on time and on budget was keeping her team members motivated, which meant shielding them from politics that can cause resentments and slow progress. “A project team trusts you as the project manager to keep them informed at a high level, but not mire them in details,” Davis says.

The other practical tip she has is to personally manage all project finances, no matter how large or small. “Once people know that someone at the top is looking, all the little lunch and dinner charges start to disappear,” Davis says.